A Late Autumn Evening With Jethro Tull in Ottawa, Canada
An Evening With Jethro Tull
National Arts Centre,
November 26, 2007
While countless groups from the classic rock era reunite for tours seemingly planned as nothing more than a cash grab and one more last chance to feel the love, Jethro Tull can be accused of neither. First, Tull leader/songwriter Ian Anderson has proven himself to be as astute a businessman as he is a talented musiciana multi-millionaire who simply doesn't need to generate any more income. Second, Tull has never gone away, continuing to record and tour since its inception in 1968 (the group gradually came together prior to that year, but didn't adopt the name until then).
While any Tull show demands revisiting of material from the early years to the end of the 1970s, the group has managed to reinvent itself and evolve throughout the decadesfrom blues band to art rockers to progressive British folksters and even heavy metalers, with Crest of a Knave (Chrysalis, 1987) winning a Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance, despite there being little metallic about the group except, perhaps, for the sometimes hard rock stance of flexible guitarist Martin Barre, who has remained Anderson's constant companion in Tull since its second album, Stand Up (Chrysalis, 1969).
There was no shortage of gray hair in the audience at Tull's November 26, 2007 show in Ottawa, but few instances of the formal attire that's usually found when Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre is used for its symphony orchestra series. It was also a more rambunctious bunch, pumped from the moment Anderson and Barre took the stage for "Some Day The Sun Won't Shine," a blues from This Was (Chrysalis, 1968), with Anderson's harmonica playing in fine form. Unfortunately, Anderson's voice has lost much of its power and range over the years, and he was clearly strugglingsomething which could easily have marred the show had he not made some significant adjustments.
l:r John O'Hara, Ian Anderson, David Goodier
While there's no getting around singing some of Tull's more memorable material, Anderson conceded to his weakening voice by placing far more emphasis on the group as an instrumental unit than ever before. The show was easily seventy-percent instrumental and, with his voice down in the mix, it was relatively easy to ignore any vocal missteps, of which there were sadly no small number. Anderson could be seen literally leaping after the high notes, and he sang so far behind the beat that, at times, the vocals seemed out of synch with the rest of the band.
Not that the rough edges mattered a whole lot to the near-capacity crowd. Anderson played mandolin and acoustic guitar, but it's the flute that's his main axe, and it's unlikely he's ever sounded better. It was easy to forgive the vocals on classic tunes like "Living in the Past" and "Nothing is Easy" when Anderson picked up his primary instrument. He's evolved from a decent flautist in his early days to an outstanding one now assertive, inventive, possessing remarkable extended technique and a tone that's full and rich. Like a a coy but confident cat he prowled the stage, mugging for the audience and occasionally striking the one-legged "crane" pose that he's been doing since the beginning of his career with Tull. He may have turned sixty this year, but physically he's in better shape than many half his age.
He also entertained the crowd between songs, with the self-deprecating humor that's always been a part of the Tull stage act. Gone are the clown suits, codpieces and trench coats of mid-1970s Tull, but Anderson's throwback banter kept the tone light for the entire evening.
l:r Ian Anderson, Martin Barre
Why Barre hasn't achieved the "guitar god" status of many of his British peers has always been a curiosity. He's always been a remarkably diverse player, and at the Ottawa show he proved as capable of rocking out on a medley of material from Tull's best-selling concept album Thick as a Brick (Chrysalis, 1972) as he was at referencing jazz legend Wes Montgomery during a swinging version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"one of two Christmas songs the group played, the other being a 5/4 take on "We Three Kings." He played bouzouki on "King Henry's Madrigal" (more recently renamed "Past Time With Good Company"), and even subbed on flute, while Anderson played mandolin on Stand Up's "Fat Man" (or, as Anderson introduced it for these politically correct times, "Don't Want to be a Clinically Obese Man").
Perhaps Barre, who deserved attention if not respect for his playing, but displayed none of the poseur stance normally associated with rock guitarists, is too humble for his own good. Regardless, his relationship with Anderson is one of the longest in the history of rock and, unlike some longstanding musical relationships that are more out of necessity (e.g. The Who), these two clearly continue to enjoy working together.