Flute-playing prog-rocker Ian Anderson headlined Bluesfest with a set of classic songs by Jethro Tull.
The Friday night show, billed as “Ian Anderson Presents: JETHRO TULL 50th Anniversary Tour,” showcased the pioneering band’s distinctive combination of progressive rock, hard rock, folk, and blues.
Like a good curator, Anderson assembled over a dozen tracks, iconic and obscure, for a high-tech retrospective of Tull’s extensive catalogue. “We’re here to celebrate fifty years of Jethro Tull,” announced the band’s long-time lead singer, head songwriter, and flautist. “And almost seventy-one years of Ian Anderson, but let’s not talk about that.”
The band opened with a handful of blues tracks from 1968 debut This Was, kicking off with “My Sunday Feeling.” They then paid tribute to the band’s original line-up with “A Song for Jeffrey” (with a video introduction from the song’s namesake Jeffrey Hammond, the quirky bassist who quit to become a painter in the mid-seventies), drum showcase “Dharma for One,” and country-tinged “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine For You.”
Anderson and his harmonica shared centre stage with guitarist Florian Opahle for the latter track; he reminisced about bonding over “country blues” with original Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams, who also contributed a video intro.
Anderson showed off his trademark wit introducing “Dharma,” reflecting on the showmanship of original percussionist Clive Bunker, who he claims favoured drum solos that would go on “for hours – for days!” After dedicating the track to the “memory of dear old Clive,” Anderson gave the crowd a chance to sigh wistfully before declaring, “Well, he’s not dead yet! He was feeling quite well the last time I talked to him!”
With neat video clips and vintage tracks, this opening section felt somewhat like a tour of a Jethro Tull museum. Other early tunes included “A New Day Yesterday” and Tull’s jazzy arrangement of the Johann Sebastian Bach piece “Bouree” (introduced by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, who played with Tull on the Rolling Stones’s Rock and Roll Circus concert film).
They then entered more familiar territory with a pair of tracks from Aqualung: “My God” (a critique of religious hypocrisy which prompted protests in the United States, Anderson recalled) and the hard-edged “Cross-Eyed Mary” (announced with a clip of Hammond screeching, “MAAAARY!”).
Let’s address the steel monkey in the room: Ian Anderson’s voice isn’t what it was. (He knows it too, hence the video guest vocalists who sang a few verses of “Aqualung” and “Heavy Horses” towards the end). But Anderson soldiered on and was far from unlistenable; moreover, even though he struggled to hold some of his notes, he still possesses that distinctive vocal timbre which makes Tull songs instantly recognizable. The man’s taken his lyric “You’re never too old to rock and roll” to heart, and more power to him for that.
Anderson’s still an engaging, lively frontman, prancing across the stage and raising his flute like a weapon. Ian Anderson is probably the world’s only hard rock flautist, and he plays it with a natural virtuosity that pushes the instrument to its limits. The flute is much more than a gimmick for Jethro Tull – it’s an integral part of the songs, taking over melodies in the way that a lead guitar would in a conventional band.
Not to say there weren’t some awesome guitar moments as well. In fact, Anderson’s whole backing band was incredible, allowing his brilliant arrangements to shine on Tull hits “Too Old to Rock and Roll,” “Thick as a Brick,” and “Songs from the Wood,” set to clips from music videos and colourful graphics of the original album artwork.
When they found their niche as a prog band, Jethro Tull broke ground using pastoral imagery and folk-inspired arrangements to critique industrialization, corrupt institutions, and the sometimes destructive forces of progress. Despite their unconventional subject matter, “Heavy Horses” (an ode to the equine labourers made obsolete by modern farming technology) and its spiritual sequel “Farm on the Freeway” feel potent and topical even today.
The band closed with a thundering version of “Aqualung,” their classic character study of a street person who could be a lecherous pervert or a harmless old man, depending on how you look at him – signified by guitar lines that alternate between hard rock riffage and gentle acoustic strumming.
As they went into the encore, the spotlight landed on keyboardist John O’Hara, playing a mournful piano soliloquy that shifted into a propulsive, hard-rock version of “Locomotive Breath.” Another Aqualung-era favourite, this song was one of the strongest of the night, Anderson’s ragged vocals dramatizing the desperate lyrics, the breathy flute, crashing drums, and crunching guitars mimicking the propulsive force of the out-of-control train (rendered visually on the video screens and by the flashing lights around the stage).
Despite a few moments of wistfulness, their Bluesfest set was much more a nostalgia trip for the band and their hardcore fans. Highlighting their blend of technical virtuosity, lyrical wit, and powerful social commentary, Jethro Tull proved why they were such an important band to begin with.
Line-up: Ian Anderson Presents: JETHRO TULL 50th Anniversary Tour
Venue: Ottawa Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats
Date: July 6/2018