Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera – Anvil, Basingstoke
I make it a rule to avoid karaoke like the plague. You know the scene – a dingy bar offering inebriates the chance to belt out their favourite song to a professional backing track. Of course, the nearest they will get to the Voice is if they broke wind and four people turned round.
For an artist with an extensive back catalogue and, alas, waning vocal powers but a yen to continue touring the dilemma is how to carry it off. Bob Dylan, of course, constantly reinvents his songs and the audience never quite know what they are going to get. Other artists employ backing singers to amplify aka drown out their failing vocal chords.
Veteran prog-rocker Ian Anderson has come up with a novel approach judging by this concert TOWT and I attended in the cultural centre that is Basingstoke. Firstly, he has woven some of his best-loved songs supplemented with a few new numbers into a narrative which tells the story of the historical figure, Jethro Tull, re-imagined as if in the near future.
There has always been a high rural, pastoral, folky content to Tull’s repertoire and it works quite well. The central conceit is that Jethro Tull was a pioneering developer of farm machinery enabling the British agricultural revolution to take off. So in a modern/futuristic context he might have devoted his time to genetic modification of crops, allowing Anderson to pontificate on the perils of GM and the impact of aggressive farming techniques on the countryside and the climate.
Anderson’s solution to the fading powers issue is more intriguing. He has developed what can only be described as reverse karaoke without the alcohol. The band – featuring the excellent Florian Opahle on guitar, John O’Hara on keyboards, bassist Greig Robinson and drummer Scott Hammond and, of course, Ian Anderson on flute and acoustic guitar – play live while most of the vocals are pre-recorded on a backing track with accompanying videos by Icelandic chanteuse and violinist Unnar Birna, Dave Goodier and Ryan O’Donnel with Anderson adding some vocals live.
Technically it is some feat to pull it off over a two-hour concert – a masterpiece of technological robustness and consummate timing. It could so easily go wrong. What it does mean is that the event is so choreographed that there is no opportunity for ad libs or impromptu repartee, something the seasoned Tull fan – and by golly the audience was well-seasoned, I felt positively youthful – would miss.
All the old faves were there – a coruscating version of Locomotive Breath, always guaranteed to bring the house down – Living in the Past – including a game effort on the part of Anderson to recapture his youth by playing the flute whilst standing on one leg, no mean feat for a 68-year-old – and a slightly under-cooked Aqualung. There were some welcome reprises of songs I had not heard live for many a year including Witches’ Promise, a New Day Yesterday with Anderson on blues harmonica and Jack in the Green. The new stuff paled in comparison but carried the show along.
Two final comments – the first half of what was the tour opener was a bit rusty and Anderson was not on top form, struggling with his vocals and forgetting to switch his flute mic on at one stage and secondly, there was a touch of wistful longing and melancholy towards the end making me wonder whether he knows his touring days are numbered. We will see.