The ever-inventive Ian Anderson is back on the road with “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera,” a high-concept repackaging of songs from the vast Jethro Tull catalog. The show touched down at Brooklyn’s majestic, beautifully restored Kings Theater on Friday night.
As he told us recently, Anderson’s latest concoction is a multimedia exploration of the life of the early 18th century agriculturalist who gave the legendary rock band its name, reimagined for modern times. As it happens, the work of Jethro Tull the seed-drill inventor three centuries ago resonates nicely with some of the strongest themes from the work of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull the band.
While Anderson doesn’t quite have the vocal power of his younger days, his prowess on flute and acoustic guitar remains undimmed. And in the event, it was a good thing the flute, with its uncontested frequency range and its resulting clarity in the mix, was prominent in the show. Poor sound, especially in the first half, made the vocals hard to hear and understand – not just Anderson’s but even the prerecorded ones from the “virtual guest” singers. The sound improved later, contributing, together with a more straightforward presentation of the songs, to a stronger second half. And all else aside, Anderson always gives his all as the original, and still almost the only, rock and roll flautist.
Featured on video projections, the onscreen singers took the roles of the agriculturalist and characters from the songs and from the man’s reimagined life, in set-pieces and collage-like sequences, some visually compelling, others confusing. The concept was interesting, but the story didn’t come through clearly. Live on-stage singers instead of prerecorded ones would likely have focussed the show better. As it was, verse-trading between Anderson and the virtual singers tended to sap some of the songs’ energy, despite the vividness of the video sequences and their impressive synchronization with the live band.
Nevertheless, aside from a flimsy version of “Songs from the Wood,” whose prog-folk energy Anderson’s current band just hasn’t seemed to have fully absorbed, the master showed that Jethro Tull gems like “Heavy Horses,” “Living in the Past,” “Jack in the Green,” “Witch’s Promise,” and “Locomotive Breath” retain their pure progressive-folk-rock power, at least for fans who’ve had them in their heads for decades.
Anderson’s huge range of influences and accomplishments over his nearly half-century of recording and performing showed too, with the set list ranging from the elemental blues of “A New Day Yesterday” – the first song on the second Jethro Tull album, 1969’s Stand Up – to a smoking version of the Bach adaptation “Bourrée,” a number that blew the mind of this classical piano student when he first heard it as a teenager.
Is the Bard of Velvet Green “too old to rock and roll?” Arguable. But as his recent albums show, he’s still got plenty of creative tricks up his sleeve. The man with the most eclectic, varied musical career in the pantheon of old-school rock stars had always had hits and misses. “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” is no exception.