Echoes of Old Applause — An Evening of Jethro Tull with Ian Anderson

When Ian Anderson announced this tour toward the end of last year, I knew I absolutely HAD to go see him. After all, Jethro Tull is one of my absolute favorite bands of all time, and their blend of prog and folk-rock is unlike anything else. Several Tull albums find themselves in my daily rotation (namely Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and Songs from the Wood) and while this wouldn’t be a proper Tull tour, it’s still Ian Anderson, the band’s central songwriter, vocalist, flutist, and acoustic guitarist. Fortunately, that signature musicianship has survived the impressive 50-year tenure of Jethro Tull, and Anderson has assembled a talented and extremely capable group of musicians to back his endeavors. Unfortunately, while Anderson’s flute and acoustic guitar work remain unparalleled, his vocals are disappointingly … less so.

Similar to Rush’s 40th anniversary tour, Anderson’s setlist proved to be somewhat chronological, though it was peppered with some baffling choices and omissions that one wouldn’t expect to be hearing (or not be hearing) at what could be one of Tull’s last hurrahs. For starters, Anderson spent quite a while in the pre-Aqualung era of Tull tunes, which I don’t think it’s unfair to say are among their least known. Tull’s most popular and hit-making period is firmly between 1971 and 1978, from “Aqualung” to “Heavy Horses”, so to hear quite so many tunes from their first three albums was a surprise. There were a  whopping four tunes from their debut album “This Was” and a few tracks like Living in the Past and Witch’s Promise, which were only released on compilation albums.

That isn’t to say the songs weren’t performed admirably. They were — for the most part. Love StoryA Song for Jeffrey (which was preceded by a delightful video greeting from former keyboardist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond), and Dharma for One (which featured a sublime drum solo) were all excellent, though tracks like My Sunday Feeling and Someday the Sun Won’t Shine for You definitely suffered due to Anderson’s vocals.

Anderson simply seems lost in his own words when he steps up to the mic. He can’t hit the pitches anymore, his voice has become grating and nasally, and — most damning — he doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with the rhythm of the tunes anymore. His flute and acoustic work remain superb, with nary a wrong note or missed solo, and on top of that he’s still able to dance around the stage with his bandmates and strike his classic poses. Unfortunately, the facade of youthful vibrancy falls apart when he takes the mic.

This became painfully obvious with the song they closed the first half of the show with — Cross-Eyed Mary, a staple from 1971’s “Aqualung”. Anderson’s inability to maintain the rhythm of the songs, prior to this, could’ve been played off as a stylistic choice, a way to differentiate the rhythms of classic songs, but here it became clear he simply couldn’t sing quickly enough to maintain the meter of the song, and the performance (which was otherwise outstanding), suffered for it.

The second half of the show opened with an excerpt from my favorite Tull album, “Thick as a Brick”. While I knew he wouldn’t bring out all 45 minutes of the title track, I was hoping for at least some of my favorite parts — “Really Don’t Mind” in particular — or maybe the truncated version from “Bursting Out”, but he elected to play the back half of that version of the song, resulting in … a pretty strange tune, to be honest. It almost didn’t work, and he was clearly struggling with the lyrics yet again. Though, yet again, his flute and guitar were exceptional, as were the instrumentalists behind him (with special mention to his bassist, David Goodier, and drummer Scott Hammond).

Then he moved onto “A Passion Play,” with a solid performance of an excerpt of the title track, which was decent enough. That said, “A Passion Play” is definitely one of Tull’s weakest efforts. After this came Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!, which was one of the few tracks Anderson still handled relatively well, vocally, although the somewhat bitter irony of that track was probably not lost on anyone in the audience. He followed this with two tracks from “Songs from the Wood,” the title track and Ring out Solstice Bells, both of which were also very good, as he had some help from Goodier on backup vocals, and then Heavy Horses, which was exceptional. He then jumped to 1987’s “Crest of a Knave” with Farm on the Freeway, which was good enough, though that’s (in my view) a fairly weak track in comparison.

He ended the show with a rollicking performance of Aqualung, which was superb, and encored with Locomotive Breath, which featured some truly exceptional work from all of his instrumentalists and a killer flute solo. The show was peppered with congratulatory videos from past band mates or fans from elsewhere in the industry, and with background visuals that showcased the various stages of the band’s lineup (and Anderson’s hair), it felt like a heartfelt sendoff of to some music that was clearly close to the audience’s heart — and Anderson’s himself.

The performances of his band were outstanding, with each getting a moment to shine, and Anderson’s flute work didn’t disappoint, with some truly incredible solos played flawlessly like they were simple. That said, the performance suffered due to Anderson’s vocals and the somewhat confusing setlist. While he went through some of Tull’s greatest hits, he seemed almost reticent to pick up his acoustic guitar, only really going to it for a handful of songs. Those which he did — My GodLocomotive Breath, and Aqualung in particular — were among the best performances of the show, but he seemed to leave out some potentially crowd-pleasing tracks to avoid picking it up. It would’ve been great to hear the intro to Thick as a Brick, or Skating Away, the latter of which I consider to be the pinnacle of Anderson’s acoustic work, but ultimately he seemed more comfortable on the flute, and nobody there had a problem with him sticking to it.

Overall, gripes aside, it was a great show that provided a walk through the history of Jethro Tull, and really felt like Ian Anderson simply celebrating some of his greatest work. And regardless of the fact that he really can’t sing them anymore, it’s amazing enough that he could perform as exceptionally as he did, and after giving us 50 years of fantastic music, I think he’s earned the right to have us indulge him.

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