When it comes to the long line of albums Jethro Tull, and by parentage Ian Anderson, have released since the late 1960’s one of the thorniest had to be Thick As a Brick. Coming off the career-redefining Aqualung, TaaB (for short) was both a pat on the back and a big middle finger to the world of progressive rock. It was one single song split in two owing to the constraints of the vinyl record format. It moves, as music, in very non-traditional ways and as an “epic” it defies the common tropes of just being ten tunes smashed together. It was “written” by “Gerald Bostock,” a precocious young lad with a bit of an attitude. The character of Bostock would become the mask Anderson occasionally slipped behind to make comments on the world he felt were too blunt, but wisely, it was confined to that one album.
That is until Thick As A Brick 2 appeared in 2012. Never one to be predictable, Anderson didn’t become Bostock to write in a guise. Instead, the album considered the many paths this young know-it-all might have taken in his life; some for better and others for worse. The structure was very much that of an album of very separate songs tied together by a theme, segmented, and was a part of the Tull canon but apart from it as well. Some will argue that it isn’t really Tull without Martin Barre in the mix (my viewpoint, actually) but by that same turn, Anderson has always been the primary songwriter. And to that, he has adopted the catchall of “Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson” as a qualifier. TaaB 2 wound up being much better than I had expected, and I return to it on a frequent basis. (Anderson’s latest album Homo Erraticus returns to the “Bostock as writer” notion, but that album doesn’t figure into the TaaB ethos at all.)
Which brings us to Eagle Rock’s release of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: Thick As A Brick Live In Iceland (deep breath). In this, Anderson’s new backing band has taken on the herculean task of playing both albums in a sort of marathon. It works better than one would pre-judge, given the obstacles. Among those are the classic rock purists who feel that Anderson has no right to revisit TaaB with anyone but the authorized Jethro Tull (even if Anderson is the one who would ascribe that authority), those who like the first but not the second, those who feel the first is bloated and parodied in the worst way and should never be taken out of the wine cellar, and on. Other than those complications, and a stage that seems downright tiny for such a big ensemble, the show is quite enjoyable.
Part of that comes from Anderson himself, as it should. He still displays the energy of a man a third of his age and he’s having a mad blast performing this stuff live. He can no longer sing from deep in his sternum like he used to. That has been in coming for a long time, as far back as the late 1980s when he adopted a more measured vocal approach, almost Mark Knopfler-like. Anyone who is shocked that he needs Ryan O’Donnell to back him with some of these pieces hasn’t listened to Tull music since Crest Of A Knave.
The backing band, consisting of Florian Opahle, John O’Hara, David Goodier, and Scott Hammond, is remarkable. The argument remains — how difficult is it to play the songs of someone else? America’s Got Talent does it all the time. While true, it also stands that these songs are difficult in every sense of it, and that a real feeling of respect for the material is evident. They’re not Tull, but they’re not fake-Tull either, and I hope that as Anderson continues on this “Tull/Solo” hybrid, he keeps them with him.
There are bits of choreography and stageplay happening throughout this show, and there is the occasional bit of audio-video fun, but this is not a flashy multimedia event, not should it be. If you have any interest in Thick as A Brick at all, you are because of its musical offerings, not because a roller coaster is going to suddenly encircle the audience. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.)
Eagle Rock is a label that consistently provides the classic rock enthusiast with a steady stream of fine productions, and this is no less a worthwhile addition. The image on the DVD is sharp and clean, as is the sound. The release probably won’t convert any new fans to this new conglomeration. By now, classic rock is seen by new generations more for the former part of the genre’s title than the latter, and those previously-mentioned purists may turn their nose up at the newer compositions, but that exclusionary mindset is misguided. In the end, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: Thick As A Brick Live In Iceland is about a collective of people who play music well and do so for an adoring audience. Even if you cannot stand what Tull used to represent, you have to admit that the priorities are in the correct place.