It’s said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Thankfully, Ian Anderson didn’t get the memo.
The 65-year old Anderson spent much of 2012 performing Tull’s seminal 1972 album Thick as a Brick in its entirety for the first time ever, along with its then-new sequel, the aptly-titled Thick as a Brick 2. The back-to-back performances made for one hell of a live multimedia extravaganza—replete with funny video clips—and transcended concert norms by featuring a trained actor, costumes, narration, and choreography.
The show’s first half recounts the tale of Brick’s young anti-hero, Gerald “Milty” Bostock, a troubled but talented boy whose worldview sours after he’s eliminated from a writing contest because of his provocative, oddball verses. Following the forty-minute epic, Anderson and company return with Brick 2, an hour-long progressive rock parable offering not one but five different outcomes for the adult Gerald over the course of sixteen or seventeen tracks.
Anderson’s two visionary epics—separated by four decades on record but united here for the first time ever—pack moments of musical drama and bursts of mind-blowing virtuosity from everyone involved. But there are also delicate instrumental passages and quiet spells wherein singing narrators Anderson and understudy Ryan O’Donnell chime in, pondering the works’ myriad “What Ifs, Maybes, and Might-Have-Beens” like modern analogues of a Greek chorus.
Rather than take their places at drums and keyboards, Anderson’s backup musicians stride onstage dressed like factory workers—who begin taking inventory, conduct inspections, and sweep the floor. Then the house lights dim, cueing Act I—and a introductory film shows a grown Bostock (unseen, off-camera) visiting psychotherapist “Maximilian Quad” (Anderson), who goads the patient into recounting the sources of his depression.
“Tell me how it all began,” says the shrink, prompting the musical retrospective.
Appearing stage left, Anderson—clad in a black skullcap, colorful vest, and grey jeans with matching Sketchers boots—stums a ¾ size-guitar and coos how Bostock’s befuddled prodigy-poet “might make you feel but can’t make you think.” Then it’s was off to the races, with pied piper Ian leading his charges through the original Brick’s two album sides (each clocking in around twenty minutes).
30-year old Bavarian guitar sensation Florian Opahle works magic with a gold-tinted Les Paul, wearing all black (but for his red suspenders and shoes). Drummer Scott Hammond—who’s played for members of Iron Maiden and Moody Blues—keeps time even when the meters got odd, or just downright bizarre. David Goodier thumps bass and contributes background vocals, and keyboardist John O’Hara tinkles away on his Roland and Hammond, his hair mussed like a mad scientist.
Apart from Anderson, the real draw is 32-year old O’Donnell, the British theatre vet who slips in and out of various Brick characters—and provides a sort of younger version of Tull’s tooting titan. Sporting a dichromatic shirt and pants (evoking the court jesters of old), O’Donnell shares lead vocals with Anderson and mirrors his dance moves, kicking his leg into Ian’s signature stork stance. A three-foot stick serves as a prop cane and air flute for the young doppelganger, who goes back-to-back with the maestro, sometimes manifesting a nifty double-image.
Act II commences with a video snippet of Colonel Archibald Parritt (Anderson again, in “posh man in garden” disguise) conducting a tour of his swanky castle estate at the behest of the St. Cleve Chronicle—the same publication that covered Bostock’s ill-fated poetry contest (as seen on Brick’s newspaper-like album sleeve). Now decked out in vest and derby, O’Donnell prefaces Brick 2’s “divergent and hypothetical” possibilities for an adult Bostock as troubadour Anderson strums away.
“Upper Sixth Loan Shark” and “Banker Bets, Banker Wins” paint the protagonist as a successful—but greedy—stockbroker, while “Swing It Far” and “Adrift and Dumfounded” picture him as a slovenly vagrant haunted by memories of schoolmaster abuse. “Old School Song” and “Wootton Bassett Town” imagine Gerald as a traumatized soldier. “Give Till It Hurts” and “The Power and Spirit” put O’Donnell in a priest’s frock for Gerald’s turn as a “puritan of moral fiber,” caught in a losing battle with a nasty sanctimonious streak. “Cosy Corner” and “Shunt and Shuffle” plant Bostock behind the counter at a hobby store. It’s a modest, less complicated fate, but one that leaves him lonely and despondent.
The eight-minute, riff-laden “Change of Horses” brings the karmic wheel full circle, concluding the patient’s confessional. Video clips for Act II parallel the subject’s many incarnations, with Anderson and the band counting money ‘round a conference table (the banker); black-and-white stills of soldiers in combat (the war veteran); photos of stained-glass windows (the priest); and images of model trains on thrift store shelves (the shopkeeper). But the cameras never lose sight of Anderson and his ace ensemble.
Ian huffs and hole-shades on his silvery flute, slurring his notes during face-offs with fleet-fingered guitarist Ophale. Goodier and Hammond also enjoy a bit of spotlight. O’Hara—whose earlier accordion assaults make for nice contrast—handles John Evan’s bluesy piano intro magnificently, and Opahle duplicates Martin Barre’s iconic guitar parts with accuracy, while injecting his own personal touches.
The sound is sublimely mixed and the lights accentuate the drama without distracting from it. The bifurcated performance is top-notch, really; a concept-driven musical journey rendered by precision players for whom three chords and a 4/4 beat just won’t do for longer than a measure or two.
Live in Iceland is also available in audio format (2 CDs).
Anderson’s latest solo album is Homo Erraticus, another Brick-related entry that loosely follows the Bostock character.
The DVD bonus features include a pre-show interview with Anderson (by Oli Palli) wherein the Tull flautist explains why he brings his instrument everywhere he goes: He says he has two main flutes—neither of which is custom-made nor especially valuable, notwithstanding their sentimental appeal. He claims one of his flutes has travelled over 100 million miles, having travelled to the International Space Station.
Anderson retraces the history of Thick as a Brick and its follow-up, and remembers how in 1972 he decided to beat the critics who called Aqualung a “concept album” by delivering the “mother of all concept albums.” But the Tull front man says he arranged the original Brick as a parody of prog rock, using “a comedic mask” to disguise some of the darker elements of the narrative.
Anderson also confesses he gave up playing guitar after hearing Eric Clapton, because he knew he’d never be that good. So he traded his six-string for a flute he saw hanging on the wall at a local music shop.
“It was an odd little moment, but life-changing,” he recalls.
Anderson also dishes on why his recent work is billed under his name rather than the J-Tull handle. He concedes “there’s a danger in branding,” and that casual fans come to expect “a certain repertoire” and key sounds (like blues rock guitar) from albums and concerts marketed with the Jethro Tull label.
“It’s a subtle signal,” concedes Anderson. “I feel more comfortable when it’s just ‘Ian Anderson,’ because it’s not just a rock concert.”
Another segment contains a jam on Tull hit “Someday the Sun Won’t Shine for You” at Montreux in 2012. Anderson goes toe-to-toe on harp (er, that’s harmonica) with late, great jazz fest founder Claude Nobs on the ten-minute romp in front of a cozy little audience—then pulls out his flute for a duel with a female flautist. It’s a fitting salute to Nobs, apart from being a unique (and spine-tingling) rock and roll moment that can’t ever be repeated.
The extras conclude with a pair of video selections taken from Anderson’s show proper in the Auditorium Stravinsky in July 2012 at Montreux Jazz Fest: “Upper Sixth Loan Shark” and “Banker Bets, Banker Wins.”
The disc is the latest in a string of great concert (Peter Gabriel, ZZ Top, etc.) and music documentaries (Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, etc.) from Eagle Rock. This one makes a nice companion to Anderson’s 2007 Orchestral Jethro Tull DVD.