I can hardly believe it is 17 years since I last saw Jethro Tull, on the “Roots to Branches” tour (in Glasgow). I recall being a little underwhelmed at the time, having the feeling that the fun had gone out of the band, or maybe my musical tastes were parting ways with the past.
For various reasons of time, place and illness, I have managed to miss all of the Tull (and Ian Anderson solo) trips into Scotland and, as the years passed by, the tales of Ian’s vocal problems seemed to become more and more regular and worrying. Listening to the occasional concert recording only served to confirm this; it seemed that I should consider myself lucky to have seen them at least close to their prime (since I’m too young to have seen them in the mid-70’s). No, really, I am!
When they announced a tour of the classic concept album ‘Thick As a Brick‘, along with its sequel, I was in two minds about buying tickets. Some part of me wanted to see if the magic was still there to some degree, whilst the rest thought it would be best to remember them as they were, especially since this would be Ian Anderson alone, with no Martin Barre and not bearing the ‘Jethro Tull’ mark. When it turned out that one of the closest two gigs would be in Budapest, my mind was made up. Not only was it a city I had yet to visit, but since Tull have a song called ‘Budapest’, I thought it might make for an interesting venue, so I decided to give them another chance.
As the date came closer, I finally got hold of the new ‘Thick As A Brick 2‘ album and was reasonably pleased with it. Over ten years have passed since the last new Tull album, unless you count the ‘Christmas Album’ which is mostly re-recordings of old songs sprinkled with a couple of traditional songs and a couple of new songs, or the various live or anniversary albums. My first impression was that this might be what a music professor who specialised in Jethro Tull might come up with by distilling the essence of the band over the 40-odd years of its existence. It contained references galore to earlier albums, to certain forms of instrumentation, to particular songs as well as to the original ‘Thick As A Brick’ (TAAB). I always preferred ‘A Passion Play‘ to TAAB, but the latter is an excellent album and hard to beat. The new album doesn’t come close to beating it, but it is better than I had expected.
For the last few albums Tull/IA have been playing more and more music with an eastern or world music influence. That in itself is no bad thing, and some of those albums are excellent, but Tull were always a band of change, both in personnel and styles, and it seemed to me like another change was overdue. From that point of view, TAAB2 feels a bit like taking stock before jumping off in a new direction, rather like saying “this is where we’ve come to and how we got here, now let’s see what happens next…” At least, I hope that’s the idea!
My only real concern about the concert was whether IA’s voice could cope. TAAB was recorded in the early seventies, when he was singing much higher than his current range allows, and the new album also features songs at a higher pitch than he has used in recordings from the late 80’s on. The bad news is that his voice really has deteriorated since I last saw Tull perform; many lines were devoid of melody and about a quarter of the trilling notes from the classic lines like “…and your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick” have been dropped. The good news is that there is a solution. I am quite happy with it and see it as the way forward for the band; others may disagree.
The fact remains that IA is not going to get his voice back and if you want to hear Jethro Tull songs performed live in as authentic a way as possible, then this is how it has to be. In short, IA has hired a stunt double, a young fellow by the name of Ryan O’Donnell, to do the vocal and physical athletics. And very good he is at it, too. The way it works is that IA generally starts a song, then Ryan sings a verse and they sing together on the choruses, which lets you hear the recognisable Anderson voice, but makes use of the younger vocal chords to actually hit the melodies. Anderson used to run around the stage, jumping and mimicing the other musicians, dancing and twirling his flute like a mad man. Now O’Donnell does almost all of that stuff and has clearly worked his way through the Tull back catalog of live DVDs, as he really seems like a young Ian Anderson (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Their two voices are fairly complementary, blending together when required, yet different enough that it is easy to tell who is singing.
The real beauty of this whole thing is that some of the great flute counter-melodies that appear on the albums behind the vocals and had to be dropped when played live, can now return to the arrangement, so we can hear flute and vocal together. If I have one complaint about this approach it is that Ian should have passed more of the vocals over. I accept that, at this stage, this may still be something of an experiment and that he is trying to ease fans in gently, but quite frankly there are some songs that he just can’t sing and made me feel uncomfortable with the way he was straining for the notes. There were other songs where the vocals swapped in the middle of a verse which seemed to break the flow. O’Donnell also seemed to be hanging about at times with nothing to do, which was rather a waste of talent, as he is clearly trained in a full range of stage performance skills, not just belting out songs. I hope he stay on with IA/Tull, as he has brought back the sense of fun and spectacle to Tull shows, along with vocals that do justice to the rest of the music.
As for the music, well, it was great. The band are easily as good as the last incarnation of ‘offical’ Tull I saw, able to pull off the performance very smoothly. There was not much in the way of soloing or moving away from the official albums, but they are already complicated enough to memorise without adding another layer of difficulty, especially to a band still fitting together. TAAB formed the first half of the show, kicked off with some band-as-warehouse-employees hijinks worked into video clips of Gerald Bostock visiting his therapist (subtitled in Hungarian, of course). Violinist Anna Phoebe appeared as a video clip masquerading as a dial-in-over-skype solo as she held her baby, which was the most effective of the nods towards modern technology trends which IA like to embrace and mock in equal measure. The faux-youtube clip of ‘posh bloke in garden’, played by Anderson, that started off the second half was neither funny nor entertaining, but rather more like trying to watch your grandfather skateboard.
The music for TAAB2 stood up well in the concert setting, and hearing the same band play both albums back-to-back made the whole thing feel more coherent than the original albums when compared directly. As the gig finished up, the video screen switched to introducing the band members and backstage/FOH crew, which was a different touch to the normal band introductions, which would have seemed a bit out of place in the middle of one of the songs. It also made the whole event feel more like a staged performance than just a regular concert. Locomotive Breath served as an encore, following some sort of apparent protestation by IA with the keyboard player. Perhaps he was trying to get him to play Budapest instead? (there were a few audience grumbles that they didn’t play it). The classic show-closer was very effective with two sets of voices, particularly in the last choruses, and make me keen to see a regular Tull show in this format.
Altogether it was a great night’s entertainment and gives me hope for the future of Tull. I hope that other fans will embrace the new dual-frontman format and that Ryan O’Donnell will stay on for future tours. Most of all, I think this gives IA the freedom to stretch himself musically in a way that he couldn’t if he had to sing everything himself and I look forward to new progressions.