by Jane Roser
Before U2’s Zoo TV tour, before Green Day threw an epic mud fight at Woodstock and way before Lady Gaga emerged onstage from a three story castle wearing God knows what, there was Jethro Tull. For decades Jethro Tull has entertained audiences with thrilling live shows, combining visuals and theatrics which encourage audiences to react both with excitement and nostalgia. A rock band simply cannot survive for this many decades unless they keep their shows fresh, entertaining and engaging; the band members have intense chemistry and they continually have something to say.
I first saw Jethro Tull (their agent, a history buff, came up with the name) perform back in the early 90s at the Spectrum and loved the intensity of what I was witnessing: men in miner hats shining their headlamps into the audience instead of using the venue’s lighting, visuals of giant whales on screen, a belly dancer and coolest of all, a gigantic beach ball thrown into the audience (I always wondered where it ended up). Lead singer and flutist Ian Anderson began the show holding his flute up and standing on one leg behind a scrim creating shadowy images of a Fagin-like character. Simple, yet oh so cool.
Now, 47 years, 30 albums (which sold over 60 million copies) and over 3,000 concerts later, Anderson returns to the US for only eight shows to present his latest creation, Jethro Tull-The Rock Opera. The opera celebrates the life and times of English agriculturalist Jethro Tull who invented a horse-drawn seed drill and hoe in the early 18th century which revolutionized the way fields were plowed, helping farmers to increase their production and profits. If you are yawning at this, consider the fact that without Tull’s invention your fridge would be nearly empty. He is considered to be one of the first people to propose a scientific approach to agriculture.
Anderson’s show tells his story, but set in modern times to hit songs from the band’s repertoire, including “Aqualung”, “Songs From The Wood” and “Heavy Horses”, as well as new material and slightly modified lyrics to classic Tull songs to better tell the tale. Accompanied by David Goodier (bass), John O’Hara (Keyboards), Florian Opahle (guitar), and Scott Hammond (drums). There will also be virtual guests shown on a screen accompanying Anderson onstage (“I don’t have Pete Townsend or Elton John,” Anderson says, “but I’ll have people that I’ve worked with in recent years who are currently unavailable for this tour.”)
Just over a year ago Anderson was being driven through Northern Italy and witnessing the landscape outside his window inspired him to look up information about the historical Jethro Tull online (which there is very little of and the information which is available is often quite sketchy). Anderson says, “I was immediately struck by a few aspects of his life and work that just seemed to be almost frighteningly linked to songs I’d written over the years, without having any idea of the details of his life [back then], so all of a sudden I had these songs that fit into his story. I wrote down a list of ones I could really work with and in a half hour I had the idea of telling his story through my existing songs.”
Anderson knew he didn’t want to do a historical piece set in the eighteenth century. Instead, he wanted to do something a little more creative. “I set the story to be in the near future where Jethro Tull is not a quaint inventor tinkering with the mechanics of his church organ to invent his seed drill, but is a high-tech biochemist working on patented technology for genetic modification of crops and organisms and cloning. The high-tech side of agricultural business which is the reality of farming today and even more so, the farming of tomorrow where science and technology really have to double every effort to come up with new solutions to growing food. [This is] not only to meet the demands of an expanding planetary population, but also to cope with the difficulties that are being imposed upon the agricultural sector by climate change.”
He presents the plot in a generally upbeat, whimsical way because “I think the way to get people’s attention is to lure them in with a cheerful smile, you know, a ‘have a nice day’ smile even if that means you might not be having a nice tomorrow.”
Anderson is very intelligent, well-spoken and knowledgeable about the state of the world today, both politically and environmentally. He reminds me that in just over a hundred years, two generations have been responsible for an enormous planetary change, including the realization that by the end of this century, the world’s population is set to soar beyond 9 million people. How will the effect of climate change on our already stressed agricultural system feed them? We sure don’t want our society to turn into a real-life Soylent Green.
When asked if he feels the need to try to push the envelope a bit more with each show, Anderson responds that he’s attracted to the fact that not all of his shows are the same and you really do have to present yourself differently depending upon your interaction with the audience. “The degree to which you play your music in almost isolation or if you’re referring to a big video screen behind you; all of these things change the way you perform and you have to be tuned into what you’re doing and where you are and vary your performance accordingly, but thankfully it’s not the same all the time and I don’t have to go out of my way to look for trouble.”
The technology being used in this show is technology they have been using for the last three to four years. Anderson feels confident it will all work. “You also know that the audience is there to hear tried and tested favorites. You have to find a way to make that fresh and in a theatrical way that’s what I’m doing now- giving the songs context to allow them to tell a narrative. I think it gives the songs a fresh perspective, not only for me as a performer, but for the audience.”
Anderson was seduced by science fiction novels as a teen, enthralled by authors such as Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and other pioneers of the genre and that influence shows in his almost steampunk-like onstage persona and lyrics. “I like the sense of fantasy and imagination,” says Anderson, “it was very important later on in my development as a musician, but I’m still someone who also reads factual stuff. I think it’s interesting to draw from different cultures and beliefs and also different points of history because history teaches us a lot about ourselves and where we come from, but also gives us some insight into the world today and what the world tomorrow might be like.”
He is finding that in this latter stage of his life, it gives him a sense of completeness knowing more about the big picture. It features in the way he writes music. “Probably since 1970 or so, I’ve become more of an observational writer, talking about subjects that were not just [like you’d find in emotional] pop lyrics, which are incredibly dreary and unimaginative. Those who write great love songs have my complete admiration because they’re the hardest songs to write. I mean, every word in the vocabulary has been used to the point of ad nauseam. I chose the easier route talking more about people and characters, but rather than being a portrait painter, in musical terms, I chose to be someone who likes to put those people in a landscape and give them context without getting too emotionally involved in my subjects.”
While discussing books we are currently reading, Anderson tells me that he “isn’t one of those luddites who says ‘oh I have to have a real book, I like to feel the pages on my fingers’, well bugger that; I have to travel light these days so I can’t be carrying a half dozen books in my carry-on, so I read everything on my iPhone. I download books from Amazon’s Kindle and I sit in a restaurant because I like to eat alone and read a few pages of a book on my phone. It may sound rather dreary, but I find it a convenient way of taking with me a library of material to suit my mood and also walking though airport security knowing that I have a copy of the Koran [for instance] in my pocket is kind of darkly exciting. I rather enjoy the sense of knowing that I have things in my possession that may seem just like electronic files, but are actually windows to an entire universe.”
One might say that Jethro Tull are not simply “Living In The Past” because they have immense hope for the future. Jethro Tull-The Rock Opera will be at The Academy of Music’s Kimmel Center on November 7th with another US tour planned for April and October of 2016.