This live concert was recorded in 2003, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The event’s founder and chief instigator, Claude Nobs, invited the group to participate in that year’s festival; Ian Anderson, having both fond memories of Montreux and a deep background in jazz, accepted. The result was a 2-hour DVD and a double CD, both released this year as part of Montreux’s program of making individual concerts widely available.
I found the sound on the DVD much better than on the CD, although that may say more about my sound equipment than the media. However, both versions are well-edited and polished; the inevitable concert light effects are kept to a minimum and don’t distract from the music. The CD lacks a lot of the stage banter that characterizes a Tull show and has a good clear focus on the instrumentation. The vocals start out a bit hoarse and rocky, but Mr. Anderson’s voice smoothes out wonderfully as the concert goes on. The band’s playing is superb throughout, on everything from the iconic orchestral flute/guitar/drums ensemble to bamboo flutes, mandolins and even an accordion. The first half of the concert is described as semi-acoustic, and the second half electronic: not quite accurate, as Anderson plays a variety of purely acoustic instruments, simply enhanced with sound pickups.
Montreux is no longer just about jazz. However, if you like jazz but are in the dark about rock and roll . . . no, there is no Jethro in Jethro Tull — the group was named long ago for an 18th century agronomist. Even if you are totally befuddled about rock, you may well recognize Ian Anderson, the lead singer, lead writer and — well, leader: he’s the cold-eyed Scottish flautist who has been fronting the band (mostly standing on one foot) for the last 40 years. And despite having won a Grammy for Best Metal Album (Crest of a Knave) in 1988 — an anomaly still discussed by indignant headbangers everywhere — the band is well known for its polished musicianship, eclectic lyrics and instrumental jazz roots.
Claude Nobs, in fact, states that Tull played the Festival before in 1969 or 1970: in the entertaining liner notes, Anderson says that he doesn’t recall it, and is sure he would — it was held then in the Montreux Casino, accidentally burned down during a Mothers of Invention concert and then immortalized by Deep Purple in “Smoke On the Water.” Mr. Anderson goes on to admit that, while he did not play that hallowed hall, he did threaten to re-enact the incident at an unruly concert in Berne around that time. And I am sure he did. I once saw him cow the entire audience of the Universal Studio Amphitheatre into abject silence because he didn’t like all the cigarette smoke. Having a pipe concealed about my person, and sitting in the 4th row, I was terrified.
Mr. Anderson has mellowed a little since the days when he either threatened arson or a walk out in the smoke, but he is still in total control of his stage. The audience, ranging widely in age and nationality, sat rapt through the concert, and gave him a standing ovation at its conclusion. Anderson excels at creating a sense of camaraderie with his listeners, clowning for them, taking snapshots of the crowd, merrily and unrepentantly non-PC, never projecting the sense of self-important bombast some other rock legends bring to the stage.
The selections performed cover the full 40 years of Jethro Tull’s history, from the classic blues “Some Day The Sun Won’t Shine For You” (1968) to a selection off their most recent Christmas Album, “Pavane” (2003). Aficionados will note that the old concert staples are here — “Bouree”, “Hunting Girl” “Living In The Past” — but with enough tweaks to the instrumentation and improvisational riffs to keep them fresh. There are a few sprightly instrumentals, to let Anderson’s voice recover between songs. Martin Barre on lead guitar impressed me, again, with what a damned fine musician he is, both on quiet compositions like “Empty Cafe” and the searing guitar on pieces like “Aqualung”. Doane Perry, briefly brought front and center on “Fat Man” remains the best drummer Tull has ever had, and keyboard artist Andy Giddings and bassist Jonathan Noyce give brilliant performances.
In all this vintage rock jollity, the quietly self-loathing “Beside Myself”, about a child prostitute in Bombay, is the ghost at the banquet. Even at the beginning of his career, from a position of ironic observer of life, Anderson wrote songs like this one; portraits of lost souls, the painter wrung with compassion, aching to help but too wise to think one rock benefit will change anything for them. This particular song, located where it was two-thirds of the way through the concert, was a gentle admonition to remember the human suffering behind the concluding numbers, the band’s signature “Aqualung” and the hard-charging “Locomotive Breath”.
After two hours of concert, Anderson’s voice expired, barely croaking out the last phrase of the encore’s snippet of “Cheerio”. He stood there waving at the audience, his shirt soaked with sweat. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. He had earned it. That anyone can still get a crowd on their feet after forty years of touring is proof of genius, in my book.
(Montreux Sounds/Eagle Rock Entertainment, Ltd., 2007)