Ian Anderson–Jethro Tull (the Rock Opera)

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A bucket list artist… one that I planned on catching even before the clock turned to 2016, the year the music keeps dying.  I’m at that tender age where I’m old enough to be a fan of all the old classic rock artists, but young enough not to require an oxygen bottle and orthopedic shoes to catch the legends that still manage to tour.  It’s often surprisingly rewarding, and it keeps me young – both in memories and by surrounding myself with an older crowd (except my son). Jethro Tull A Rock Opera review

Jethro Tull is a band that I liked – not loved.  They certainly played a style of music I enjoy – emphasis on lyrical tales, musicianship, and a healthy dose of flute.  Maybe their records weren’t in the used bins when I had the cash, but I just never gave their catalogue a full review.  Aside from that, likely much to the leader’s horror, I never really paid attention to their lyrics – at least until I got the remastered Aqualung a few years ago.  It was always more about the sound for me, even if I found it sufficiently in a handful of songs.

Ian Anderson has retired the band as a recording and touring unit but continues as a “solo” act.  I’m not sure why there’s a difference.  When I heard that he was remaking the story of Jethro Tull, an 18th century agriculturist after which the band was named, I thought he would be taking songs created over the years and forming a new narrative in the sequencing.  Not so much, as it turns out.

Atlanta’s Fox Theater is a fine place to see a show.  Its décor distracts even during a show, just as much as the prowling ushers who pounce on those trying to capture their Kodak moments on their iPhones and Androids.  (Not me.  I bring a camera to a gun fight and wait until the end). 

It was a bewildering evening.  Anderson played three “hit” songs – a tried and true “Aqualung,” a roaring “Locomotive Breath,” and “Living in the Past” – a song whose timeless melody might be suitable for something as demanding as a soundtrack for a 60’s documentary or as an ear worm to bring viewers back for more of a game show.

This wasn’t a greatest hits show. The music was not otherwise familiar – being newly created for the “rock opera” – and while the new music couldn’t help but sound like Tull, it was not what anyone expected.  As  one audience member voiced during a lull, “Play something we know!”  Amen brother.

Only, that wasn’t possible.  Spontaneity isn’t really expected in big production shows these days – Springsteen does, certainly, and many bands hastily put together one time tributes to the music that died the day before – Lou Reed, Bowie, Prince, etc.  But shows are programmed from a visual standpoint that often require a fixed set list from night to night, including not just computer controlled stage lighting but in this case a video/audio narrative projected onto a back screen.

So, unfamiliar music… a band that dashes off the stage so as not to block viewer’s appreciation of the video segues between songs, then dashes back on to play perfectly in time with… pre-recorded vocals (and we trust not the music) of three performers who sing the narrative that we’re supposed to be following – the agriculturist raging against genetically modified organisms and big chemical companies.  I think.

For me to be certain on that point, I would have had to have purchased the official concert “program” for $15, an item that I didn’t know existed until at a bar after the show when another attendee let me glimpse it.  Here’s an idea.  If you want to sell a concept that, frankly, doesn’t translate in a voice yielding to the infirmities of age or even prerecorded vocals that get muddled in the din of a large concert hall, charge $5 more per ticket.  Hand a program to each attendee as they enter, or, better yet, make it downloadable for people when they purchase their ticket.  

Otherwise, your audience is watching, in this case,  three people sing their roles, clueless as to who they are supposed to be or the story they’re attempting to tell.  Young Jethro.  Old Jethro.  Jethro’s cousin? Girlfriend? Conscience? Monsanto sales rep?  I have no idea.

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I’ll say that, as failed as it was, I want to admire that an artist would attempt to reinterpret their work for relevancy decades after their star began to fade.  I can’t quite give that much credit here as this is more properly considered a new work, one heavy laden with unintelligible, but nice sounding, filler.

As I’m watching the show, I’m also understanding some of the “why things are the way they are.”  Before writing this, I had to go back and watch some YouTube videos to satisfy myself as to how Mr. Anderson got to this place, this time, this concert.  The singer playing “Young Jethro” actually toured with him last year.  Young Jethro has a very similar voice to 70’s era Ian Anderson, and he sings far better than the band leader does today.  Another video from 2003 confirmed that I’m a decade late in hearing Mr. Anderson sound like Mr. Anderson.  It makes sense then, that at any opportunity, he ceded the vocals to a virtual guest whenever the flute was an option.  Thankfully, he still has the pipes for that, and his playing was both plentiful and excellent.  That, the overall music, and Mr. Anderson’s penchant for striking rock flautist poses will carry me through for my bucket list memory.

