BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
“Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” is neither a greatest hits set or a likely threat to shatter any of the box office records of “Hamilton”. Exactly what it is will always be subjective, but to be certain it is a unique and well crafted presentation of one man’s interpretation of history and how he inadvertently attached himself to another man’s legacy.
Scottish-born Ian Anderson has been the face and voice of Jethro Tull since 1968. One of the most revered progressive rock acts to ever grace a stage, he always had a curiosity about the origin of the name of his band which was christened upon them by a booking agent that was a history enthusiast. Finally, a few years ago he was inspired enough to really dig into the story of Tull, and the more he learned the more he concluded that he and his music and the man whose identity the band had effectively stolen, an 18th century English agriculturalist, shared a number of similarities.
Anderson, 69, and the band Jethro Tull are an inexcusable omission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, unfortunately slighted by the lack of corporate backing in a flawed system in spite of being one of the most creative bands of the Rock era. Much of that has to do with the distinctiveness that Anderson’s flute playing brings to the band’s sound. Allegedly he ditched his original ambition to play electric guitar because he feared he could never be as good as Eric Clapton. God only knows how many others have felt the same way about themselves, but it drove him to concentrate on the flute. Ironically, Anderson reports that he has had no formal musical training of any sort and actually credits his daughter with teaching him how to play the flute properly after taking lessons herself over halfway into his career in the early ’90’s.
Taking the stage bespectacled and looking fit wearing a black bandana and toting his trusty flute, Anderson and his backing band proceeded to present a series of songs featuring unique interactive duets with a virtual reality video screen of significant production expense as the backdrop. Displaying striking visual images ranging from wildflowers to elephants and giraffes frolicking about during an “Inconvenient Truth” style video, it also highlighted fears about global warming concerns such as shrinking bodies of water along with factories blowing smoke, and crowded freeways caused by population growth. The first set, or Act One in this case, opened with “Heavy Horses” and “Wind Up” before an explosive version of “Aqualung” provided the audience with it’s first true taste of one of Tull’s signature hits.
While many fans might not have been familiar with a number of the songs in the current setlist, there were no real lulls or lack of quality compositions. Digging deep into his catalog, many hits were missing, but Anderson, an environmentalist his entire life, has certainly earned the creative license to indulge his concept of choice and he did so while showing that his voice is still quite amazing after all these years in spite of any reports to the contrary.
Icelandic born singer-violinist Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir was compelling as a recurring virtual duet partner as a young Susannah Tull, Jethro’s wife, and keyboardist John O’Hara also stood out on a number of occasions. But it was Anderson’s animated stage presence and his flute infused majesty that stole the day. Often displaying precision balance with his trademark one-legged stance while soloing on his flute and also showcasing his harmonica talents, he continues to impress.
O’Hara’s unmistakable classic keyboard intro to an extended nine minute version of “Locomotive Breath” signaled the beginning of the end of Act Two, but any remaining questions about the bands artistry, and many about their heritage, had been answered in an enjoyable and entertaining manner. The five new songs written specially for the production included “Prosperous Pasture,” “Fruits Of Frankenfield,” “And The World Feeds Me,” “Stick, Twist, Bust,” and “The Turnstile Gate.” One can only hope that at some point these new songs, and the opera’s soundtrack as a whole, will be released as an album to further add to the Tull legacy.