“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out. My words but a whisper, your deafness a shout.”
I went to a rock concert last night. Two and a half hours of incredible music. Superb musicianship, marvelous showmanship. One of my favorite performers at the top of his game.
And we heard two songs. Two. Well, three, counting the encore.
Here’s the stance used to play the flute: you stand on your right leg, balance. You lift your left leg, then place your left foot just above the right calf, just below your right knee. And you hold that position, perfectly still, in perfect balance, and play. This is what it looks like. Now try it at the age of 65.
1972, my cousin Steve took me to see Jethro Tull at the Salt Palace. It was their Thick as a Brick tour. I was completely blown away by them, by the musicianship, and especially by that song. That one, incredible, hour-long song, “Thick as a Brick.” (I don’t even know how to punctuate it: Thick as a Brick? Thick as a Brick? Like
this?) The sound; it was definitely rock and roll, but with kind of an English folk music vibe, crossed with jazz and even classical music. I mean, is “Thick as a Brick” a song? A cantata?
The main singer also played acoustic guitar and flute, plus some violin, some saxophone. The keyboard music was organ and piano and synthesizer and harpsichord, at one point even some celesta. Basic lineup: lead guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboards, and then that flute. Music with nuance and dynamic contrast and rhythmic complexity. I’d hear quarter note and eighth note triplets, other kinds of syncopation.
“And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away, in the tidal destruction, the moral melee. The elastic retreat rings the close of play, as the last wave uncovers the new-fangled way.”
The Jethro Tull lineup back then, in ’72, was Martin Barre on guitar, John Evan, keyboards, Jeffrey Hammond, bass, Barrie Barlow, drums. And Ian Anderson, flute, acoustic guitar, and lead singer. Barre and Anderson have been with the band from the beginning, in ’67. And they did Thick as a Brick for that one tour, in ’72, and then only performed excerpts from it thereafter. But I bought the album, and wore it out. I’ve probably heard it, in its entirety, two hundred times. More, easily more. On LP, on CD. Heck, probably even on 8 track, back in the day.
Last night, it was just Ian Anderson. Apparently, Barre didn’t want to do Brick again, and neither did Dave Pegg, Andrew Giddings, Doane Perry; the Tull lineup since ’91. So it was just Ian Anderson in concert, well, “Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson,” on my ticket. The rest of the lineup: David Goodier, bass, Florian Ophale, guitar (he’s very young, and terrific), John O’Hara, keyboards (and accordian), Scott Hammond, drums, and, in an odd twist, Ryan O’Donnell, sort of back up lead singer and (on the website), ‘stage antics.’
Ian Anderson’s 65, as I said, and his voice is shot. His guitar playing is still terrific, on that weird little guitar he uses; custom built for him by C. F. Martin. And of course he’s still an amazing flautist, but he really can’t sing much. He especially can’t hit the high notes (and Tull’s music doesn’t require vocal pyrotechnics. I can sing all their songs, and I’m a bass.) He kept taking alternate low notes. But O’Donnell is a good singer. For “Thick as a Brick,” he probably sang 60% of the time. While he wasn’t singing–and Brick features very long instrumental passages, in between vocals–he’d sort of clown around. I didn’t mind, actually. It freed Anderson up, to accompany singing with flute playing. And it reminded me that Thick as a Brick does sort of tell a story; the ‘son’ who rises, takes power, exercises it badly, loses. O’Donnell kind of played ‘the son.’ I mean, it’s more elliptical than I’m making it sound; Thick as a Brick is poetry, not narrative. But ‘O’Donnell wasn’t an afterthought; he was used well.
Watching it last night, I was reminded how much of the piece is built on unlikely duets: flute and electric guitar, flute and drums, flute and keyboards. They would trade off licks, they did a lot of improvising. I know the album pretty well perfectly, but hearing it live last night allowed me to go on a journey with that very familiar music, allowed me to rediscover it. Fall in love all over again. Yes, it was familiar, but then Ophale would take a familiar Martin Barre guitar lick and improvise off it; he had Barre’s musicianship and willingness to subordinate his solos to the needs of the entire song, but he also added his own imagination and energy.
And I was also reminded that Thick as a Brick was initially intended as a parody of pretentious prog rock concept albums (while also being the best one ever), that Tull’s music is influenced, yes, by classical music and folk music and jazz, but also with fairly heavy doses of Monty Python. O’Donnell, for example, was dressed in trousers, tee shirt, vest, but then I realized the colors were a jester’s motley. At the half-way point (the part of the album where I always had to flip the record), Anderson stopped everything last night to do a comic bit about the importance of having regular prostate exams; a bit of sketch comedy. O’Donnell wasn’t afraid to play the fool a bit too. The music was accompanied by background video, much of which involved a chap clomping through an English village wearing scuba gear. A reference to Aqualung, perhaps? I have no idea. But Tull was always weirdly comic: remember, halfway through Passion Play, ‘the story of the Hare who lost his Spectacles?’
“Spin me back down the years, and the days of my youth. Draw the lace and black curtains, and shut out the whole truth.”
Thick as a Brick, the song and album, was about 44 minutes long. In concert last night, it took around an hour and ten minutes. I knew they were improvising, building on the album’s musical themes, but I didn’t realize for how long; I was just basking in it. Another twenty minutes of Brick was something I was fine with. Then came the intermission. And then they came out and performed Thick as a Brick 2.
The conceit for Brick was that it was written by an 8 year old boy, a young genius named Gerald Bostock, ‘the little Milton,’ as he’s described in the fake newspaper that was the Brick album cover. Brick 2 (or TAAB 2, as Anderson’s taken to calling it) imagines Bostock forty years later. What might have happened to him, where might he have gone, what might he have done? It’s a five movement cantata, imagining five possibilities: a greedy investment banker, a homeless gay man, a soldier in Afghanistan, a hypocritical televangelist, and an ordinary bloke, unmarried, who runs a shop. It’s a far more serious and contemplative work, building on musical themes from Brick, but informed by a powerful social consciousness.
Hedge funds, wraps and equities. Lackeys, aides in fierce attendance. Trusts and gilts, reserve currencies. Liquid gold in safe ascendance. Banker bets and banker wins, never missed yet, for all his sins.
It’s a sober, powerful work, musically sophisticated as always, but darker in tone. It’s a new work–the reason for the tour is to promote it–and in performance, it seemed to involve less improvisation. I only listened to the album a dozen times or so; don’t quite have it memorized yet. I will. It’s a work that will reward further listening; of that I am certain.
Fresh start, another day, another life, a quiet cafe. Starbuck euphoria. Count my blessings, crossword ready. Soon, pipe and slippers in the study by the telly. I seek forgiveness, I beg your pardons at number 9 Mulberry Gardens.
By the end of the concert, I was exhausted, with the kind of exhaustion that comes from complete investment in a great work of art. I tottered out to my car, and drove home with my best friend, Wayne, both of us basking in a great evening well-spent.
Oh, and they did “Locomotor breath” as an encore. And that was great too.