The thing about Jethro Tull that you can't really appreciate until you've seen them live is the way in which they are different from any other rock band I've ever seen: people laugh at Tull concerts. Not just at Ian Anderson's patter, though that does tend to draw guffaws and giggles. But during the actual songs, intermittently, people will burst out in peals of startled delight at something--a clever beyond words musical transition, a bit of stage business, Ian flourishing his most phallic of instruments in the most phallic of locations. (Those frontmen who limit themselves to electric guitar are missing out on a whole world of ludity.)
There's something about a Tull concert that makes me fall in love for two hours. My chest grows pleasantly achy; my breath gets tight. It's as if the presence of Ian Anderson in stage persona is enough to kick off an endorphin buzz. He gives fantastic energy: the only performer I've seen with more charisma is Iggy Pop.
When somebody in the audience shouts, loud and clear into a near-silence, "I love you, Ian!" she gets a tremendous roar of approval. We love Ian. We love the self-parody and the complexities and the humor and the doing hard things just because it's fun. Ian Anderson on stage is an endless adventure in "Bet I can do that backwards! No hands! Er, whoops!"
I've been to six Tull shows. One of them was when Ian was recovering from DVT and performing on a wrecked knee and his voice was completely nonexistent. (It's fragile and limited now: that particular tour he barely spoke, nevermind singing.) It wasn't a good concert, that time, critically speaking? But I still walked out feeling light-shouldered and delighted.
It's Ian's gift.
Ian's getting on in years, now. (He turned 60 in August.) He's not the ranting, leaping, athletic presence of yore. But he's as mercurial as ever, and as demonstrative, sauntering and hopping about the stage with dramatic hand gestures. (Martin Barre, by contrast, grows more nonchalant and stoic by the year.) But Ian's wit is alive--sharp, erudite, and full of dirty puns. Of Bourée, for example, he says, "...a piece of respectable classical music that over the years we have converted into porno jazz." And in the lead-in to a completely re-arranged, almost unrecognizable version of Aqualung, he comments, "I've been trying to get my flute iiiinto this next piece since 1972." The new arrangement is fey, flute standing in for vocal, almost ethereal--and then, with a crunch and a thump, twists itself inside out and comes back as a hard-driving rock and roll version, same as it ever was, only trickier and more complex.
That's the hallmark of the current Tull tour, it seems. Complexity. While sticking mostly to standards from their bluesier years--the only soujourn into territory more recent than Songs from the Wood or Heavy Horses (other than a solo tune apiece for Ian and Martin) was an enchanting rendition of "Budapest"--the arrangements grow ever trickier. The stage show may be stripped down, but the music is complex. They performed with a string quartet out of Boston tonight, adding richness and sweep to the old Tull standards. Bass player David Goodier, who I have not seen with the band before, had the wit to keep up with the demands of live Tull, which is to say--the music has to be delightful and surprising, or it's not Tull, and was nothing less than spectacular on an extended edit of "Thick as a Brick" that also involved what I believe was a ukelele.
Ian's never particularly melodious but once-flexible voice is shot; he chants the songs now as much as sings them, and his voice scrapes and breaks. He's rearranged a lot of them to make use of his prodigious flute skills--from self-taught and awkward, he's blossomed into something spectacular. (Rumor was that he decided to learn proper technique in between Catfish Rising and Roots to Branches when his daughter came home with her school flute and said, "Dad, you're doing it wrong.")
The show was arranged in two one-hour sets. Maybe Ian can't quite handle a two hour show plus encore without a break anymore, but he makes sure you get your money's worth. The first of the two sets was bluesier and more acoustic. Gangling Doane Perry was induced to emerge (and emerge, and emerge) from behind the drumset and come play some bongos on the front of the stage. (There was a structural incident; Doane kept playing while an alert stage hand ran out and effected field repairs on the instrument as in use.)
That one started of with "Someday the Sun Won't Shine For You," and ended with "Nothing is Easy," concentrating on songs off albums in the sixties and seventies--"Living in the Past," "Fat Man," and so forth. There was one new song, an instrumental entitled "The Donkey and Drum," which Ian announced would be on the next Tull album, forthcoming in February... of 2012. Also, we heard an upbeat version of his solo tune "The Water Carriers." Others included "King Henry's Madrigal," and "Bourée," this time sans "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
The second half kicked off with another track from This Was, "My Sunday Feeling," and promptly became far more rock and roll, including the revamped Aqualung with playful bits by keyboardist John O'Hara, My God (a fantastic arrangement that literally took my breath away, all those strings up under Martin's guitar pushing), the abovementioned "Thick as a Brick," and "Budapest," among others.
The encore was "Locomotive Breath." a song which I suspect I like almost as much as Ian does.