A kinder, gentler Jethro Tull
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., August 13, 2003) – “You’re never too old to rock and roll if you’re too young to die,” sang Ian Anderson on Tuesday night at Tanglewood. Having only just turned 56 this past Sunday, the leader of Jethro Tull is certainly the latter. And although he’s slowed down a step or two from his heyday, he’s probably not the former, either, especially judging from the adulatory response his fans gave him in his band’s first Tanglewood appearance in 33 years.

Last time out, the group – just a few years old at the time -- appeared on a triple-bill headlined by the Who, in a concert reportedly so loud that those on the lawn could see their drinks moving in their cups, keeping time to the monstrous beat. This time out, the proceedings were much tamer and in keeping with the gray hair that was abundant on stage and in the audience. And instead of turning up the amps to 11, for ballast and texture the quintet employed a freelance chamber orchestra, presumably made up of members of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops, lending the proceedings even further dignity in keeping with the Tanglewood setting.

So much for “Living in the Past,” as Anderson sang to kick off the evening, a well-chosen number that flaunted its Brubeckian meters as Anderson, playing his trademark flute arpeggios standing on one leg, traded fours with longtime Tull guitarist Martin Barre.

After that opening number and “Someday the Sun Won’t Shine for You,” an early tune that harkened to Tull’s origins in the British blues scene of the late-‘60s and featured Anderson on harmonica, the band steered towards its instrumental repertoire. Numbers like “Elegy” and “In the Grip of Stronger Stuff” were originally the stuff of album filler; here they were presumably chosen to showcase the orchestral arrangements, which veered between insipid and potboiler. Even Anderson referred to Tull’s trademark version of Bach’s “Bouree,” first recorded in 1969, as “loathsome cocktail lounge jazz.” It wasn’t quite that bad, but with the orchestra it came across more as lumbering Muzak than a sprightly dance.

A version of Gabriel Faure’s “Pavanne” was one of several numbers offered over the course of the concert from the group’s upcoming album of Christmas music, including a jazz-rock variation on “Greensleeves” that Anderson dubbed “Greensleeved” and a Herbie Mann-styled version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that kicked off the second set. The group did its best to get into the holiday spirit on this soggy August night, but the effort came across more as advertisement than inspiration.

Highlights included the orchestral arrangement of “Aqualung,” with the signature, 7-note opening riff handled by oboe rather than electric guitar, answered by a plunging volley of strings and then Anderson’s hyperactive flute. A brass fanfare cued a Bo Diddley beat from drummer Doane Perry, before Anderson plunged into the song about a dirty old man facing death. While Anderson’s voice retains its unique character, he has lost most of its dimensionality and range, and he struggled throughout the night to carry a melody line.

Another song about facing the grim reaper, “Locomotive Breath,” sent the audience home over a Celtic-rock melody that could have been the inspiration for “Riverdance.” Those who came to hear Jethro Tull perform its biggest pop hit, “Bungle in the Jungle,” were left wanting, however. Maybe next time.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 14, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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