It’s 45 years since Ian Anderson first trod the boards at the Albert Hall with Jethro Tull at a charity show. And now with the apparent departure (temporarily or otherwise) of long time guitarist Martin Barre, he’s shed the Tull cloak to step out in his own right at the same venue and perform ‘Thick As A Brick 2’, the follow up to his 40 year old spoof concept album.
Anderson was always the personification of Tull, but in spite of his undiminished creativity and indefatigable energy levels, tonight was slightly different. For while he will doubtless continue to tackle old age head on (even taking time to warn his generation of male fans about the dangers of prostate cancer – a computer glitch robbed us of the full list of fallen luminaries), his voice no longer matches up to his enduring stamina.
In the event, a little pre-planning went a long way to avoid an unwanted triumph of conceptualisation over articulation, as actor/vocalist Ryan O’Donnell stepped in as Anderson co-vocalist with a radio mic at the ready and a staff in hand.
He swapped verses here, took a lead there, and at his most audacious, even stole some of Anderson stage moves. He alternated verses with Ian, though his boss cannily saved the best lines for himself: ‘The builder of the castles renews the age-old purpose and contemplates the milking girl whose offer is his need’.
The updated show also cleverly reprised some elements of the original ‘72 show. Jeffery Hammond-Hammond and John Evan may be long gone, but the band once again went through their brown overcoat stage hand routine, with Anderson providing the first of several on screen links, starting with an apparent stock take in a warehouse.
He also popped up as Gerald Bostock’s doctor and later as Colonel Archibald Parritt, who ushered in ‘Thick As A Brick 2’. When not busy updating us on www.stcleve.com – (a digital version of the original ‘TAAB’ newspaper) – Parritt showed us round the grounds of his manor and presided over the outro.
The show also cleverly utilised audiovisual interaction, with a re-jigged horse and jockey sketch updated to include a mid-number mobile phone call from sometime Tull violinist Anna Phoebe, who initially appeared on the screen and then startlingly emerged from the crowd.
Fellow guest Mark Almond chose a more understated entrance, emerging unannounced to give the suite a notable lift with a beautiful rendition and a sense of drama, on the ‘Do you believe in the day’ section, as accordion, flute and violin added an eastern instrumental flavour.
Almond returned with Anna Phoebe and was backed by John O’Hara’s accordion in part two’s ‘A Change of Horses’, while guest number three, BBC newsman Gavin Esler, was disguised in a surreal frogman suit. He appeared on screen and wandered across the stage, before finally finding his salvation at sea, in a reference to Gerald Bostock’s search for his true place in the world.
Structurally this excellent show could not be faulted. Ian’s superb flute and guitar playing still resonate, as do the dynamic quiet-to-loud blocks of music. The band also enjoyed spirited moments of fine unison playing, featuring guitarist Florian Opahle, who is more of a shredder than the angular Martin Barre, but he still cut through with his solos.
But ultimately ‘TAAB 2’ was slightly tarnished by Ian’s croaky vocals. With any other band it wouldn’t have mattered so much, but given his role as an observational narrator, it fell to Ryan O’Donnell to keep the story line on track, as Ian’s diction sometimes become subsumed by his croak.
That aside, ‘TAAB2’ proved to be everything fans had hoped for. Unlike its predecessor, it’s a suite of music broken into individual tracks that poses the question ‘What If?’, as Bostock is cast in a number of hypothetical roles in tune with contemporary society.
‘Brick 2’ still has a conceptual feel though, mainly due to the thematic ‘What-ifs, Maybes And Might-Have-Beens’, through to the touching ‘Wootton Bassett Town’ (an update of the ‘The young men of the household have all gone into service’ ) and the sonorous ‘Cosy Corner’ , which featured an on screen brass band.
There was also some scintillating band interplay, ad hoc choreography, Anderson’s impressive spoken word verse and Marc Almond’s strident vocal on ‘A Change Of Horses’ (accompanied by a photo of the ‘Heavy Horses’ album).
Where ‘TAAB’ has meatier instrumental and staccato elements, ‘TAAB2’ found Anderson wrapping his poetic lyrics round the music. The band shifted eloquently from introspective, acoustic moments, to full rock bombast, before the individual players thrillingly extemporised with the flautist in the more celebratory moments of the night.
Ian Anderson remains the master of the grand gesture, with an outstretched arm here, a semi pirouette there, alternatively crouched at the front of the stage or indulging in some vibrant choreography with his band mates. He is a physical embodiment of his music, from the bulging eyes to the trajectory of his arm, as he ushered in a guitar break, while his companion Ryan O’Donnell made his own faux Anderson moves.
And while there were a few awkward moments of silence that had the audience wondering whether a piece had finished or not, Anderson’s dynamic performance triumphantly carried the set to its reprised conclusion.
After a deserved standing ovation, Almond and Phoebe rejoined the band for an extended encore of ‘Locomotive Breath’. Job done!
Review by Pete Feenstra
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