Oh no! We can almost hear you grumble as you slurp your macchiato this morning. Another jukebox musical…
Yes, it is true — here’s another ‘National Treasure’ — this time a “Prog Rock God” — contorting some old songs to try and make them fit into a new show. It’s like squeezing square-shaped musical objects through round-shaped holes… The results are almost always going to be grotesque.
But at least the good thing about this jukebox musical (because that’s what it is — more about its status as a ‘Rock Opera’ later) — is that it is a reasonable concept.
Ian Anderson, the singer / flutist / guitarist and front-man of the Brit band Jethro Tull is as creative and accomplished as his historical predecessor — the English farming pioneer who brought about the agricultural revolution. And this stage-show is, more-or-less, about that historical figure also named Jethro Tull.
The history of prog-rock Anderson can be traced back to the late 1960’s, when the rock band that he fronted played the London club circuit under a variety of aliases. In the end, though, they got re-booked under a name given to them by a booker — “Jethro Tull” — and the name stuck.
Anderson, who, back in the Sixties, looked like Catweazle, was famous for wearing a big dirty coat, had verminous hair and played a magic flute.
He soon became a well-known (if not a slightly eccentric) public figure. And from the album titled Aqualung onwards (1971) his band became a respected and successful presence on the British progressive rock scene.
The ‘other’ Jethro Tull (as, once, every schoolchild could explain) was the 18th century gentleman farmer who invented agricultural machinery (such as the seed drill in 1701.) This, along with other innovations, launched the second great revolution in British agriculture.
Yields increased significantly, and in turn, this allowed populations to grow. So, his work nurtured and re-fueled a thriving British workforce, leading to a dominant industrial position that we recognize today as the industrial revolution.
Anderson’s new stage-show, comprising songs from the ‘Best of Jethro Tull‘ songbook, re-tells the story of this famous farmer — though he translates the tale through modern eyes and he even dares to look at the future of agriculture and the challenges still to be faced: (Feeding the world’s 9 billion souls, for example).
We saw the show at the superb Anvil theatre in Basingstoke, UK.
The show started with a huge ‘backcloth’ screen and, immediately, we were left in no doubt that this was to be an epic audio-visual experience.
The musicians strode onto the stage. John O’Hara on keys, David Goodier on bass guitar, Florian Opahle on lead guitar and Scott Hammond on percussion.
Last to arrive was the man himself. No longer a shabby panhandling beggarman… Anderson is now Heisenberg. Baron of the music industry and kingpin supreme.
After the video introduction, we were taken straight into the excellent ‘Heavy Horses’ and a wistful look at rural life before Tull’s revolution .
Here the Reykjavik-based violinist and singer Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir was introduced. She, along with other cast members: David Goodier (who looked far too much like British UKIP politician Nigel Farage for comfort) and Ryan O’Donnell (who played the ‘young’ Jethro Tull) with John O’Hara who later played the scientist — provided the supplementary vocals on the main songs.
Of course, the main lines of the songs belonged to Anderson. Whose Sylvester sounding lisps and inclined vocalizations were perfectly pronounced with that strangely antagonistic attitude that we still admire.
That said, Ian Anderson is no Jon Anderson. So, while the magical voice could hold your attention on recordings, it is less suitable for large auditoriums. Operatic it ain’t!
And there was another problem too… We waited, like patient citizens, for the “magicians reveal”. You know, that moment when the curtain falls back… And the ‘true’ singers are exposed…
But, unfortunately, there was no ‘Prestige’. The characters remained on the screen. Filmed onto a rather amateurish back-drop. The band merely played in front of this.
This led to one member of the audience wondering out-loud if Anderson was “Actually playing the flute…”
And, to be honest, we could not be positive that he was… Not the whole time, anyway. And that’s the problem when you combine live music with pre-recorded sounds. Of course, this was all cleverly managed. But, still, we would have preferred it all to be live.
Another complaint was that this was not an opera. Although reported as such, it was actually a group of musicians playing songs in a conventional manner…In front of a back-cloth. The acting, set design and costumes, etc. that you might associate with an operatic production were all on film. So, to be strictly accurate, this was a performance of a work rather than the artwork itself. Anderson could have taken pointers from the excellent stage version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds — where the vocal performances of real-live guests are cleverly projected onto the green screen.
We loved the song ‘Aqualung’ with Ryan O’Donnell. The farmer Tull became ill with a lung disease at a young age (if you were wondering at all how this song could possibly ‘fit’ into the story.)
We could not help but think, though, that Florian on guitar was not a substitute for Martin Barre (but who could be?)
The second half of the show was much stronger. The story focused on Tull’s seduction by some of the ideologies of low-impact farming and ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ was stalwart and enjoyable. ‘The Witch’s Promise’ was really excellent, as well as being nostalgic. With beautiful harmonies from Björnsdóttir.
Like all Anderson’s compositions, the lyrics are somewhat puzzling. The songs have been rewritten (with new wording) to meet the requirements of the stage-show. This would be an album worth buying, if only to concentrate on that beautiful poetry. Anderson has not lost his touch.
We thought that some of the messages were obscure, though. Should we grow more food? Or less? Should we embrace genetically modified foods? Or will that endanger our planet? We left the theatre with more questions than answers. At least the show made us reflect. And perhaps that is what the music of Ian Anderson is all about.
Jethro Tull, the farmer-inventor, may have been a prime mover in the agricultural revolution. His innovations helped to feed the workers of the world. But let’s not forget that he was also a capitalist. His work influenced the culture of cotton in the South American colonies and, of course, the collection of cotton soon became the main occupation of the slaves. Hero or anti-hero? This stage show lets you decide.
Most members of the audience were ‘Tull Fans’ before they even got into the auditorium. Anderson was preaching to the converted. And the crowd cheered without restraint. And we felt glad that they enjoyed the entertainment. But does this piece really stand up as a work of art in its own right? Probably not. Is it enteraining? Oh Yes, you’ll like it… Especially if you have bought into the last 40+ years of the band history (like we have.)
But better brace yourselves … We can expect a new work to be released sometime soon… And this will be about the life of an insincere, bitter & twisted clerk called Uriah Heep. Brought live to the stage by Mick Box …
Words: @neilmach 2015 ©
Jethro Tull, The Rock Opera performed by Ian Anderson is on at the London O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 10th Sep 2015
More UK dates have been announced followed by Russian, European and South American dates before the end of the year.
Note: Greig Robinson played bass guitar at the Anvil performance