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Music DVD Review: Jethro Tull – ‘Around the World Live’

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Jethro Tull (369x400)Ever since their 1968 LP debut, This Was, Ian Anderson and his ever-changing band Jethro Tull have been very good to us. Other than longtime guitarist Martin Barre, who has been with Anderson since 1969, Jethro Tull has been a hard group to pigeonhole and has consistently grown and evolved. Over the years, there have been all those studio albums, including updates and remasters like Anderson’s 2012 Thick as a Brick 2 and this year’s marvelous remix of the original Thick as a Brick. Now, Anderson is being very good to us again with a lavish four DVD set of live performances called Live Around the World.

The over six hours of music on Live Around the World is an astonishing display of what Jethro Tull has been all these decades with material ranging from 1970 to 2005, presenting gigs from England to Chile to Holland to Germany to the U.S. Of course, live recordings of Tull are nothing new. While Anderson didn’t care for the release of 1973’s Living in the Past at the time, believing it didn’t represent the band’s then-current sound, the third side of the two-album set was a recording of a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1970. In 1978, Bursting Out was the group’s first official live album, a two-record set. Eight live albums and CDs were to follow, but certainly the best experiences for home listeners began when DVDs of live concerts started coming out. The most accessible have been, till now, Live at Montreux (2007) and Live at Madison Square Garden 1978 (2009).

There are so many reasons to treasure seeing and hearing the audio and visual history of Jethro Tull in one package. Visually, the early years of the group were known as much for their theatrics as music. Until 1982, band members wore eccentric individual costumes, notably Anderson who started wearing raggedy clothes, performed on one leg, and made wild sounds on his flute including snorts, howls, and indescribable animal sounds. Later, he began wearing a court jester outfit or the clothes of the characters in his songs, wandering around the stage while the musicians played their parts. In those days, musical passages were broken up by comedy bits like Anderson answering phone calls on stage, the band banging on anything handy during drum solos, and the organist walking across the stage in oversize shoes.

Musically, well, the range was as wide as rock itself. For example, disc one of Around the World Live opens with two songs from the historic 1970 Isle Of Wight concert, a show captured in full on the 2005 Nothing Is Easy: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 DVD. Here we again see and hear the rough-edged jazz-rock ensemble of Anderson, Barre, and Clive Bunker (drums), Glenn Cornick (bass), and John Evan (keyboards) doing “My Sunday Feeling” and “My God.”

Then we take a quantum leap forward in both sound and musical complexity in a generous program filmed at Tampa, Florida in 1976. This set opens with some sonic tomfoolery with “Quartet” before a new line-up, including Barriemore Barlow (drums), John Evan (keyboards), and John Glascock (bass) present the band at its most bombastic, prog rock best. “Thick as a Brick” is weaved throughout a number of Anderson songs like “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Too Young to Die” and “Minstrel In the Gallery.” The only disappointment from this concert is that the dramatic “Extract from Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 (Molto Vivace)” is faded out at the end. Hmm.

Disc one closes with a lengthy TV concert filmed in Munich, Germany in 1980. While about 45 minutes long, this concert seems as much a bonus feature as the sound quality is limited, the vocal mic very tinny, and the songs broken up by German-language interviews with Anderson while he’s smoking a pipe. If you don’t sprechen Deutsch, you’re largely out of luck. Still, the eight songs all have their merits, especially the superb “Dark Ages,” almost a mini-“Thick as a Brick.”

Disc two opens with two songs, “Pussy Willow” and “Heavy Horses,” from a show at Dortmund, Germany in 1982 when Tull was supporting their new The Broadsword and the Beast. The tour was one of the last for full-blown theatricality, with the stage built to resemble a Viking longship and the band performed in faux-medieval regalia.

Then we get one song from a 1986 gig in Loreley, Germany, before we jump to 1996 and a much longer sampling from a concert at Santiago, Chile. In a show shot with the cleanest and most professional sound and visuals so far, the set opens with a wonderful sequence of “Roots To Branches” and “Rare And Precious Chain” before launching into a relatively scaled-down presentation of the early passages of “Thick As A Brick” where Anderson plays a miniature guitar. By this time in their career, Tull had largely morphed from prog rock to folk rock, and Anderson’s vocals were becoming softer and less flamboyant. For example, “Aqualung” opens with a lovely, orchestral setting before the band launches into the more expected rock delivery. Quieter melodies include J. S. Bach’s “Bourée” and “In the Moneylenders’ Temple,” an instrumental with more orchestral layers.

