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Radio Free Arizona: This Was Jethro Tull But Now It's Not

Ian Anderson and the members of Jethro Tull during their fashionably scruffy years.
Ian Anderson and the members of Jethro Tull during their fashionably scruffy years.
Chrysalis Records

In a lame television commercial pretending it could even come close to being just like the real thing, the Phoenix Symphony has been advertising a performance featuring the music of the Rolling Stones. While I'm sure it must have been some spectacular thing to dress in a tux for, it also must be said for those of us who wear ripped rock concert T-shirts as badges of honor in public, the whole concept was enough to burn, quite painfully, the toes right off the wicked witch of the East in each and every blessed one of us.

Not that an aged and glorious institution such as the Phoenix Symphony trying to hip things up a bit for the boomers is a bad thing. More power to them if it packs the house. As well it should.

And as the years climb all over us into the new century, we can all just sit back and watch Roger Daltrey and the Who dredge up a tightly woven medley from the rock opera "Tommy" till the whole band is deaf, dumb, blind and quite senile for only so long. Then we can scream quietly, to ourselves, or back to those letting their hair down at the Metropolitan Opera House, "Hey Roger! Put on a shirt!" and don't know if you've noticed but Alice Cooper is trying to sell cars these days.

Yes, as some wise sage once said, "Someday this war's going to end." Or something like that. Just like that, most assuredly, we are all going to look around and notice that all of the classic rock dinosaurs are gone, and the only thing remaining will be Pink Floyd laser light shows and 20-year-olds claiming royal fealty to all four sides of Genesis' "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."

But think of this: Somehow, Shakespeare has survived the ages. How?

Here's how: Stuff like a Jethro Tull tribute called "Living in the Past." That's how.

This spring, in a very Pan-like way, just such an outfit will be playing the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff and it's enough to bring the memories of the late great rock critic Lester Bangs back out into the light with his essay, "Jethro Tull in Vietnam," just to make sure the tributees get it right.

I mean, now lifting whole paragraphs from that essay by Bangs, written in the mid 1970s, when Jethro Tull was one of the hottest acts of its time, I've got to ask the musical question: Who wouldn't want to recreate this?

"Make no mistake: in terms of sheer professionalism, Jethro Tull are without peer," Bangs wrote. "They stand out by never failing to deliver a full scale show, complete with everything they know any kid would gladly pay his money to see: music, volume, costumes, theatrics, flashy solos, long sets, two encores. Jethro Tull are slick and disciplined; they work hard and they deliver.
"What they deliver is one of the most curious melanges on any stage. If their lyrics generally take a moralistic bent, the band themselves come on like total goofballs, and the contrast works nicely. All of them dress to the teeth, usually in Victorian waistcoats and tight pants, and from the instant Ian Anderson hits the stage he works the audience with all the masterful puppeteer mojo of the Merlin he often poses as. He whirls and whips in total spastic grace, creating a maelstrom around himself, flinging his fingers in the air as if hurling arcane incantations at the balcony. His eyes take on a satyr's gleam, get wild and pop from his head. He very effectively passes himself off as a madman reeling in riptide gales from unimaginable places. He exploits his flute exhaustively: baton, wand, sword, gun, phallus, club, virtuoso's magic axe. He twirls it like a cheerleader and stirs the audience to a frothing frenzy with it, then raises the ladle to his chops and puts the audience in a trance with an extended melodramatic solo."

In this, age of the the "American Idol" karaoke star mimicking whatever the multinational producer and recording company asks them to do, we can all pause and wonder how tribute bands, if they are good enough to get sweet gigs in large music houses ... just how they can get good enough to go out there and sound like Jerry Garcia on guitar, Keith Moon on the drums, or Ian Anderson on the flute. Now, that's some trick. Takes a musician with some peculiar skills as both and actor, to pull that kind of thing off. And someday, just imagine. It won't be that classical pianist drawing grants from the Endowment for the Arts to play at the Lincoln Center, but instead four cats who can deliver "Stairway to Heaven" with perfection, and keep the weight down to just like the real waif Robert Plant once did.

Think the world is covered with Elvis impersonators? Imagine what's going to happen when Paul and Ringo breathe their last breath! That'll be the day job creation for musician-actors takes a quantum leap.

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