Some casual observers might not appreciate the difference between a Jethro Tull concert and an Ian Anderson solo performance, given that Anderson is the only constant member in Tull’s 30-plus year history, not to mention being the band’s songwriter, singer and (most especially distinctively) flute player. But Anderson himself has always insisted that he, alone, is not Jethro Tull — since, to his view, it takes stalwart lead guitarist Martin Barre’s participation to muster critical Tull mass. Which makes sense, of course, if you consider that Jethro Tull’s most distinctive riff, from their ever-popular classic rock radio hit “Aqualung,” spins only off of Barre’s guitar.
So last week at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, we had no Martin Barre, and therefore no “Aqualung,” and therefore an Ian Anderson show, not a Jethro Tull concert. Thing was, though, it wasn’t really a solo show at all, since Anderson had four young English players in tow, spent a good chunk of the evening sitting on a sofa talking with radio personality Bob Wolf of PYX-106, and actually backed local musician Kevin Thompson on one number — when he wasn’t talking to audience members, that is.
See, Ian Anderson’s show was a “Rubbing Elbows” affair, an apt name both from a standpoint of the intimate chumminess that he hoped to evoke with this odd ball kind of approach, and from the standpoint of acknowledging the carpal tunnel syndrome prone Anderson’s preferred method of greeting, in lieu of the traditional handshake.
Does that all sound like it mighta coulda shoulda been a self-indulgent train wreck from an audience observation standpoint? It did to me (despite my long-time fondness for Anderson and Jethro Tull alike), and I think it would have been in the hands of a less genial, thoughtful, and erudite performer — but Anderson managed to make it all work charmingly and effectively, nicely filling two sets over nearly three hours, seemingly leaving the capacity crowd pleased and impressed with what they saw, heard and experienced.
And not just because of the talk, mind you, either, since the music was jolly delightful as well. While we didn’t get to hear “Aqualung” (the song), for instance, we did get to hear the rarely-played acoustic hearts and soul of Aqualung (the album) when Anderson and company offered a back-to-back, somehow very poignant and touching twofer package of “Cheap Day Return” and “Mother Goose.”
I can imagine either of those songs surviving and still being performed 100 years from now as representatives of the great folk music of their time, as I could with other tunes offered Tuesday night, like “Up the ‘pool” and “Christmas Song” and even the first edit of “Thick as a Brick.” And that’s because, when you strip away from Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson the concepts behind the concept albums, and when you strip away the flute and the codpiece and even trusty old Martin Barre, then what you’re left with are some truly lovely, truly literate songs that hold up exceedingly well, absent all their usual embellishments.
Good for Ian Anderson for choosing to share these songs — and many others, including a robust selection of primarily instrumental cuts from his solo albums Divinities and The Secret Language of Birds — in such a fresh and interesting format. I can now count him as my first four decade musical man (having seen him live in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and Naughts), and he’s never bored me, never once, nor have his songs — which are going to live on for years and years after he’s passed the point of sitting on sofas onstage or watching Martin dear Martin play “Aqualung” for the four millionth time. Goody goody.