Back to the future

Ian Anderson rediscovers Jethro Tull.

Ian Anderson (photo credit: PR)
Ian Anderson
(photo credit: PR)
"I thought it would be nice, after all these years of being guilty of identity theft, to finally pay homage to the life and times of Jethro Tull,” says an erudite Ian Anderson, explaining from his rehearsal studio/office near his home in Wilshire, England, why he had decided to base his latest stage production and tour on the 18th-century agriculturist whose name he pilfered in 1968 for his fledgling progressive rock band.
As if casual music fans aren’t already confused enough (is Jethro Tull the name of a band, the name of the singer, and just who the heck is Ian Anderson, anyway?), the 68-year old songwriting flautist is adding a new card to the deck with Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera, an ambitious endeavor that will be coming to Israel later this month for three performances.
But after ignoring the band’s historical namesake for the last five decades, Anderson was prompted to give due credit after reading about the British agricultural innovator last summer.
“Jethro Tull was an important part of the agricultural revolution during the 17th and 18th centuries. We know a lot about his work due to much being written about his ‘new horse-hoeing husbandry,’ but in terms of what we know about the man, it’s all contained in a few paragraphs,” says Anderson.
“I had deliberately avoided reading about him before because I didn’t really want to know about him. I had always felt embarrassed not having known anything about Jethro Tull when our agent suggested the name in 1968. I only started reading about him in the summer of 2014 as I was driving through Italy, and within five minutes it was almost like a done deal that there would be a show about him,” he explains.
For Anderson, who possesses an intellectual curiosity and worldliness far beyond the insulated rock star stereotype, putting a show together about a rather staid historical figure was never going to be a linear project. Instead, he reimagined Tull with a narrative based in the near future that touches on topical issues that include climate change, intensive food production and population growth.
“Rather than tell the story in some sort of historical pastiche, I thought it would be more fun to use many elements of his life and talk about today and tomorrow by repositioning Mr. Tull as a biochemist working in the field of genetic modification and doing research in crop production and animal cloning,” says Anderson.
“These are the things that essentially without which – despite the fact that they scare the hell out of most people – we are not going to come close to feeding the 11 billion to 13 billion people that the UN population forecast envisions will be on planet Earth by the end of the century,” he says.
Incorporating existential issues and global challenges into rock-based musical and theatrical entertainment is second nature to Anderson, he explains.
“It’s the language that I speak and the world I live in. The expression of that in song lyrics is not difficult for me at all. The difficulty is keeping it brief, simple and not too in-yourface,” he says.
If that premise sounds like a university lecture or a TedX talk, then rest assured that Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera contains what fans have come to expect from Anderson on his numerous stops in Israel in recent years, both with Tull and with his own band that showed up in 2012 for a riveting performance of his classic Thick As a Brick album, replete with multimedia screens, theatrical flourish and a brand new Thick As a Brick 2.
The rock opera, featuring essentially the same players, will have all of that and more, while including some new material written especially for the show. It mainly features Tull favorites such as “Heavy Horses,” “Songs from the Wood,” “Aqualung,” “Living in the Past,” “Wind-Up” and “Locomotive Breath.”
“My role, fundamentally, is to amuse the toe-tappers. Most people come to a concert because it’s a release, an escape from daily life,” says Anderson. “They don’t want to come and be lectured or confronted with big issues, even if it is done a little tongue-in-cheek and smiley face to make it more invitational.
You still can’t really expect anyone to cope with that, so you have to make, first of all, entertainment.
It’s got to sound good and look good. The message is contained in the layers of the onion if you want it – you can peel it back or just swallow it whole.”
As the main figurehead of Jethro Tull, Anderson was aware that most fans would be intent on hearing the hits, which is why he built the story around Tull staples, but only if they worked in the context of the narrative. The new material was composed to primarily bridge the gaps in the story line, without getting too verbose.
“In order to tell the story in a contemporary way, I had to write five, mercifully short songs, which give more relevance to the idea of the Tull story being reimagined in the present day and the near future,” he says. “I used the operatic device of recitatives – half-spoken, half-sung linking passages – which explain how you get from one place to another,” he says.
“My virtual guests – of which there are three or four who appear on the big screen behind me – interject with some lines of the lyrics, which they sing in character. And, of course, I also appear on the big screen sometimes, as a narrator and in the context of giving that little bit of fill-in information,” he elaborates.
With all that potential distraction on stage, the focus on the music could get lost, if not for the fact that Anderson and his merry pranksters John O’Hara (orchestral conductor, piano, keyboards and accordion), David Goodier (bass guitar and double bass), Florian Opahle (guitar), Scott Hammond (drums) and Ryan O’Donnell (vocals and something called “stage antics”) provide muscle and nuance to the old war horse “I’ve been with this same band for 11 or 12 years now, among the longest serving musicians I’ve worked with, “ says Anderson.
“It’s rather a team effort that happily goes on. Our regular bass player David Goodes had to take a leave of absence last year, and it was quite traumatic when you suddenly have to work with a strange face and 10 strange fingers playing ostensibly perhaps the same lines of music but with their own little idiosyncratic way of interpreting the music. In a way, that kind of change might have been invigorating sometime during the last 48 years, but you get to a point where you’d rather stick with the same people now that we’re on the home stretch.
There’s not that much longer to go on this ride,” he says.
Those who have enjoyed Anderson on his previous forays to Israel know that the ticket for that ride is well worth taking.
‘Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera’ will be presented on February 24 and 25 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center; and February 26 at the Congress Center in Haifa.