Odd Event Reviews... Jethro Tull in Concert
Andy Simpkins reviews the Folk-Rock oddity that is 'Jethro Tull' in concert, Manchester Apollo, March 4th 2006
Once again, just to prove that at least one member of the Staggering Stories editorial team is not a complete musical Philistine and likes music that is both interesting and diverse. Despite various dark mutterings from people who shall remain nameless, my musical lexicon does not begin with Status and end with Quo and I present another of my literary musical ramblings and personal observations from a concert I attended recently. Well, it has been a long time since I have done a concert review and it is about time I flexed my muscles as a concert reviewer again.
Every 10 years or so, the British music scene throws up a band that is both iconoclastic and has staying power, album sales-wise and in terms of longevity. In the very late 60's and very early 70's when Psychedelia and Flower Power were on the wane, something of an anomaly popped up on musics radar. Combining strong elements of Rock, Blues and Folk music from the British Isles, Jethro Tull made their appearance and quickly left an indelible stamp on the British musical scene.
Despite numerous line-up changes, throughout their 30-odd years in the business, Jethro Tull have always had the charismatic, enigmatic and slightly bonkers Ian Anderson on vocals, flute and acoustic guitar. The only other stalwart of the band is lead guitarist Martin Barre who has been with the band since its inception.
From the Blues-y albums such as 'Stand Up' and 'This Was' of the late 60's and into the '70's with their more Progressively-tinged 'A Passion Play' with its Biblical over-tones; 'Too Old To Rock n Roll, Too Young To Die' with its eulogy about a 1960's 'greaser' who has seen all his friends of his reckless youth depart and his inevitable demise on his bike as he tries to recapture those halcyon days of his youth, 'Minstrel In The Gallery'; 'Songs From The Wood' which captures their Folk roots and 'Aqualung', which I will go into in more detail later on....
The '80's (cue heavenly choir and rose-hued lenses for the 'benefit' of Tony Gallichan...) were something of a mixed bag for Jethro Tull. That hallowed decade kicked off with the unusually titled 'A', their most electronic offering featuring Yes and Asia keyboard player Eddie Jobson, with its dark tones of Cold War hysteria prominent in some of the songs. 'Beast And The Broadsword' followed closely on its heels and then came 'Under Wraps', another electronic album that harked back to 'A' with its themes of espionage and cloak and dagger.
The album that introduced me to their music was 1987's 'Crest Of A Knave' which took something of a backward glance at their career in some of the songs and the people that they encounter when touring and 'Benefit'; another of their early albums with strong Folk overtones and very idiosyncratic lyrics from Mr Anderson. The 90's and '00's have seen Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson in particular, take on more personal projects but still carrying on with the impetus of touring to refresh and continually build up their fan-base in Europe and particularly in the United States, where they have a very strong following, very surprising for a band that is quintessentially English.
In the time-old manner of killing two birds with one stone, I was up in North Yorkshire at the beginning of March, seeing an old friend of mine from my early working days who moved up to the picturesque surroundings of the Yorkshire Dales a couple of years ago to be with his girlfriend and doing some hiking over the Dales as well. By a happy coincidence, Jethro Tull were touring the UK and were playing at the Manchester Apollo on the Saturday that I was up in that area. A cold and windy Saturday evening saw me and my friend Sean making our way down to Manchester. According to the map, the Manchester Apollo did not follow the dictates of most concert venues and be in the middle of a city but was right on the outskirts of the city and on the main road heading to Stockport. Map-reading has never been my forte, especially out in the States a few years ago, when I tried to make head and/or tale of an American road map and instead of navigating towards Seattle on the Interstate Number.-whatever it was, we ended up heading towards the Canadian border... but that is another story for another time.....
Surprisingly, my map reading skills came to the fore this time and Sean and myself made our way into Manchester without too much trouble. Parking in a very muddy and snowy car park presided over by fluorescent jacketed Neanderthals, we made our hasty way to the concert venue.
The Manchester Apollo is very much similar to the Hammersmith Apollo in London as both were grandiose 1920's style cinemas that had been converted to medium-sized concert venues holding approximately 2000-3000 people at a pinch.
By way of mentioning, this tour was billed as The Aqualung Tour. For those who are only familiar in passing with the music of Jethro Tull, 'Aqualung' is to Jethro Tull as 'Dark Side Of The Moon' is to Pink Floyd; one of those seminal albums that are pivotal in a bands history and also serves as an indelible stamp on the music that a particular generation might listen to. 'Aqualung', despite vehement protestations from Ian Anderson saying it is not a concept album, deals with the twin subjects of society's outcasts and the hypocrisy of organised religion and how the 'concept' of God has been corrupted... As a result, this tour was organised as a showcase for the album as opposed to a general sing along of all their favourite songs garnered from their comprehensive back catalogue of album releases.
I must add that when my friends and were myself were having a wander around Skipton where they live, we came across a Big Issue seller and duly bought a copy of the latest issue. As Big Issue
champions the cause of the homeless, it carried an article about the Jethro Tull concert dates in the North of England and how the plight of the homeless is one that is close to Ian Anderson's heart.. In the aforementioned article, he stated that proceeds from the concerts played in the North of England would go to the northern branch of the Big Issue magazine.
