Living in the present with Ian Anderson

Jethro Tull marks 50 years with four shows in Israel as its founder ponders its legacy.

Jethro Tull (photo credit: LATAM WINDSOR)
Jethro Tull
(photo credit: LATAM WINDSOR)
Ian Anderson isn’t crazy about living in the past, to borrow the title from Jethro Tull’s 1971 outtake and oddity collection. But he understands why fans of the quirky progressive rock band he founded in 1968 find comfort in looking back.
“I’m not really an anniversary kind of guy. Every morning I wake up is an anniversary, that’s good enough for me,” the 71-year-old Anderson chuckled as he ironically talked about Tull’s 50th anniversary tour in a phone call with The Jerusalem Post last week from his office in England.
“I don’t really need a birthday and Christmas, but other people do. They relive the memories of their youth through the music they listened to, the movies they saw and the books they read. I can’t deny them those simple pleasures.”
The evocative music of Jethro Tull certainly does conjure up time and place for music fans of a certain age, whether it be the blues-based feel of the early band, the dense hard rock of their crowning achievement Aqualung in 1971 or the complex prog/folk mix of their 1970s and 1980s concept albums. The unifying factor through some three dozen personnel changes over the decades has remained the challenging songwriting and distinctive vocals, flute and acoustic guitar of Anderson.
Despite the milestone of Tull reaching 50 years as a band, Anderson wasn’t planning to do anything special until he began looking through some old video clips and deep cuts from the band’s albums.
“I began to give it some thought, go through ideas of a set list and video that could be used, and as I got into pursuing the options, I began to get more enthusiastic. As it began to take shape, it became a more pleasurable and interesting thing to do,” he said, while adding that he doesn’t personally buy into the nostalgia aspect of performing old songs.
“When I play something from the first Jethro Tull album, I’m not thinking 1968, I’m thinking yesterday, or whenever the last time I played it. It’s hard to be nostalgic about something you played 24 hours ago.”
The disdain for simply churning out the ample supply of hits and anthems from Tull’s past has prompted Anderson to devise some new concepts to justify the band’s ongoing tours over the years, which have regularly included Israel as one of the ports of call.
He’s reinvented and repackaged the music of Tull many times – performing Thick as  a Brick in it entirety along with a newer Thick as a Brick II; unveiling Jethro Tull the rock opera; appearing as Ian Anderson and not Tull – but this is the first time he is leading Tull on a career-spanning retrospective tour. It’s been a long one, launched in May and it will wind up next March in Prague. The Tull train stops in Israel on October 25 at the Congress Hall in Haifa, October 26 and 27 at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv and October 28 at Binyanei Hauma (the ICC) in Jerusalem.
I’m trying to do it with good humor and good will. I only have a few months to go, and then I can get on with the rest of my life,” he said, adding that he delved deep into the Tull catalog to find songs that the band hasn’t performed often or that define a certain aspect of their evolution.
“There’s certainly some revisiting of some less well-known material, including two or three songs we had rarely played live before,” he said. “It’s interesting to play some of the material that so much part of the Tull catalog but hasn’t been a regular feature of our shows, not just for me, but for the other guys in the ban – some of whom weren’t even born when the songs were first recorded.”
One such tune Anderson delved into is “Love Story,” a driving rocker recorded for their debut album This Was, but which was released as the B-side to the band’s first single in 1968, before eventually appeared on the Living in the Past compilation.
“For me, that song is a reference point of things to come. It was the last song that our original guitarist Mick Abrahams played on before [longtime guitarist] Martin Barre joined the band,” said Anderson.
“A lot of folks wouldn’t know the song, but it’s very much part of the evolving Jethro Tull story. It has a fairly simple repeating riff, but it links the blues-based material of the original band and the later developments that became known as progressive rock in about 1969. That linking factor gives it a special place musically between the This Was Tull and the Tull of 1969 and beyond.”
It’s clear that Anderson takes the Tull legacy seriously, putting intense thought into set lists, and tracks listings for boxed sets, like the recently released 50 for 50 in honor of the band’s 50th anniversary. But he’s aware that when the history of rock & roll is recalled in future generations, Jethro Tull will likely warrant a passing mention, if that.
“We’ll probably be remembered accurately - as a lesser-known, rather quirky, didn’t fit into the generic profiles very well, eclectic rock band. That place we occupy is quite right and fitting,” he said.
“My songwriting has changed and continues to change, but I don’t lose sight of where I came from. I have a natural way of making musical and lyrical links to things, so the Tull repertoire isn’t entirely a disparate collection of unrelated material. There are common threads and themes that emerge, even if they’re dressed in a slightly different suit of clothes.”
“That’s what this tour is about, celebrating the music of Tull.”
For that, there’s no need to live in the past.