Andrew and I attended a rock concert on Thursday night, where a flute and string recital broke out.
Jethro Tull has existed for nearly forty years. They started as a blues band and migrated through heavy rock, pop, extended soft-rock operas, and Celtic-influenced folk music. Ian Anderson, the leader of the group, is a rakish fellow from Scotland with a devil complex. His signature instrument is the flute, which he plays while hopping around the stage or standing on one leg, the other doing its own little back-and-forth exercise like a flamingo.
The first number in the concert was Anderson and his guitarist, Martin Barre, doing a short blues song in a single centered spotlight. Anderson played a harmonica between phrases, Barre throwing in the typical blues riffs in response. That was the end of the R&B portion of the night.
In fact, the rock groupies in the crowd were likely disappointed by the whole evening. Jethro Tull’s signature album was 1970’s Aqualung, a loud dark collection of true heavy rock. Because classic rock radio has kept that flag flying for four decades by playing songs such as the title track, Cross-Eyed Mary, and Locomotive Breath, all but diehard fans associate Jethro Tull with these guitar-driven rock songs.
But that is not what Ian Anderson creates today, nor where the group even shines. Some of the change is due to musical maturation. Some is simple age and health – Anderson’s voice no longer has the strength or range to holler all those lyrics over the decibels of big guitars and drums. The weakest number all night was Thick as a Brick, a long piece whose thin construction was exposed ; Anderson is no longer capable of holding a note past a couple of beats, and he had to take a break while the band did an instrumental.
And so, the flute takes the lead. A string quartet consisting of four young women from Boston joined the group on stage for about half their numbers. Their first foray was with a medley of songs from War Child and Songs From the Wood. Anderson would throw in a flute line, and then run off stage, only to return a few bars later to toss another flute solo over the warm strings. This was all done over strong understated percussion played by the drummer on bongos and the bass player on hand tympani.
Anderson joked between every song, usually telling some cute story about the next number. He introduced Aqualung by saying that the next song would feature a way to insert his flute into the classic “Stairway to ….[pause] Aqualung.” The strings started the number, and Anderson played the opening vocal parts on his flute. The song had a totally different life, one with shifting tempos and patterns; only once did Martin Barre step to stage front fringe and rip off the signature riff at full volume.
And so the night went: familiar tunes were toned to a different level, as the group clearly demonstrated its Celtic roots over any other influence. And it worked. The flute has center stage, and Anderson takes the lead. He creates his own language with the instrument by grunting, groaning, or talking through it while still producing raucous or lilting runs. He rarely stands still.
They ended the show with Nothing is Easy, and they made it sound easy. It could have been lifted right off their greatest hits collection. The crowd stood, cigarette lighters mixed with cell phone screens in the dark theater. The encore started with one spotlight on the keyboard player, and the rest of the band kicked into Locomotive Breath.
They ripped and tore right through that one. Rock lived.