Jethro Tull leader plays classic album in its entirety plus sequel at Riverbend
By Gary Spencer
Jethro Tull is one of those artists who, for all intents and purposes, exist on their own musical planet, removed from their classic rock contemporaries who, for varying reasons, aren’t quite in Tull’s unique musical league. And then there’s Jethro Tull bandleader and mastermind Ian Anderson, a man who’s been portrayed as the anti-rockstar, who always seemed to be thinking ahead of musical trends and destined to carve out his own solitary niche in rock ‘n’ roll where doing things like playing the flute along to blues-based, proto-heavy metal on paper sounds like a recipe for commercial failure. Anderson and Tull would go on to defy the odds and become one of the best selling and artistically intriguing rock bands of the 20th century – often times taking seemingly unnecessary creative risks, yet nearly always coming out of the dust successful both on the artistic and commercial ends of the spectrum.
Possibly the most risky of all of Anderson’s undertakings over the course of his 40+ year career was Jethro Tull’s 1972 album, Thick as a Brick, which upon its issue seemed like an exercise in artistic excess and almost certain commercial disaster. “Thick as a Brick” was a single song composition comprising both sides of a full-length LP with nary a break between one musical section to the other. It is seemingly a one-upmanship dare or outright thumbing of the nose from Anderson to the burgeoning popularity of contemporary progressive rock bands of the time who were frivolously pushing the boundaries of rock with extended length songs full of complex musicality. Often, these compositions incorporated elements of jazz and even classical music with a bevy of songwriting approaches and instrumentation that sometimes eschewed common sense as to what made up a successful rock record in a post-Beatles music world.
“It was a reaction to the assumption made by a lot of music critics that Aqualung was a concept album”, Anderson said via telephone. “In the wake of that assumption, I thought ‘OK they thought that was a concept album, let’s show them what a real concept album is!’ It was from the minute ‘go’ a singular piece of music.”
Medieval and folk instruments, brass, woodwinds and even orchestral segments all make appearances throughout Thick as a Brick, and the lyrics were originally attributed to a fictional 8-year old boy named Gerald Bostock who had written the “Thick as a Brick” lyrics as an epic poem that fictitiously won a youth writing competition that Anderson had set to music. Despite the seemingly anti-commercial, anti-radio nature of such a record, Thick as a Brick shot up Billboard to Number 1. Subsequently, Jethro Tull took to theatres across the world performing the album in its entirety to rave reviews. However, since the album’s immediate release, Anderson has never performed the piece in its entirety either under the billing of Jethro Tull or as a solo artist.
Fast forward almost 40 years later: Ian Anderson, having long performed as a solo artist, had been challenged by some colleagues from the glory days to write a sequel to what many Tull fans consider his magnum opus. Despite his initial reluctance to entertain such a massive creative endeavor, Anderson eventually brainstormed both the music and lyrical concept to construct what might be one of his best works since Tull’s heyday in the 1970’s. Mixed by Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree, 2012 finally saw the release of Thick as a Brick 2 (TAAB 2), which musically harkens quite a bit back to Jethro Tull’s classic early ‘70s sound of classic rock guitars and organ, intricate yet catchy melodies, song bits that weave easily between themselves and their transitions, fantastic buildups and, of course, Ian Anderson’s unmistakable vocals and flute work.
“I followed the same general rules for TAAB 2 as I did the original,” Anderson said. “I decided I would give it the sonic values of the original recording by using the same instruments played by the musicians in 1972. It’s not all that different from the original. There’s an organic wholeness about it.”
Lyrically, the concept of TAAB 2 is what might have become of the fictitious character Gerald Bostock in the 40 years that have passed since he won the Society for Literary Advancement and Gestation contest. And, in turn, according to Anderson the lyrics also ponder the crossroads of life we all encounter, and how many ways our lives can change and could have been different than what they have become.
“The question had come up as to whatever happened to Gerald Bostock through a conversation with an old friend and it became the subtext for a new album, looking 40 years into the future as to what might have become of a young boy who went through life and is in middle age and where is he today and the choices he made to become what he is now,” Anderson explained. “All of us have to make those decisions as we grow up, pushed this way or that way by events that we might not have controlled. It’s a parallel of our own lives.”
And now for the first time in some 40 years, Ian Anderson is coming to the U.S. to perform the original Thick as a Brick from start to finish as well as the entirety of TAAB 2 in concert. This marks both a historic endeavor for any artist with such a generational removal between a sequel and its original, yet the indications are clear that Anderson has thought this all through with much detail, providing both a musical and visual presentation that will be entertaining and engaging despite the years passed between the original Thick as a Brick and its sequel. At the age of 66, Anderson is quite satisfied with the results
“I had it all written in about two weeks to see if I could do it again. And I did!” Anderson exclaimed. “At this point in my life I’d rather not write 3-minute pop songs. I’d rather go for broke. I’m a restless soul.”
Ian Anderson will perform “Thick as a Brick” and “TAAB 2” at the PNC Pavilion at Riverbend Music Center, 6295 Kellogg Ave. in Cincinnati on Saturday, July 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $45 to $87.95. For more information please visit riverbend.org.