Monday, August 5, 2013

Ian Anderson Thick As A Brick

Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Plays Thick As A Brick I&II. Monday, July 8, 2013. 8 p.m. War Memorial Opera House. 
This expedition was the brainchild of long time colleague and Tull fan John Stuber. He’s a member of The Albany All-Stars.
We met outside the Opera House. Ushers in suits and ties directed us to use the side doors. They did look a little nervous. This had to be an unusual crowd for the staff here. A female volunteer usher told us, “They’re not used to old Rockers.” Maybe they were bracing for the worst, but I had to smirk. This was much different from a Tull crowd of the Seventies. The friendly usher said she “had just seen this show in L.A. three days ago” and she was back for more. 
We had great seats in the second row of the balcony. We had arrived promptly. These shows start on time nowadays. Stuber commented on the size of the speakers. In the Seventies there would have been huge piles of amplifiers. Now that was obsolete technology. There are few if any sound delays in the Rock show of today. Today’s sound may be “better” and certainly cheaper, but there had been something cool about the piles of equipment. “They blew out the speakers, man!”  
We had a short wait and listened to some Captain Beefheart on the tape played for the waiting audience. I’m pretty sure it was Sugar N’ Spikes. There were many empty seats upstairs near show time, but it did fill in later. 
A roadie comes onstage in a tan frock coat and a cap. He checks the lights with a flashlight and appears to be doing other pre-concert chores. Others join him and they start sweeping the stage and tidying up. They huddle, link arms and sway back and forth like a college basketball team getting ready to take the court. Then they take their places at the instruments onstage. 
There’s a screen behind the band. It shows us Gerald Bostick’s view of a trip to a psychiatrist’s office. The office door opens, and the psychiatrist is Ian! Frightening. He wants Gerald to discuss how his inferiority complex began.
Ian comes onstage to our right. Under a spotlight he plays the opening riffs from Thick As A Brick. (TAAB) “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out ...” It’s great to hear the old Tull sound again. None of these band members are “originals” but we know Ian has gathered great musicians. 
Thick As A Brick was done almost exactly note for note. I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve heard the whole thing. Some of the solos stretched out and wandered from the original, but that was barely noticeable. Ian took his trademark stance, one leg folded up under the other like a stork, and played the first flute solo. He’s still the pied piper for Baby Boomers.   
It’s a bit jarring when the first street sweeper joins Ian onstage and sings. Maybe it’s so surprising because I can’t recall anyone besides Ian ever singing at a Tull show. The young man carries a flute. I thought I saw him banging it on the stage. Maybe it’s just a prop. 
Is Ian trying to preserve his voice? There are parts of TAAB that would call for him to play the flute, sing and play guitar at the same time. Hard to pull off, even for him. The first stage sweeper is Ryan O’Donnell. Sometimes he is the narrator. 
Ian does look older, but he’s in great physical shape. He even looks a bit burly. It had been a while since I saw him. ( Ian was always an old looking guy anyway. Even before the Aqualung he looked like a character out of Dickens. “Smearing shabby clothes...”
It’s more relaxed than the shows of old. Maybe the memories of shows of the Seventies are half the fun of seeing him now. Ian had twirled like a dervish and pirouetted in the air back then. He seemed almost superhuman sometimes. The spark and humor was still there, but he can’t physically move like he used to.  
The other stage sweepers are: Florian Opahle, guitar. John O’Hara, keyboards and some great accordion. Bassist, David Goodier and Scott Hammond on drums. 
Someone’s cell phone is ringing! It’s Ian’s phone. He apologizes, but takes the call. It reminded me of the sketches they used to do. An old fashioned phone would sit onstage. Once in a while it would ring. The phone calls linked parts of the show with little absurdities. Maybe it was funnier before cell phones.
