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Jethro Tull The Rock Opera – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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

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…

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.


  1. Avatar

    I saw this show last night (Boston, November 5, 2015) and I thought it was terrible. Ian Anderson no longer has the ability to sing. I wish I had read more carefully that the other lead singers appear on film, not in person. Thrift is the only reason I can see for him not to bring them on tour. Cheap might be a better word. Mr. Opahle is a fine guitarist but he is no Martin Barre.

    The film running constantly in the background is distracting and annoying. It reminds me of bad local theater. Since the sound system was not clear, none of it made any sense anyway.

    I suggest this is Mr. Anderson’s retirement tour.

  2. Avatar

    It’s theater with an icon. Mr. Anderson is 68 years old with a wealth of exuberance. Any music enthusiast would agree that live music is always wonderful no matter the artist.

    I saw the same Boston show and thought it was clever in concept and execution.

    Well done Aqualung!

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    I must agree with Paul. I have been a huge fan of Tull and Ian Anderson since first seeing them perform in 1972. However , this show was horrible. Ian Anderson is still an amazing Musician but has lost the ability to sing. There were times during the evening when he was singing and straining to hit certain notes and nothing came out . The crowd was obviously devout Tull fans who unlike me went crazy during some of his classic hits ( especially Locomtive Breath) and instead of realizing he couldn’t sing anymore were just happy to be “Living In The Past ” seeing Ian still performing. Billed as a Rock Opera , I was hoping for more but the production quality of the video seemed cheap and amateurish. The band on stage was very tight and talented but Overall it was an extremely disappointing evening and sadly this will be THE LAST TIME I pay to see Ian Anderson perform. I am happier listening to his library of recorded music

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    I apologise for my harsh tone in my first post. I was p*ssed after the show. I left the theatre in the second set and did not regret doing so. I am in awe of Mr. Anderson’s talent and body of work. His flute playing was as impressive as ever and the band was very good too. The sound system sucked. That happens way too much these days.

    I saw Brian Wilson in the same theatre. He had a virtual army of musicians and vocalists. His performances took me to the heavens. I’m sure it cut into his profits but the performance was excellent. On top of that, Jeff Beck shared the bill! Ian should have hired those singers for the tour instead of recording them. Cheap.

    I intend to see Martin Barre’s show in Plymouth. Can he sing?

  5. Avatar

    I totally agree with Paul on all counts, and you don’t need to apologize. I was going to post a nearly identical review.
    I was at the Friday Nov 6 show at The Kings Theater in Brooklyn, NY.
    I have to add also that I was doubly offended that since Anderson obviously did the show on the cheap with the video production and having vocalists and instruments recorded as part of the soundtrack to the film playing in the background and not having those performers doing it live, that he also ended the show by telling people not to forget to stop and buy the Jethro Tull Merchandise at the display in the lobby.
    Oh, hey, thanks Ian, for reminding me to buy your Tull swag, because I almost missed the big table with 8′ high swag display that was at the mouth of the entrance inside the Kings Theater.

    I think the only reason Anderson made this “Rock Opera” about the real Jethro Tull, was because it was the only way he could put the words Jethro and Tull on the marquis, and still perform Jethro Tull tunes legally without giving more money to old band mates. I thought the whole idea of the Rock Opera might be a good one, but having some Icelandic woman sing (not live, but playing on the movie screen in the background) classic Tull songs as part of that Rock Opera ain’t it.

    The musicians, bassist, pianist, and guitarist were fantastic. However during the second half of the show, I noticed there were some instrumentals that were definitely recorded. After that I found that I could not tell if even the guitarist was live in some spots. There was definitely an acoustic guitar recording playing during some parts, and there was no acoustic guitar on stage.
    Were some of Anderson’s flute parts recorded? I don’t know.

    The venue inside is spectacular, but looking great does not make it good. The sound quality was horrendous. I understood very little of the vocals, live or otherwise. Sounded like they didn’t do a sound check.
    The ushers and security people were like gestapo because the second anyone got up to take a picture or shoot a few seconds of video, they rushed over with flashlights and made a scene. I ordered a beer, (I think they had a 5 beer selection), and I think it was $12. Holy sh…… All I know is I handed the dude a 20, and he gave me back a five and some singles. My wife got a coffee. $4. They didn’t have milk, or cream, just the powdered fake stuff. myst all crighty.

    So the show was 2 hours and when it was over, the actors and musicians took their bows on screen, and the ones who also performed live(?) came out simultaneously with the screen version. But after that, bing bang boom, it was done. Ian had to turn in. The stage went dark, and the house lights came on. Oh, you wanted an encore? See ya, wouldn’t want ta be ya.

  6. Avatar

    I saw the show (11/5 in Boston) and thought it was wonderful. I probably saw Tull 8 – 10 times back in the good old days. Ian still has it! His flute was superb. I never thought the guitarist would come close to Martin Barre, but I was pleasantly surprised; the young kid was great. When they played the old stuff, it was as good as it ever was, and better.
    Maybe I am just too old to rock and roll, too young to die.