Three decades later, Jethro Tull returns
by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., August 7, 2003) – It’s been 33 years since Jethro Tull’s last performance at Tanglewood, but bandleader Ian Anderson still remembers details about the day with startling accuracy.
“It was with The Who and maybe It’s a Beautiful Day,” said Anderson, correctly recalling the other acts on the bill on July 7, 1970, in a recent phone interview. “I remember being ill with tonsillitis and having an allergic reaction to an antibiotic.”
It took over three decades, dozens of albums, personnel changes, and unspecified inches of receding forehead later for Jethro Tull to be offered a return engagement. And when the invitation finally came – for the band to perform in the Shed next Tuesday at 7 – it was with a proviso.
“We were offered the show on the grounds that we were not appearing as a rock band, but with something to tie it in with what normally goes on at Tanglewood,” said Anderson, who ever since 1987 has been trying to live down a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, the first ever awarded in that category, and one the band – which never played hard rock or heavy metal -- clearly did not deserve.
But having performed Jethro Tull music with orchestra as a solo artist, Anderson was happy to agree to the stipulations placed on next week’s Tanglewood gig, even though the band itself had never done this sort of thing before and in spite of the fact that Anderson views the rock band-with-orchestra format as “folly.”
“We know that doesn’t work,” said Anderson. “I’ve seen others try, and I’d hate to create the same follies. Rock musicians, most of them are deaf and they don’t realize how loud they’re playing. You have to be sensitive and approach this as if you’re one of the orchestra and place your trust in the conductor and let him control the dynamics.
“It’s not really Jethro Tull territory,” said Anderson, who formed Jethro Tull in 1967 and who has been the group’s lead singer, songwriter and flutist since then. “When I do it, it’s as an acoustic musician playing an orchestral instrument, but we try and keep it more acoustic. We don’t do this ‘rock band plus orchestra thing’ -- we try to do it as an acoustic group on a par with the orchestra.”
Anderson said next week’s experiment will pose a challenge to some of the group’s musicians.
“Our drummer is a very loud drummer and it will be very hard for him to physically play parts with reduced volume,” he said. “And Martin [Barre] is an electric guitar player. When I told him it would be best done on nylon-string, classical guitar, he said, ‘But I don’t play nylon-string guitar.’ He was upset with the idea that he would have to relearn all these songs.
“It sounds better when you really make it an acoustic thing. We’ll see how it works out. He’ll be figuring out how to do what he does, but basically to work more in sympathy with the orchestral arrangements. It’s not all with the orchestra. About ten pieces are with orchestra and about eight are on our own. So it will be a mixture. We’re not going to go to full rock-band levels, but we’ll do stuff on our own that we’ll play, shall we say, a little more confidently, doing some Jethro Tull stuff without orchestra.”
Having the band accompanied by strings won’t be a totally new experience for diehard fans of Jethro Tull, as the group has always boasted a wide musical palette and used orchestration on albums since the 1970s. While Jethro Tull began as a blues-based band in the style of groups like Cream, it quickly displayed the influences of jazz, folk and classical music that Anderson soaked up as a child and as a young adult musician.
“When I was eight years old or so I remember getting interested in my father’s music -- big band jazz, Benny Goodman and people like that,” said Anderson, who was born in 1947 in Edinburgh. “That was my first awareness of music outside of school and the church. Growing up in Scotland, church and folk music was something I kind of had a little bit of.
“When I was eleven or twelve I began hearing early American rock and roll -- Bill Haley and Elvis. I never really enjoyed early American rock music. I wasn’t an Elvis fan. I became very keen on blues, and the black American blues guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.”
Unlike some other British musicians of the 1960s, however, Anderson never attempted to play straight blues. “There was just something totally different about these people, and while I responded to it, it was very much evident that you couldn’t or shouldn’t really try to imitate it,” he said. “It would be like putting on greasepaint. You had to do something with it your own way and make it work, not try to pretend that you were one of them with all of the complex cultural and historical references that we white kids in middle England could ever understand.
“I never felt it was my destiny to be a blues guitarist. It was a starting point,
interesting lyrically and rhythmically and melodically to play with that music and develop improvisational and compositional and performing skills. It was a means to an end, not to become one of those pale imitators of black American music. There were those in the UK. I loved that music too much to do it a disservice.”
[This articler originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 8, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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