Rock Report: Ian Anderson ‘Thick as a Brick’ Tour Review
Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson presented the crowd with both a full dose of nostalgia, and a new musical challenge in Nashville on Tuesday night (Oct. 30). Performing both the classic Tull album 'Thick as a Brick' and his new solo sequel 'Thick as a Brick 2' in their entirety, Anderson pulled off the unlikely feat of topping his past success with his newest work.
The original 'Thick as a Brick' was a long, musically and lyrically convoluted work that spanned two entire album sides, and since many of its passages feature Anderson on vocals, flute and acoustic guitar simultaneously, part of the challenge Tuesday night was performing it in an arrangement that was musically possible to pull off live. That demanded much of Anderson -- especially since many of those vocal parts employed the higher part of his range and long, sustained notes that are beyond his current vocal capabilities. Enter Ryan O'Donnell, a singing actor who performed many of the rangier parts from that album Tuesday, delivering them with phrasing so close to Anderson's own that it's almost startling.
O'Donnell portrayed the character of Gerald Bostock, the young boy from the concept who supposedly wrote the long poem upon which 'Thick as a Brick' was based. In so doing, he not only took some of the vocal weight off of Anderson, he also provided a focal point during times when Anderson was involved in long acoustic guitar or flute passages. In that sense his presence was positive, but there were also moments where some of the elements of theater and mime that his performance brought to the show threatened to lapse into absurdity -- as if the writers from Saturday Night Live drafted a sketch in which Spinal Tap performed 'Les Miserables.'
Fortunately, those moments were few. For the most part the first half of the evening succeeded at presenting a very ambitious mix of rock, folk, classical music, theater and multi-media elements in a way that brought a 40-year-old piece of work to new life -- albeit with a few fits and starts. The crowd certainly seemed to enjoy it, whooping and cheering Anderson with every rapid flute riff and bug-eyed expression -- particularly when he struck his trademark pose of playing the flute while standing on one leg.
After a brief intermission, the band returned to the stage to perform 'Thick as a Brick 2' in its entirety as well. Unlike the first album, which most people have heard at least portions of for the last four decades, this material was entirely new for many, and performing it could have been a disastrous choice. But for any Tull fans who have been thinking about attending this tour, then leaving after the first half, you really should mind if you sit this one out, because the evening's second half turned out to be the best part of the show by a wide margin.
The material from 'Thick as a Brick 2' was written more with this type of performance in mind, and while it certainly has no shortage of long instrumental passages and crazy solos in unusual time signatures, it seems to have been written with the specific intent of playing it live, with more exciting rhythms underpinning the main themes that make it far more compelling in a live setting. The central flute and guitar motif is also very strong, and Anderson wrote and recorded this material to accommodate his current vocal range, meaning that more of the focus of the evening's second half was on him, as it should be. O'Donnell was still present and very much a part of the music and presentation, but his presence onstage was far better integrated in the second half of the show.
What was truly remarkable about Tuesday night's performance is that this is not really a show that appears to have been designed with the interests of the fans in mind. This is a show in which Ian Anderson is giving his longtime fans exactly what he damn well wants to and challenging them to deal with it. You could call that self-indulgent, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong -- this is, after all, a man standing on one leg playing the flute as part of a classic rock show that incorporates elements of mime and interpretive dance -- but you have to admire the sheer artistic audacity that drives that, especially when it works this well.
Given the choice between rehashing old classic hits or moving forward musically, on Tuesday night in Nashville Ian Anderson simply chose to do both, and in such a way that he actually made fans like it.