Disc three offers three faces of Jethro Tull including material from Anderson solo albums when the band was becoming labeled “world music.” Their 1999 Hilversum, Holland TV show gig can best be described as “unplugged.” It opens with Anderson blowing harp and playing the old-fashioned blues in “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine For You,” one of the original Tull numbers from This Was. An acoustic passage called “Thick As A Break” leads into a relatively low-key rendition of “Locomotive Breath.” We hear newer songs like “The Secret Language Of Birds” and “Dot Com,” before Anderson pulls out an old one, the perfectly appropriate “Fat Man” complete with an accordion solo. By this time, the line-up had jelled into the band that would remain constant until 2005, including Anderson, Barre, Andy Giddings (keyboards), Jonathan Noyce (bass) and Doane Perry (drums). An interview with Anderson filmed for this concert is an extra on this disc.

A London performance in 2001 reunited the original This Was unit of Anderson, Mick Abrahams (guitar), Glenn Cornick (bass), and Clive Bunker (drums). Here, Jethro Tull meets the Moody Blues in “Cross-Eyed Mary” and hard rock in “Hunt By Numbers” and an updated “My Sunday Feeling.” Disc three closes with a bit more fire from a 2003 Montreux, Switzerland concert previously released in 2007. From this show, we get newer versions of “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine For You” (compare with earlier “unplugged version), “Life is a Long Song,” and “Living in the Past,” one hit from the Tull catalog rarely heard on this collection.

Finally, disc four is one full concert taped in 2005 at Lugano, Switzerland. The 21 songs run the gamut of the history of Jethro Tull, with an emphasis on more obscure tracks and deep cuts instead of the typical favorites and hits. The sound here, overall, is the best of the set, although Giddings’ organ can barely be heard on the first two numbers. Without question, this was the most polished, tightest version of Jethro Tull. At the same time, it’s also the incarnation with the least amount of magic, offers no dramatics, and has nothing to distinguish itself from earlier versions of the band. These complaints are only by comparison; on its own, this gig is a very listenable experience.

Anderson should be credited for mining surprising choices from the Tull catalogue. Anderson reminds us Tull was once considered a jazz-rock ensemble with two songs from This Was, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Serenade To A Cuckoo” and the band original, “Beggar’s Farm.” From 1976, “Jack In The Green” represented the folk rock era as did “Weathercock,” where Barre brings out his mandolin. The ever reliable Barre also plays one of his instrumentals, in this case “Empty Café” from one of his solo albums.

Remember “Up To Me”, “Hymn 43,” and “Mother Goose” from Aqualung? Anderson resurrects these “forgotten songs” along with the usual cuts, “Locomotive Breath” and the title song. More recent material included “Boris Dancing” from Anderson’s 2000 solo album, The Secret Language of Birds. Anderson dedicates the song to Russian president Boris Yeltsin and introduces Giddings “on the instrument from hell,” the piano-accordion. The newest offering came from 2003’s The Jethro Tull Christmas Album titled “We Five Kings” as the old standard had been adapted into 5/4 time for five players.

The four discs are packaged in the inside covers of a 19cm x 14cm, 32-page hardback book—not booklet—with photos from Ian Anderson’s personal archive. In addition, Joel McIver contributed an overview of the collection, including a detailed interview with Anderson. The flautist describes his preference for the acoustic guitar even while having to compete with bands like Led Zeppelin during the ’70s.

In the book, McIver points out the uneven quality of the films in the collection is a result, in part, due to the fact that much of the footage wasn’t shot by professional filmmakers intending to record these events for posterity. The Tampa concert, in fact, was filmed illegally and purchased by Anderson at an exorbitant rate. Hence, the many close-ups of Anderson and fewer of the band behind him. Among the many lengthy passages from Anderson are observations about touring in general and international travel in particular, which all adds up to a bit of a primer for musicians following in Tull’s wake. In fact, Anderson not only comments on the past of Jethro Tull, but on the present state of music and how he sees his role in it now.

On top of all that, disc three includes an interview with Anderson taped before the Hilversum 1999 session. In an intelligent discussion about the origins of the band, current directions, Anderson’s solo work, and why the coming concert would be played in a stripped-down format, Anderson is engaging and seems happy he’s getting perceptive questions for a change. Did you know the man keeps touring around world but hates flying?

What Jethro Tull fan can pass all this up? Even if you’ve collected each and every album and CD from the past 40 years, including all the various concert DVDs, there’s much previously unreleased material here for you. If you’ve only purchased a sampling of the Jethro Tull canon from their various eras, here’s your chance to get an overview of where they’ve been in as good a package as you can expect. Once again, Ian Anderson has been very, very good to us.

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