Over the past few years, in between other projects, Ian Anderson has done much to reinvigorate the legacy of Jethro Tull. In 2012, we got the 40th anniversary special edition of Thick as a Brick, which upgraded the 1972 concept album into a glorious 5.1 mix. The same year, Anderson released the sequel, Thick as a Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock?. By most accounts, it was a worthy successor. Then came 2013 and Live Around the World, a lavish four-DVD retrospective with eclectic Jethro Tull performances from 1970 to 2005. All three releases are absolutely essential listening and viewing.
Now we’re offered Thick as a Brick – Live in Iceland which brings the two chapters of TAAB together on DVD, SD Blu-ray, two-CD, and digital formats. Recorded in Reykjavík, Iceland on June 22, 2012, you’d think the production would have warranted the same care and attention as the other TAAB projects. That didn’t happen. The question becomes, should fans try the Blu-ray or DVD editions or simply hear the concert on the CD set?
To begin, the cast of performers centers on, of course, Anderson doing his usual vocal/acoustic guitar/flute thing. The supporting players included Scott Hammond (drums, percussion), David Goodier (bass, glockenspiel), John O’Hara (keyboards, accordion), and Florian Opahle (electric guitar). As Anderson’s voice has lost much of its range in recent years, Ryan O’Donnell was brought on as a “vocal avatar” and visual foil for Anderson, freeing the former mad piper to play flute in sections he couldn’t do live before. In addition, it was the late Robin Williams who once observed that a mime is a terrible thing to waste, and O’Donnell’s talents in this area are not wasted throughout this show, especially during TAAB 2.
For many reviewers to date, the most noticeable issue with the Blu-ray version of Live in Iceland is that, for some inexplicable reason, the 50GB Blu-ray edition was issued in standard, not high definition. As a result, with an AVC encoded 1080i transfer in both 1.74:1 and 1.78:1, the results are often frustrating. While close-ups and shots of the musicians work well, wider shots often have blurry color and contrasts are often indistinct. Worse, much worse, many of the symbolic images shown on the back screen are impossible to figure out when the camera is focused on the band.
More importantly, perhaps, the Blu-ray sound is offered in both Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0, and in both the sound is mostly clear with decent separation. The CD version is also extremely listenable, and any differences from the Blu-ray are too unimportant to worry about. Whatever quibbles some critics might have with the various mixes, which often borders on nitpicking, most TAAB listeners should be interested in the differences between this version and the previous studio releases. True, Opahle’s guitar deserved a punchier presence, but that’s my own bid at being persnickety.
The first part of the concert is not a note-for-note reproduction of the 1972 studio album and has noticeable new musical flourishes in the instrumentation that are usually subtle, sometimes overt. Anderson observes in an accompanying interview that the performances are about 80% faithful to the originals, 20% improvisation or re-arrangements, and that’s a good description.
As usual, Anderson pops in quirky theatrics. For example, the show opens with a video of him playing a psychiatrist asking Gerald Bostock to explain how it all began. When I saw Tull do TAAB back in 1972, Anderson interrupted the show by accepting a phone call, “Calling Mike Nelson.” As the music restarted, an actor wearing a scuba suit walked on stage to take the call. At the time, that was a double-joke. Nelson was the lead character on TV’s Sea Hunt and the scuba outfit was an obvious reference to Tull’s 1971 Aqualung. In Iceland, the cell phone call came from a violinist who Anderson asked to call back via Skype to plug in her part. Times change.
Another example of changing times occurs in the break between what once were sides one and two of the vinyl version of TAAB. First, Anderson reads risqué ads from a bogus newspaper, obviously a nod to the fake The St. Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertiser cover for the original album. Then he stages a mock prostrate exam using audience members. Despite the oddity of this skit, he seems quite serious about encouraging his aging audience to see their doctors. So the new TAAB has a Public Service Announcement designed for baby boomers. Other than scenes of O’Donnell pushing around a broom and images shown on the back screen, these bits were all the essential theatre in the first half of the show.
For me, the presentation of TAAB 2 is a much fresher experience. Of course, it doesn’t have the 40-year history behind it, as the studio version of the second part of the saga was hot off the press when this concert was performed. All of the players on the studio disc are the same for this concert, so they’re performing the parts they themselves laid down on the record. As a result, the musicianship on TAAB 2 isn’t much different from the studio release. So it’s the visuals that are new on the Blu-ray edition that fans should be curious about. It’s worth noting back in 1972, Bostock was only the joke poet who allegedly wrote the original lyrics. Now, he’s a character Anderson gives five different possible fates. How they’re portrayed, largely courtesy of O’Donnell using props like an umbrella, newspaper or megaphone, is the new dimension for this performance.
So which is better, Thick as a Brick – Live in Iceland on CD or Blu-ray? Blu-ray, despite its serious problems. For one matter, an audio-only version of TAAB 2 is superfluous, unless you don’t already have the original. Perhaps it just might have been the copy I got, but the jewel box fell apart even before I opened it.
Being a 5.1 junkie, I tend to prefer that surround sound whenever I can get it, and while the Blu-ray spread here isn’t demonstration worthy, it’s the best presentation of the various options. More importantly, you ought to try to see the show, despite the fact the back screen videos are often lost completely. Also, there are three bonuses on the Blu-ray/DVD. The most interesting is an interview with Anderson in which he retells some familiar stories but also shares some insights into the Iceland performance. Then, for Anderson scholars, there is a workshop performance of “Someday The Sun Won’t Shine for You” with Montreux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobs, and a 2012 version of “Banker Bets, Banker Wins” filmed live at Montreux.
In the end, Live in Iceland was a bungled opportunity to give fans the first package of the two TAABs together inside one cover. Most of the blame goes to the camera crew, and perhaps that’s the reason they didn’t go for high definition. Perhaps someone recognized they didn’t have the product worthy of it. At any rate, Anderson/Tull fans should try the concert at least once, even if they decide this one isn’t a keeper.
Wes Britton’s review of Thick as a Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock? is posted here.
Wes Britton’s review of Jethro Tull’s Live Around the World is available at this link.
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