Monday, October 28, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 9: Ian Anderson, Pantages Theater, Tacoma, WA, 10/27/13

Oscar Choice: "I tell you one thing that really drives me nuts, is people who think that Jethro Tull is just a person in a band."
NASA psychologist: "Who's Jethro Tull?"
-- From the movie Armageddon
Ian Anderson -- singer, lyricist, flautist, acoustic guitarist, and all-around mad genius behind Jethro Tull -- has been out touring his latest solo album for a while now, and his show finally made its way to the Seattle area this past weekend. The funny thing is, the solo album is a sequel to a Jethro Tull album. So when is Tull not Tull? Apparently when Ian Anderson says so.

As fans know, Jethro Tull has always been a revolving door of musicians, with only two mainstays: Ian, who's been there from the beginning, and guitarist Martin Barre, who's been there since the second album, Stand Up, in 1969. Martin isn't on this tour and didn't appear on the album, so perhaps Ian put aside the band name in deference to him. Will Ian ever perform as Jethro Tull again? I have no idea, and if not, I'll be disappointed that I never got to see them perform. But this show was certainly the next best thing.

In 2012, Ian decided to take the classic 1972 Tull album Thick As a Brick and fashion a sequel, Thick As a Brick 2. Both albums are being performed in their entirely on this tour. Each one is an album-length song. With an encore of the Tull classic "Locomotive Breath" included, there were a total of three songs performed at this nearly three-hour show. Good thing there was a lot of excellent music going on the whole time.

For the uninitiated, Thick As a Brick was written as a send-up of progressive-rock concept albums, at a time when such things ruled the world of rock music. The subject of the album was a precocious English schoolboy named Gerald Bostock, and the album's lyrics are intended to be a recitation of his controversial epic-length poem that caused the adults around him to question his psychological stability. Despite its intention as a parody, the album ended up being one of the strongest, and certainly most adventurous, of Tull's career. To a great extent, Ian Anderson beat the proggers of the day at their own game.

Over the years, Ian had often been asked what he thought might have happened to young Gerald when he grew up. So on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the original album, Ian wrote Thick As a Brick 2. But instead of spelling out a single narrative for us, Ian instead wrote a piece that ruminates on how the choices we make in life can lead us on markedly different paths. Consequently, Gerald Bostock's life was speculated to have taken one of five various turns, depending on the decisions he'd made. He may have ended up as a banker, a shopkeeper, a preacher, a soldier, or a gay man who was rejected by his family and became homeless. The twist to the story is that every path ended up sad, with Gerald either alone, disgraced, or carrying out a mundane existence that never quite lived up to expectations. Poor little Gerald.

I'd never seen either Tull or Ian live, but I'd heard how fun the shows could be, and the performance at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma -- a beautiful old venue in itself -- did not disappoint.

But one thing you have to know before you attend an Ian/Tull show is that Ian's voice is in a bad way. If you know this going in, you can prepare yourself for it, but otherwise I'm certain it would come as quite a shock. He still has loads of energy and enthusiasm, and he can still stand on one leg and make a flute rock like nobody's business. He has a very British sense of humor that keeps him from ever taking himself too seriously. He has a flair for the dramatic, with sweeping hand and body gestures to embellish the music and a bug-eyed intensity that lets you know he's totally into his performance. And his appearance has him perfectly playing the part that his music conveys. If amplifiers had been around in medieval England, a band like Jethro Tull would have been the stars of the kingdom -- and with his paisley vest over a white shirt and a black bandanna on his head, Ian either looks like a wandering minstrel or a pirate who's lost his parrot. It's hard not to love the guy.

But his voice is almost painful to listen to. He's lost most of the range he sang with on Tull's classic albums, and on this night, he croaked his way through the first Thick As a Brick album with what sounded like a very strained and taxing effort -- as if he was pushing with all his might and the notes just didn't come out the way they should have. I saw him stretch onto his tiptoes several times in a mighty effort to hit some of the higher notes. He even spoke his way through one section, not even trying to hit the notes. Imagine someone who's just getting over a bad case of laryngitis, and you have an idea of what Ian sounds like when he's singing. Age takes its toll, and it's taken a particularly hard toll on Ian's voice.

