Ian Anderson at the Beacon Theater

Fifty years ago, a group of young musicians from Blackpool released a record called This Was, launching the career of Jethro Tull, one of the most influential and original rock bands ever. This year, Ian Anderson is out on the road, celebrating this golden anniversary with a series of shows across the US and Europe. If he’s coming to your town, don’t miss it.

I was lucky enough to catch a sold out show at the Beacon Theater in New York on September 11th, a somber day to which Anderson brought some happiness. His enthusiasm and musicianship delighted fans on a nostalgia-filled romp through the band’s history.

The first half of the show was an homage to Tull’s early days, and featured some bluesy gems like “Love Story,” “Someday the Sun Won’t Shine for You,” and “Dharma for One.” “A Song for Jeffrey” was introduced by 70s era bassist Jeffrey Hammond, one of the 37 musicians who’ve been part of Tull over the years, and for whom the song is named. More video introductions followed throughout the night from former members and famous fans, like Guns n’ Roses’ Slash, and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, who in 1968 briefly played in Tull, just before longtime guitarist Martin Barre joined.

Though Ian and Martin went their separate ways in 2011, it would’ve been nice to see an acknowledgement of Barre, who is now doing his own tour featuring the music of Tull. That is not meant as a slight to Anderson’s gifted guitarist, Florian Ophale, who got to show off his pyrotechnics in the second set, when the band played some of their heaviest numbers, closing it out as always with raucous versions of “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” that left the crowd wanting more.

What is it about Jethro Tull that’s kept them going for fifty years? There’s plenty of virtuoso playing in the band’s catalog, and mind-bending prog-rock fun through some of their best records. At 71, Anderson still has the charisma and energy of a great frontman, nimbly dancing around stage all night, and playing the flute on one leg as if he were a man decades younger.

This is music that fans have an emotional connection with too. In “Songs from the Wood” Anderson joyfully declares, “Life’s long celebration’s here, I’ll toast you all in penny cheer.” In “Farm on the Freeway,” he sings in the voice of a struggling farmer, “Now they might give me compensation/That’s not what I’m chasing, I was a rich man before yesterday” and it’s hard not to feel sympathy. Listening to “My God,” I couldn’t help but think about the ongoing church crisis; this song may not be party music, but it’s a bruising, heavy rock number, and makes for solid everyman theology.

And then we came to Aqualung, the lonesome, homeless tramp sitting on the park bench, introduced with thundering guitar, like a blast from another world, but when Anderson sings “You poor old sod, you see, it’s only me,” there’s a flash of shared humanity that makes a listener reconsider things, as great music should. It’s a pretty neat trick to have a song of such depth that can also blow the roof off a concert hall. Ian Anderson and his merry band have pulled it off for five decades, and that’s worthy of celebration.

About Chris Tuthill

Chris Tuthill’s work has recently appeared in The Mythic Circle, A Companion to JRR Tolkien, and Dark Tales From Elder Regions, among other venues. Chris is a librarian who lives in Poughkeepsie, New York with his wife and two children.