Ian Anderson is on a hiding to nothing. But to be fair, the long-standing (on one leg) Jethro Tull frontman has brought some of this on himself.
Choosing to release what’s a solo album in name, but positioned as the sequel to Tull classic Thick As A Brick, is a bold and brave move – especially when parallels between the two records, four decades apart, may not be immediately obvious.
The move has brought praise and opprobrium from the Tull fanbase. Some clearly love whatever Anderson does, while others complain that Thick As A Brick 2 misses the touch and dynamism brought to the original record by guitarist Martin Barre, John Evan on keyboards and drummer Barriemore Barlow. But detractors miss the point – as is strongly evidenced by Anderson touring both albums, in full, at the same time.
Part One of the set sees his touring band performing the 44-minute original album in its entirety. Perhaps revisiting this music with different musicians has reinvigorated Anderson, as this is not the performance of a man digging 40 years into his back catalogue. Neither is it a nostalgia show – TAAB manages to sound as vital and modern in these hands as it did the day it was crafted.
Central to that are keyboard player John O’Hara and guitarist Florian Opahle, who manage to impose enough of their musical identity to make this more than an exercise in mimicry. The musical performances and timing throughout are flawless – not least when violinist Anna Phoebe ‘Skypes’ a contribution in ‘from home’, where she alternates between holding the fiddle and her bouncing baby. Anderson’s flute lines are as evocative as ever.
But one senses that the time is coming when Anderson will have to completely relinquish his attempts to reach notes he scaled with ease in his youth. It would be charitable to admire him for trying, but perhaps more honest to say he falls flat on more than one occasion. Young Ryan O’Donnell has been recruited to add vocals on the notes Anderson knows he can no longer achieve; O’Donnell played the part of Jimmy the Romantic in the touring production of Quadrophenia and, fair to say, comes across much more as a stage performer/actor than a rock vocalist.
Incredibly, a handful of people are spotted leaving the venue at the interval, muttering “That’s what we came to see, not bothered about the new stuff”-type chunterings. You pays yer money, you takes yer choice, I suppose, but they should be kicking themselves rather hard.
For, in its live setting, at least, TAAB2 is a tour de force of progressive rock. There’s no wonder it’s received the seal of approval from Porcupine Tree mainman and studio-whiz-to-the-stars Steven Wilson, who mixed the album. Although ostensibly divided into 12 tracks, it flows seamlessly as an update on the life of Gerald Bostock (the supposed child protagonist of the original). Now approaching 50, Gerald is faced with the changes in personal life and society which challenge, and occasionally bewilder, us all as we grow older.
The references to the original album are there, along with passing lyrical nods to Tull favourites Locomotive Breath and A Passion Play. Acoustic guitar, the obvious flute and some of the whimsical, defiantly English lyrics bring a folk-rock feel but overall the intensity and dexterity of the band creates a sound which is deeply heavy, without being bombastic. A rare skill indeed.
Though it’s still wince-inducing on occasion to see Anderson shoot wide of the mark as he reaches for higher notes, he should be hugely proud of what he has achieved with this tour, and that the newest material stands genuine comparison with a genre classic, not to mention being totally relevant in its own right.
Derby Assembly Rooms
Review by: John Atkin
“Thick as a Brick Tour 2012” Dates
25 Ipswich Regent Theatre
27 London Hammersmith Apollo
28 Bristol Colston Hall
29 High Wycombe The Swan Theatre
30 Birmingham Symphony Hall
2 Oxford New Theatre
3 Reading Hexagon
4 Guildford G Live
5 Cardiff St. David’s Hall
6 Southampton Guildhall
18 August; Escot Park, Devon, UK Beautiful Days Festival