True to form in other concert reviews, we managed to turn up and grab our seats as the band were finishing their first song of the evening:'Living In The Past' swiftly followed by 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day'. In the past, the dress code for band members of Jethro Tull have included Ian Anderson dressed in a variety of garbs including a riding jacket, tight-fitting breeches and a cod-piece. On other occasions, he has been seen coming out onto the stage wearing tattered rags of clothing, perhaps emulating the tramp Aqualung and his shabby clothes. However, tonight, Ian was dressed somewhat conservatively in black shirt, waistcoat and trousers with a dark bandanna on his head. By way of mention, Ian has always been rather comically blunt in his manner of speech whilst up on stage. One notable instance is on the 'Bursting Out' live recording. Upon introducing a song called 'Hunting Girl', he describes their keyboard player; John Evan as '...a kinky bugger who likes to be thrashed across the buttocks with a riding crop...' and saying in a very loud stage-whisper:'Oh, he's just come back from the toilet. Did you give it a good shake?' Ian's sometimes florid language was demonstrated this night when upon completing a rather complex flute-playing solo, he mock-stumbled across the stage and muttered rather loudly into the microphone; '...Oh sod this!..' which was a cue for the stage lights to be dimmed as way of finishing the song.
In keeping with my earlier concert reviews, I will not list the songs performed in any particular order but will convey what I remember about the performance and any outstanding moments that I witnessed.
Apart from the nucleus of Ian Anderson on vocals, acoustic guitar and flute and his companion of many years on lead guitar; Martin Barre, the rest of the current line-up of the band consisted of Jonathan Noyce on bass guitar, Andrew Giddings on keyboards and another Tull stalwart; Douane Perry on drums and percussion. Duoane was notable in the fact that he had two sets of percussion to play. To the front of the stage was a rudimentary set of drums and other percussive instruments. Some of the songs performed that evening did not require the services of a full-blown drum kit, and so for a lot of the performance, Duoane was seated at this kit providing accompaniment for the songs. However, at the back of the stage on top of a higher than usual drum riser, was his drum kit proper, which he used to full effect when he showcased his drumming skills through a full-blooded drum solo in the second half of the show.
The trio of songs that deal with those who exist on the fringes of society are 'Aqualung' which deals with the eponymously named vagrant and paedophile “eyeing little girls with bad intent” with a chronic respiratory problem, 'Crossed-Eyed Mary' is the second of these songs about a teenage prostitute and followed up with 'Mother Goose'.' My God' is a concerted attack on religious duplicity and how the notion of God has been warped by those who are supposed to serve Him.
'Cheap Day Return' is a deviation from what had preceded it as it was very much a stand-alone song on the album. Ian stepped up to the microphone to explain what the song was about. Apparently it was written on Preston railway station when Ian was waiting for a train in order to visit his father who was ill in hospital at that time. Another song which stands out from the rest of the themes of the album is 'Wond'rin Aloud' which some people say has decidedly romantic overtones...
One of the most notable features of the evening was the inclusion was a young American lady violinist called Lucia Micarelli. A graduate of one of New York's most notable schools of music, she had ample chances to show off her skills with a violin. By way of introduction, Ian was talking up on stage between songs about one of his friends out in the USA and how he discovered this young lady who had a talent for playing the violin. The aforementioned young woman was ushered out onto the stage. Upon introducing her to the audience and telling them a little about her history, Ian jokingly said that he had phoned up her tutor back in New York and that he was going to listen to her ensuing performance via Ian's mobile phone. After a short pause, the house and stage lights dimmed to a more ambient and intimate tone and she began to play.... Let us just say that the evenings events took on a more profoundly classical turn and for a very good reason. By the way she played the violin, it was abundantly obvious that she took her playing very seriously, either playing to an auditorium whose seating is full of classical music aficionados or, in this instance, an audience of predominantly middle aged Progressive Rock fans. This was the first time that I have ever heard Sibelius' Violin Concerto played live and I made a mental note to go out and buy the CD. To say she poured her heart and soul into it would be an understatement of the first order. When she finally finished her inaugural performance of the evening, the audience could only sit there for a few moments in a stunned silence before giving her a very hearty round of applause. She accepted the applause as was her due and after some mild verbal sparring with Ian, it was time for the next song to be played... This was not the first foray into classical music as one of the songs on their earlier offering 'Stand Up' was a composition of J.S.Bachs called 'Bourée'
As is his wont for immersing himself in exterior projects to Jethro Tull, Ian explained to the audience that he was invited to perform a set piece out in Vienna for the 250th Anniversary celebrations of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth. By way of honouring the aforementioned composers memory and the titanic legacy he left us all with, a stirring and humorous pastiche played in various tempo's and styles of Mozart's work was played by way of tribute that was cunningly called 'Mo'z Art'. Unfortunately, I could hear a few mutterings from a few of the audience members of discontent that suggested that the band were diverting a little from what they were supposed to be playing, namely a trip down memory lane and a comprehensive run-down of their greatest hits but they were soon hushed up by what was to come in the second half. Before the lights came up to usher in the interval, Ian exhorted us all to go to the bar and drink as much beer as we all could in twenty minutes. Ian is a very intelligent and articulate person but some of the words he used during the performance were slightly post 9pm watershed.
