“The crowd’s pretty undead,” a grey-ponytailed guy marveled to his friend, alluding to the surprising diversity, agewise, genderwise (lots of older couples out on a date) and even ethnicwise, in the audience at the Beacon Theatre Friday night. “Would you like a Werther’s Original?” a friendly dude in a plaid shirt asked the pale black-clad guy next to him, a total stranger, who was making a halfhearted attempt to conceal that he was recording the concert. Behind them, a trio of Dallas Cowboys fans were bemoaning their team’s fortunes in thick Long Island accents. These are a small sample of the Jethro Tull fans who packed the venue to see bandleader Ian Anderson and his latest cast of minstrels play Tull’s 1972 stoner classic Thick As a Brick all the way through for the first time ever on a New York stage.
Although billed as an Anderson concert, the members of his band had all previously done time in later editions of Tull over the years. Of course, there are plenty of people who think that Anderson’s name actually is Jethro Tull, and in a sense they’re pretty much right. And as much as that band has been the butt of innumerable jokes, there never was another group who ever delivered anything like Tull’s psychedelic, bitingly lyrical blend of Scottish folk and heavy metal. Thick As a Brick – which the band delivered in its entirety along with a full-length performance of Anderson’s 2012 follow-up album – was the band’s most psychedelic and rhythmically tricky effort. While it only bears a passing resemblance to bands like Yes, it remains one of the holy grails of prog rock.
What did it sound like this time out, after all these years? Pretty much like it did back then, like Procol Harum on mushrooms. The star of this show was keyboardist John O’Hara, who nailed original keyboardist John Evan’s rapidfire organ and synth licks note for note, in addition to supplying electric piano, harpsichord, and frequent accordion during the second half of the show. Orginal Tull guitarist Martin Barre long ago abandoned his hard-blues edge for a florid metal attack, so new guitarist Florian Opahle’s garish Gary Moore tremoloing and divebomb effects didn’t come as much of a surprise. Bassist David Goodier played intricately, often in tandem with O’Hara while drummer Scott Hammond handled the suite’s tricky tempos with an evenhanded, understated approach. Anderson sounded 70 back when he recorded the album, and sounds closer to 90 now: this year’s American tour is still young, but he’s already blown out his voice. But he had singer Ryan O’Donnell to do the higher, more challenging vocal parts. And Anderson played guitar (a tiny acoustic Taylor travel model) and flute with the vigor of a man a third his age (he’s pushing 70), dashing across the stage and doing the one-legged flute dance which became his signature forty-plus years ago.
As far as the original album is concerned, the band really put their hearts into it. Maybe one of the reasons why it sounded so fresh, and so close to the bizarre catchiness of the original, is because only Anderson had ever played it live before, and hadn’t at all in the past forty-one years. His spiky, circular, dancing guitar interludes and O’Hara’s smoky Hammond organ menace were spot-on, as were the virtually all the original keyboard voicings. That the group’s drummer played it as close to his vest as he did only enhanced the dynamics; only Opahle made it sound particularly post-1972.
And the follow-up was good too. If Anderson focus-grouped this like he notoriously did in the mid-80s for Jethro Tull’s big comeback/reinvention as a straight-up metal band, the latest focus group gave good advice. This follow-up suite posits several different scenarios for what might have become of Gerald Bostock, the alienated child prodigy/poet credited with the lyrics to the original TAAB. This time out, Anderson has backed off a little on the tricky tempos and jigging in favor of a somewhat more four-on-the-floor musical approach (think Tull’s underrated 1983 Broadsword & the Beast album) and vastly more attention to the lyrics. If anything, Anderson’s caustic worldview is more relevant now than it was then. And the music matched: a vaudevillian sendup of clergy extorting from New Depression-era parishioners; a deceptively dark yet rhythmically lively account of a gay guy fallen prey to the temptations of pretty much whatever tempts; a sardonically lush predator banker’s tale; and a sweepingly haunting narrative from the point of view of a mercenary fighting (presumably for the Bush regime) in Afghanistan. Although it wasn’t a central theme, there is an antiwar stance to the original TAAB: it’s good to see its creator still very much in touch with the world around him.
They encored with a surprisingly fresh, longscale version of Locomotive Breath, stretched out with lots of piano from O’Hara. There was also a self-effacing video component that sometimes drew a few chuckles and was otherwise pretty beside the point; a public service announcement about prostate cancer awareness (no joke) involving a couple of audience members, which might have been more scripted than it was supposed to seem; and an obscene gesture involving Anderson’s flute which was even more obscene than usual, by Tull concert standards. While tickets for this show were obscene in their own pricy way, any fan of Tull, or artsy rock in general, won’t be disappointed by this tour. Considering how many others from the dinosaur-rock era are still out there, phoning it in, that’s all the more impressive.