Best known as the frontman and creative core of Jethro Tull, the veteran British prog-rock outfit, Ian Anderson has more than earned his mettle. The Scottish-born flautist, guitarist and vocalist is the band’s poetic storyteller, his bombastic and animated onstage persona underscored by the challenging and intricate compositions he and his band have been churning out for almost 45 years.
Most Tull enthusiasts universally agree that the 1972 tour de force Thick as a Brick is the band’s definitive recording. Regarded as the mother of all progressive rock concept albums, it chronicles the life of fictional wunderkind boy author Gerald Bostock in a single, 44-minute title track that originally sprawled over two sides of black wax. And what a song it is. Replete with several time signature changes, complex musicianship, and a plethora of instrumentation, it’s easily one of the most ambitious and head-spinning recorded works of popular music.
Almost 40 years to the date from its original release, Anderson has issued Thick as a Brick 2, a sequel to his highly revered masterwork. Further expounding on the life of Bostock, Anderson offers a firsthand view of what his character might be up to four decades after he was first introduced to listeners. Adding to the legacy several years down the road is a bold creative move, considering the risks of tampering with a highly respected and renowned piece of art, but fan reactions and critical reviews have been more than favorable.
Much of the excitement, however, seems to stem from the world tour commemorating the release. Anderson, now 65, is treating concertgoers to a full night’s worth of Thick As a Brick, with both albums performed in their entirety – the original in the first set, the 2012 follow-up in the second, and a 20-minute intermission in between. “We didn’t play the original arrangement when we did this in 1972,” Anderson told me when we chatted by phone recently about this daunting and laborious nightly task that was, at one point, an impossible feat to pull off live. “We cut corners as we didn’t have an additional instrumentalist. There were many overdubs on the album that we couldn’t re-create onstage back then.”
With additional musicians and multimedia visuals, he said, “It seems easy now.” He and his entourage have gained more confidence and command of the gargantuan show as the tour has progressed since its April 2012 launch. Although the material is complex, don’t expect to hear a canned, paint-by-numbers reading of either album. “There’s a lot of improvisation involved. It’s not the same from night to night,” Anderson assured.
Anderson can’t be accused of “Living in the Past” (to borrow a Tull song title). Take, for instance, his feelings about the current culture of music appreciation. Rather than seeing the downloading of individual tracks from full-length albums as an injustice that dismantles the foundation from which a song was born, Anderson has a more practical view. “Classical music has been broken up into 3, 4, 5-minute segments since the advent of recorded music. It’s okay to ‘snack’ on music. It’s okay to give people choices.”
To further his stance, Anderson admitted that throughout our conversation, he’d been perusing iTunes and Amazon looking for classical pieces to download for a radio show he’s putting together; he called the task “slightly unsavory” because he has to limit what he’ll feature on his radio playlist and choose individual movements of a symphony as stand-alone pieces. “I think Bach, Beethoven and Mozart would be appalled. But then again, they’d be thrilled, amazed and joyful that people were still enjoying their work.”
Anderson and his band are scheduled to play an unprecedented seven shows throughout Florida this fall and they’ve already made plans for their off days. “The band, the crew, myself and my wife are getting a special ‘backstage’ tour of Cape Kennedy [Canaveral]!” he excitedly admitted. One of his many flutes traveled in space recently under the care of Catherine Coleman, an astronaut who recently logged 159 days in space as a crew member of Expedition 27. Coleman, a flute player herself, even joined Tull for an onstage duet via satellite while the band played in Russia in 2011.
A firm proponent of musical and cultural diversity, Anderson said he’s not a “flag-waving guy” and that ideally, he’s more interested in “breaking down boundaries while preserving differences.” He explained: “We don’t all want to be the same, do we? Homo sapiens are complex creatures.” Anderson — a former salmon farmer, current businessman and full-time musician — seems to be a pretty complex creature himself. And based on the buzz he’s gotten for this tour and for the TAAB2 release, he is definitely not too old to rock ’n’ roll.