Shuffling out of my seat, I set off in order to find the bar. However, the one source of liquid libation was upstairs in the circle area and after fighting my way through the hordes of people coming downstairs in order to get back to their seats, I made it to the bar area and was just about to place my order for a couple of pints when a small wall masquerading as one of the security staff came in, spread his arms in front of us in order to block access to the bar, and managing to touch both walls with his outstretched arms at the same time, informed us in booming Mancunian tones that the bar was closing and no further orders would be taken. Cursing under my breath, I made my way out of the bar area as I did not want to get rent limb from limb by one of the Morlockian bouncers or at least get choked by the smell of raw meat on their breath, I made my way back downstairs and had to placate my friend Sean's and my thirst with a humble Coca-Cola each.
All too soon, the house lights dimmed and The Tull wandered out onto the stage again. Ian and Lucia began the second half with a little light-hearted sparring between flute and violin. Just to show that the evening was still full of surprises, the flute and violin duet suddenly metamorphosed into a full blooded rendition of Led Zeppelins 'Kashmir' off the album 'Physical Graffiti' with Ian and Lucia's playing filling in and substituting for Jimmy Page's guitar playing and Douane Perry evoking the spirit of John 'Bonzo' Bonham's booming, echoing drumming. The band played their metaphorical socks off and when the song finished, it drew a mighty round of applause from the audience, partly due to the fact that Led Zeppelin are still held in awe, a quarter of a century after their demise, and the fact that Jethro Tull had played a belter of a cover version.
The tempo slowed down slightly as Andrew Giddings took his turn in the spotlight and played a suitably haunting keyboard solo. Halfway through, the bassist; Jonathan Noyce dropped in and provided bass accompaniment, complimenting each other, the high-pitched piano notes and washing over of the synth chords in contrast to the warm bass being played. Throughout the course of the evening, the other members of the band al had opportunities to display their skills. Martin Barre showcased his guitar and mandolin-playing skills as he played some songs off of his latest solo album and Duoane Perry took his place behind the drum kit proper at the back of the stage. To say his playing is loud would be an understatement and no wonder his drum kit had a clear perspex screen in front of it.
The album 'Aqualung' and the songs on it got another airing and then a song I was hoping would be played at tonight's concert was performed. 'Budapest' off the album 'Crest Of a Knave' is very much a case of what goes on when the band tour Eastern Europe where they have a substantial following and the highs and lows that accompany touring and being away from friends and family and how quickly ones affections can be hung on someone else, in the case of this song; a young woman who helped out backstage.
All too soon the show started to draw to a close and the band wound up the nights proceedings with a final offering off of 'Aqualung' in the shape of 'Locomotive Breath'. I have often wondered what the lyrics of this song mean and one interpretation is how puny man is compared to the might of a steam powered locomotive. Anyone got any other ideas about what the lyrics might mean, feel free to email me at my address on this site.
Well, the show was coming to a thundering conclusion and during the last few moments of 'Locomotive Breath', one of the bands roadies appeared at the side of the stage holding above his head a very large white balloon, about 5 feet in diameter with the silhouette of an Ian Anderson in one of his previous incarnations of a long haired vagabond dressed in elegant rags, standing on one leg and playing a flute. This rather 'Rover'-esque object was then thrown into the audience for the assembled throng to bat about like an oversized balloon at a birthday or Christmas party. A few moments later, another was held up with a flourish and was duly cast out into the audience until they had both met an explosive demise at the audiences none-too gentle ministrations.
The show drew to a close and the band took to the front of the stage to take their bows and to receive the adulation of the audience to the background music of a Tull-composed triumphal march.
Candidly speaking, the show had not been what I was expecting. I must firmly point out that I enjoyed the show immensely and there were quite a few classical diversions from the norm and unexpected surprises to keep the audience on their toes. The tour had been advertised as the 'Aqualung' Tour and the album was showcased admirably but there a lot of surprises in the show to keep even the most jaded Tull fan amused.
All too soon, it was back out into a snowy Mancunian car park next to the Manchester Apollo in order to make our way out of the city centre and the hours journey back to my friends abode at the foot of the Yorkshire Dales. Harking back to my navigating and map-reading around the North-West corner of the USA mentioned earlier in this review, Manchester seemed an absolute doddle in comparison as long as I kept reminding myself of the map readers mantra:'Head in the general direction of Manchester Victoria station and you'll be alright....' All through the journey back to Skipton, my friend Sean had 'Aqualung' playing on the car stereo. All very nice but it just goes to show how a live performance, no matter who the artist or band is, can only add and embellish upon an artists previous works.