There are many different stages to Ian Anderson’s seemingly endless artistry with Jethro Tull, the band with whom he is synonymous. There is the tramp/vagrant persona of the late 60s, the Aqualung character, the medieval minstrel of the early and mid 70s, the gentleman farmer and folk rocker of the latter half of that decade, and so forth. It’s hard after awhile to keep track of his protean output. At one point there was a Dungeons and Dragons themed album, if you’re keeping score. The nineties saw a bit of a return to the blues and jazz of the early days, and this decade has seen a Christmas album and two solo efforts.
Ian Anderson now seems to be in a relaxed middle age. The shows I’ve seen in the past few years have been fun, retrospective concerts rather than the kind of take-no-prisoners approach the band took in its heyday. His solo performance at the newly refurbished Beacon Theater in New York (it was solo only in the sense that he and multi-instrumentalist John O’Hara were the two Jethro Tull band members onstage) was a laid-back affair that left me wanting more.
This show was billed as an acoustic performance, and fans of the band were not disappointed. For years we hoped Anderson would do an acoustic album– The Secret Language of Birds (2000) and Rupi’s Dance (2004) albums filled that need, and his solo performances work from that mindset.
It’s a bit strange to see Anderson onstage without Martin Barre, the stalwart, immensely talented guitarist who has been there since 1968, but the band he chose filled in nicely. Florian Ophale, a young man born as Jethro Tull entered its third decade of existence, played acoustic guitar and even performed a solo number that was well received by the audience. Meena Bashin played violin and introduced her own composition, ‘Driving Skies’; her performance on Anderson’s Tea with the Princess was also memorable.
Anderson opened the show with perennial favorite Dun Ringill, a haunting ballad that somehow gets better each time you hear it. His voice was alarmingly low at this point from my eighth-row seat, but strengthened quickly and was not an issue for most of the rest of the show. March the Mad Scientist, a too-seldom heard gem from the 20th anniversary boxed set, followed, and we knew we were in for a good time. He continued to play old hits, like Jack-in-the-Green, Skating Away, Fat Man and a spirited version of Rocks on the Road, which was a highlight of the first set. The band caught the spirit of the songs nicely. Intermission followed. At this point Anderson playfully reminded the audience to go and buy a t-shirt they would never again wear for fear of public ridicule. As he put it: “The neighbors will see you in the yard and say ‘Jethro fucking Tull?!’”
The second set featured a couple of new songs that were interesting, including ‘A Change of Horses,’ a violin-inflected piece which would not have felt out of place on one of Mr. Anderson’s solo albums, and Adantino, Mr. Ophale’s flamenco-influenced effort. The evening ended with My God, Locomotive Breath, and finally Aqualung, all of which were rather understated without Mr. Barre. All in all it was a pleasant evening that left me wanting the see the band at full strength sometime soon.
One does begin to wonder, though, how long Ian Anderson can keep going. He’s now 64, and his voice, the subject of endless debate and conversation among his fans, is not what it used to be, though it doesn’t sound any worse than it did ten years ago. The new material he played was interesting enough, but it remains to be seen if the band has anything left to compose aside from Christmas albums (The Jethro Tull Christmas Album from 2004 was excellent, by the way, and a great album for the season) and Bach-infused instrumentals.
But I would be the last one to count Ian Anderson out. He’s been proving critics wrong for decades. I’m eager and curious to see what else he has up his sleeve. His website says the band is at work on new songs for another album, so stay tuned.