Music, Lyrics and Book: Ian Anderson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Say the name ‘Jethro Tull’ to people and you are likely to elicit one of three responses depending on their age and interests – a blank look; if of a historical bent: ‘Oh, yes, the famous 18th Century agriculturist and inventor of the seed drill’; or, if someone of a certain age, ‘Oh yes, the famous progressive rock/folk fusion band led by Ian Anderson’. The central conceit of this evening is that Ian Anderson and other musicians tell the story of Jethro Tull (the man) using songs from the extensive repertoire of Jethro Tull (the band, now, according to Anderson, officially disbanded).
Anderson tells how it was only relatively recently that he began looking into the life of the man and that he recognised that songs from his back catalogue could represent events and moods during Tull’s life. So the seed of the idea for Jethro Tull The Rock Opera germinated, was tended and grew.
Tull was an agricultural pioneer. His design of the seed drill improved productivity and he continued to invent ways of improving yields throughout his life. Anderson has taken the outline of Tull’s life and replanted it in the near future; in this vision, Tull becomes a leading government scientist and wealthy businessman in the field of genetically modified crops before becoming disillusioned and returning to a more organic lifestyle.
The song choices Anderson has made do indeed suit the story with little modification. And he has wisely ensured that some real crowd-pleasers are included – Heavy Horses, Aqualung, Songs from the Wood, Living in the Past, The Witch’s Promise and Locomotive Breath all feature. The story is largely told through video projection with characters from the story – Jethro Tull, his father, wife and son chief among them – appearing and singing with the onstage band. This is very effective and allows Anderson and the musicians to do what they do best – rock Symphony Hall to its foundations – while maintaining the narrative. On screen, Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir sings as Tull’s wife. She is expressive and has a beautifully clear and pure voice that cuts through the rumble of drums and guitars. She’s a mean violinist, too. Ryan O’Donnell, currently starring as Ray Davies in The Kinks’ musical, Sunny Afternoon, cuts a suitable figure as the young Tull trying to make a name and also the mildly disillusioned son. He sounds disconcertingly similar to the young Anderson as well. The whole is technically perfect with the onstage band and the video footage synchronising perfectly. A nice touch is the use of archive Jethro Tull footage showing a young Ian Anderson in full flow on the flute alongside today’s model live onstage.
And it is Anderson to whom all eyes are drawn. He has great charisma and is a looming stage presence, stalking the stage like a caged animal casting notes from his flute far and wide, occasionally rising to stand on one leg in his signature silhouette. Even singing at the microphone, one feels there is great energy barely held in check as he is never quite still. A consummate showman with a unique voice and flute style.
The other musicians are first rate: Scott Hammond’s drums provide an insistent, almost industrial driving force contrasting with the delicacy of some of Anderson’s flute work. Often understated keyboards from John O’Hara add to the tonal mix. However, the lead guitar of Florian Opahle really strikes the ear. Technically superb, he makes notes soar over the heads of the audience. All are equally at home rocking it and also with the pastoral more introspective pieces.
As an evening celebrating the music of Jethro Tull, a greatest hits evening, the performance works. The use of some other singers is refreshing and gives familiar songs a new sound and life. However, the narrative of the story of Jethro Tull (the man) is less well developed – one really needs to read the synopsis in the programme to see the narrative arc. However, this aspect of the evening is perhaps the least important to fans of Jethro Tull (the band). Wearing T-shirts celebrating all eras in the band’s long life from 1967 to 2014, they, and this reviewer, are happy to hear iconic songs performed with gusto by the man who originally wrote them. And in this regard, one cannot fault the evening.
Reviewed on 11 September 2015 and on tour