Tonight it’s Anna Phoebe on the phone. She wants to play with the band, but she won’t really be there. She will join them by Skype. I don’t know if anyone has tried this before, but it could set a dangerous precedent for future guest stars at many shows. “He couldn’t make it here tonight, but from the emergency room, here’s our special guest...”
Live Skype performances or interviews can have many technical problems. Somehow they blend in the Skyped violin with the rest of the band. After the show I learned there are some technical tricks that the audience is unaware of tonight.  
Anna seems to be having child care problems. See shows us the baby and puts the child down so she can play on the next segment. Isn’t there anyone around who can help out? This is verging on child endangerment!  
Thick As A Brick was Ian’s parody of concept albums. It followed the adventures of prodigy poet Gerald Bostick. There’s only one screen behind the band. We’re treated to various works of art. There are comic and pulp magazine covers. “We’ll have Superman as president, let Robin save the day!”  
Was this what Ian had wanted years ago? Did he always want to present his music in theater pieces on a real stage? It must be great to be playing venues like an opera house after surviving the Rock sheds of the past. This crowd was attentive and not hurling firecrackers towards the stage. It was certainly more civilized. 
We know we’re close to the end of TAABI. Ian talks about how many of us, especially males, are having problems during “the final stages of life.” The horrible truth: We can’t make it too long without a bathroom break. No one has stirred from their seats, so it’s obvious when a hapless male wanders near the front of the stage. Ian asks “Tom”  where he’s going. The bathroom! A perfect, timely example. Ian enlists Tom as a volunteer in a public health demonstration. A female volunteer from the audience offers to assist. “I’m a real doctor,” she says, “Dr. Terry” 
Ian’s humor has always been ribald and bawdy. It’s the old anal up your bum sort of humor. The volunteers go behind a screen and we see a frantic proctology exam silhouetted. It’s not much of an encouragement to get an exam, but apparently this is a serious pitch. Ian tells the males of the audience to have an exam. Victims of prostate cancer are shown on screen, including Telly Savalas, Joey Ramone and Frank Zappa!  
TAAB I ends with the screen showing the last word, just in case. The crowd yells Brick!   
After a short intermission, we settled in for TAAB II. The tape played Dirty Love by Zappa and the Mothers. 
On the screen onstage, we’re shown a tour of gardens and a mansion near the town of Cleves. It’s very aristocratic.   
I expected TAAB II to be more of the same, and it did sound similar. Stuber liked it more than TAAB I. “It’s written for his voice the way it is today.” Both pieces were great, but it was surprising that TAAB II held its own against the original.  
The critics had roasted Ian for TAAB I and his next album, Passion Play. He was bitter about it and threatened to retire from playing live. Maybe it was just an excuse not to tour for a while.   
The screen behind the band shows us a man wandering the St. Cleves’ countryside in an old frogman outfit with aqualungs. He struggles over cement and mud in long flipped feet. He is persistent and near the end of TAAB II walks across a beach and into the sea. It looks like he’s home again.  
TAAB II ends and the crowd rises and applauds. An onscreen Ian introduces the musicians. There’s no way they can leave without playing something from Aqualung. TAAB I&II have been great, but the piano intro to Locomotive Breath brings the first real Tull rush of the evening. Heads are bobbing to the beat. “Old Charlie stole the handles!” 
So, what’s next? Will Ian tour with a version of Passion Play? 

Later: About a week after the show I saw a “Production Profile” on this site: 
To keep production costs down there were no live cameras onstage. The shots we saw of the band were pre-recorded. The timing on TAAB was so precise that I never noticed that there were no cameras onstage supplying the footage for the screen in back. It’s another testament to the musicians. They “played to a click.” 
Maybe some of this was explained from onstage, but although the sound was great, I did have a hard time understanding Ian’s Glaswegian accent. 
The Skype segment was never on Skype. It was recorded too. Once again the musicians had to rise to the occasion and be exact.
You can catch The Albany All Stars at The Ivy Room or Freight and Salvage. Watch for future listings!