What did others think?  My son was more appreciative for the (free) experience than a particular care about the show itself.  So I checked Ticketmaster’s online reviews.  Ouch.  I can’t help myself here… Reviewers’ tiles read: “Sucked!” - “Very Disappointing” - “Stay away” - “Boring” - “Too Old for Rock and Roll” - “Disappointed and sad” - “Save your money.”

A field is also provided for reviewers to post their favorite moments:  “Chocolate covered pretzels from the snack bar” - “leaving” – “leaving after 30 minutes” – “intermission so I could leave” – “left before the encore because I couldn’t take it anymore” – “when I left after the 5th song – I should have left after the third”, etc. I’ve never seen reviews so consistently negative, but it’s also rare that an artist, particularly of the “legendary” variety, chooses to ignore his audience.   Despite the ambition, a Grail Knight can sum it up:

 

The back screen dominated the stage and distracted from the band throughout, the female virtual guest had a pretty voice but her accent clouded all but the briefest deciphering, and Mr. Anderson’s voice doesn’t just struggle with notes but hardly resembles his recorded self, despite the spirited attempts.

But the flute… was awesome.  Instrumentally, all of the music was enjoyable. And… maybe Anderson should just sing with “Young Jethro” when he chooses.  Get him off the screen, and pay the guy to tour.  Your fans will forgive you.  Lighten the work load.  Play the flute.  Play the hits.

2 of 5 STARS_thumb

Fox Theater, Atlanta, GA 4/16/2016

4 comments :

  1. thanks -- this review was spot on. was bereft to read the other bad reviews, but went into the event with a different mindset -- totally enjoyed myself. Ian can still play -- and with the back up "jr. Ian" who sounds just like him, it mostly avoided the 'geezer rock' fading-voice effect. brilliant.

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  2. Just saw the Show in Modesto California, an agriculture dependent community and would say tour review was spot on, exactly what I experienced. I wanted to have the screen people live too, as well as on the big television. I was debating that this would be my last "Tull" concert as the newer albums lacked the essence that earlier recordings have, so I enjoyed the show as a large concept driven commentary on the future of agriculture and humanity. I missed the story line completely and you are right a program in hand would have made the show much more relevant to Ian's perception. The over 50 crowd was rather depressing because now I was one of them having been a diehard Jethro Tull fan since my early teens, talking 12 here, played the flute as well. The show was in a small auditorium, but man those old people could make some noise including singing along and shrill whistle calls that distracted me from the music, oh well I did like the fact that Ian is willing to give up the vocals to others to maintain the integrity of the older songs. I did enjoy the show even thou it seemed rather programmed as a bioengineered sheep named Dolly, no room for variations, each show the same as the last.

    Cheers

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  3. Left after 5 songs. I had no idea what was going. The multi-media projection looked like the creation of a high school video production class. Good News...it was do bad I never second guessed my decision to leave. Booooooooo!

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  4. Just saw the show last night. Honestly I've read as many positive reviews as negative, or more, but a youtube clip of one song had scared me off on the basic concept beforehand and I nearly sold my ticket. The first few songs confirmed my fears, and yet with each song thereafter I warmed to the concept and settled in. But the break, I was really enjoying it and looking forward to the 2nd half. By the end, I was loving it for what it was.

    What I don't understand is the reviewer's statement that only three hits were played, and the rest was new. "Songs From the Wood" and "Bouree" belong on any Tull greatest hits list. And if you didn't recognize "Jack In the Green," or "Farm on the Freeway," or the gems from the Stand-up (1969) & Benefit albums (1970), that's really on you, not Ian. There were four or five new songs total, and I was actually quite pleasantly surprised/impressed with the new tunes.

    Of course, I did already know Ian's voice was shot going in, and I'm nerd enough to have known all but the new songs. That said, having first seen them in 1980 (my first concert), the closing Locomotive jam and the Requiem (1975) encore were quite poignant moments for me. I started off skeptical and ready to leave, and ending up beaming my love to Ian Anderson one last time. In his own way, I thought he was reciprocating with the Requiem encore.
    Glad the reviewer did take away some bucket moments, though!

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