A well-tempered exercise in nostalgia

Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Jefferson Starship revel in senior citizen rock ‘n’ roll.

Ian Anderson (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ian Anderson
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Aging rock stars are often fodder for derision and snarky jokes. During the monologue of his popular US TV talk show last week, Jimmy Fallon focused on Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant’s turning 64. “That explains his new song, ‘Escalator to Heaven,’” he snickered.
At the same time, Bruce Springsteen, only two years Plant’s junior, is proving all night on his current world tour and marathon shows that age is a factor only if you let it be one.
The notion that rock ‘n’ roll is a young person’s game has gradually been replaced by the view adopted by other musical forms. The great blues and folk masters – from the late Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker to the still picking BB King and Pete Seeger – continued to create music well past their conventional retirement age and were lauded for it. It’s a double standard noted by Keith Richards, who was quoted as saying that his fellow sexagenarians in The Rolling Stones were part of an experiment to see if a rock band could continue playing into their old age like the blues masters that came before them.
Local audiences will get to see two such experiments in action next week when Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and the Jefferson Starship, featuring original members Paul Kantner and David Freiberg, arrive for performances (Anderson on September 6 at the Train Station in Jerusalem; September 7 at the Congress Center in Haifa; and September 8 at the Ra’anana Amphitheater. The Starship for one show on September 4 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv.) While both acts have continued to perform and record since their 1960s and 1970s heydays, it’s a little easier to call the Starship’s show an exercise in nostalgia. Formed out of the splintered remnants of The Jefferson Airplane, one of the foundations of the San Francisco sound in the late 1960s, the Starship were the baby of Kantner and Grace Slick, his singing and life partner from the Airplane.
Joined by Freiberg, who had just left his seminal 1960s band Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Starship was originally based in the utopian hippie vision of a peaceful revolution as exemplified by the Slick/Kantner album Blows against the Empire.
But as the 1970s progressed, the songs and topics became more commercial and the band, with Airplane member Marty Balin temporarily back in the fold, became one of the mid-1970s most successful bands.
“Everybody would have liked to have started a new society, if we had known how to do it, but we were all too busy playing in bands,” said the 74-year-old Freiberg in a phone interview from his home in Marin County, California. “We would all record in the same San Francisco studio, which had three separate rooms, so there’d be us in one, [David] Crosby and [Graham Nash] in another, and the [Grateful] Dead in the third. We would all get together and jam and toyed with the idea of putting out an album called “The Planet Earth Rock ‘n’ Roll Orchestra.” Nothing ever came of it because we never finished any of the songs… or even really started them,” he laughed.
By the 1980s, the original members of the Starship bailed out one by one, leaving Slick and a cast of polished studio musicians to tarnish their good name with a series of Top 40 hits like “We Built This City.” That’s why when Kantner and Freiberg brought the Starship out of mothballs a few years ago, they focused only on the band’s early years, as well as the heralded oeuvre of the Airplane.
With vocalist Kathy Anderson replacing the retired Slick with powerful female vocals, the band conjures up the Summer of Love era and the subsequent after tremors with grace and surprising vigor.
The same adjectives could describe the 65-year-old Anderson, who has played numerous times in recent years in Israel, leading his British classic rock band Jethro Tull.
Still perched on one leg, blowing into his flute and leaping across the stage, Anderson hasn’t lost many steps as a consummate showman and entertainer. His shows next week are not Tull performances per se but Anderson leading his band through the entire 1972 concept album Thick As a Brick and its 2011 sequel. He explained in a phone interview from his home in England that the billing was designed to cut down on Tull fans expectation that they would be hearing the band’s heavy rock hits like “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath.” One concession to age is his desire to have the music be heard and respected in the same manner that classical and jazz performances are.
“If you’re doing a show which is more of a theatrical musical event, you want people to enjoy it. And it ruins it terribly for the audience if some drunken idiot thinks that’s the moment to shout out ‘Aqualung,’” said Anderson. “It’s bad mannered, and anybody who thinks that what I do is rock music and therefore I should accept that this is the way people want to express themselves can **** off. Because it is bad mannered; it’s not what I’m there for, and it’s not the time and place to be acting out.”
As rock ‘n’ roll enters its senior citizenship, there’s evidently some new decorum that needs to be followed on the way up the “escalator to heaven.”