But bless his heart, Ian seems to have come up with a brilliant solution, in the form of Ryan O'Donnell. Ryan is a young guy with blue eyes and curly brown hair who nearly stole the show. As befits a Tull/Ian Anderson show, Ryan spent the first half of the concert jumping around the stage in a sort of harlequin's outfit, minus the jester cap, but with a cane that served as a versatile prop -- at times a sword, a cello, an oar, a second flute. Ryan added to the theatrical feel of the show, and at times he doubled Ian's moves around the stage -- but the stroke of genius is that Ryan sang in Ian's place for easily half of Thick As a Brick. It was obvious that Ian wanted to save some vocal lines for himself, but when Ryan took over, it elevated the show to another level. He was fantastic. Even better, his singing freed Ian up to do more flute playing, which was a very good thing indeed. Watching Ian prance around the stage while he played his flute was one of the highlights of the whole show.

Ryan had much less to do on Thick As a Brick 2, which Ian wrote with his current vocal limitations in mind, but he did make appearances as two of Gerald Bostock's possible professions -- dressed in a suit and bowler hat as the banker, and in black robes as the preacher.

Both parts of Thick came off very nicely, thanks to a well-oiled band that was able to navigate the music's many twists and turns with seeming ease. And just to remind us all that Ian Anderson never really took this whole prog-rock thing very seriously, he punctuated the evening with lots of humorous moments. The show began with five men walking around onstage in flat caps and dingy orange overcoats, armed with brooms and dusters to clean up their surroundings. Turned out the cleaning crew was the band, minus Ian, which we found out as they threw off their costumes and headed to their instruments. Another moment had Ian interrupting the performance with a phone call from violinist Anna Phoebe, who ended up "calling back" by way of a performance over a fake Skype connection. During the intermission was an equally phony YouTube video from one Archibald Parritt (a.k.a. Ian himself), giving us a tour of his estate in St. Cleve -- the fictional English city where Gerald Bostock lived as a child, you see -- before introducing the band on its return to the stage to perform Thick 2. And finally, the "Aqualung" character made a cameo during the show, walking across the back of the stage in full scuba gear.

But the funniest moment involved a prostate-exam PSA between the two "sides" of the original Thick album. (You know, back when we had albums that we had to turn over halfway through.) Ian invited a "patient" onstage (actually the guy who ran his merchandise table), along with someone who volunteered to be the "doctor," complete with latex gloves. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the two of them walked offstage to do the "exam" -- but we did get to see a cartoon version taking place behind a "modesty screen." Funny stuff, but Ian seemed dead serious about reminding all us men in the audience to get our yearly exams.

Anyway, the end result of all the tomfoolery was that the show felt like half a rock concert, and half a weird Monty Python skit. And that just made the whole thing all the more endearing.

The audience greeted Thick 2 with great enthusiasm, which was a pleasure to see. I've been to shows where a classic artist tries to lay some new music on the crowd and gets a tepid response at best. But the band really brought the best out of the music. As someone who felt the performance sounded a bit lifeless in spots on the Thick 2 album, this show brought the piece to life in a way I hadn't expected. I still think the sequel meanders a bit toward the end, but for the most part it's a worthy follow-up to a legendary album. There are just enough motifs borrowed from the first Thick album to give the two pieces some musical commonality, but not so much that Thick 2 ever becomes a pastiche. It stands fairly well on its own. Ian succeeded in writing a quite tasteful follow-up.

And it's probably something he only could have written at this stage of his life. The first album is full of fire and manic energy, which only a young, ambitious man could have achieved. Forty years on, we get a second album that still rocks, but in a more subdued way, with an abundance of musical and lyrical passages that take on a reflective mood -- as you might expect from a man in his 60s, perhaps looking back on his own life and career as well as that of his fictional character. To that end, it was a job well done. And even if Ian is losing his singing voice, he has nothing to hang his head about as his career winds down. He's given us a lifetime's worth of memorable music, and for that alone, I'm grateful to him. I have to say I also have immense respect for a guy who knows his current limitations and doesn't let his ego get in the way of bringing on someone else who can help shoulder the load. Even if Ian someday can no longer sing, his vocals will be in great hands with Ryan O'Donnell.

"Really don't mind if you sit this one out," Ian sings to open the original Thick As a Brick. But I can say I'm really glad I didn't choose to sit this one out. This show was one of the highlights among all the concerts I've attended this year, with only one more to go. I was pleasantly surprised by just how good it was. Well done, Mr. Anderson, and thank you.


Thick As a Brick
Thick As a Brick 2


Locomotive Breath

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