When the Jethro Tull band takes to the stage at Starlight Theater Sept. 1, Baby Boomers will have the opportunity to stroll down memory lane and be re-introduced to one of the most innovative and creative bands that began performing on the world's music stages in the late-60s.
By RIMSIE MCCONIGA
When the Jethro Tull band takes to the stage at Starlight Theater Sept. 1, Baby Boomers will have the opportunity to stroll down memory lane and be re-introduced to one of the most innovative and creative bands that began performing on the world’s music stages in the late-60s. Younger listeners will discover a sound that is still, after five decades, unique in the world of rock music. The Grammy Award-winning band described by “Rolling Stone” magazine as one of the most commercially successful and eccentric progressive rock bands, Jethro Tull is ready to rock as it begins its 50th Anniversary Tour.
The band’s legendary singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Ian Anderson, is best known for his flair on the flute. The instrument wasn’t exactly a common sight among rock groups at the time, but Anderson’s love of the instrument ended up setting the band apart from the hundreds of other bands popular at the time and contributed to Jethro Tull’s mounting popularity. The band was also unique in that Anderson had a grunting, breathy technique of playing the flute while standing on one leg. His flamingo stance became his trademark.
After Anderson’s ambition to be a great guitarist faded because he felt he would never be as great as Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix, he decided to teach himself the flute. He learned to play it well in a very short time, but he advises future flautists to do what he didn’t do – take lessons from someone who can point them in the right direction.
“I just picked it up and figured out where to put my fingers and how to get a note out of it, and then the second note, simple beginnings,” says Anderson. “I was happy I could make a noise, rather than be an expert. After a couple of lessons a person may decide that they want to stay with it and progress through the more academic events and get to performance standards.”
Anderson says in many cases the flute is a conduit of the human voice and a person uses many of the same tools as a flautist that they use as a singer. As far as the flute being a one-note-at-a-time instrument, Anderson gets around that limitation by singing while playing.
“I think it’s much harder to be a singer and a flute player than to do either one alone because you’re asking your muscles to do two very different things. The reason I’m a singing flautist is I know that I would excel at neither one. I do both of them possibly because I don’t consider myself either a singer in the lofty realm of being a Robert Plant or a flautist like James Galway, one of the greatest flautists. I’m not in their league. Could never be,” he said.
He is a humble musician, but Anderson knows that he is very capable when it comes to writing music, producing records and being hands-on in all the detailed aspects of making records and performing concerts.
“I’m useful when you need someone who can do a bit of everything but I’m never going to be really accomplished in any one thing. Jack of all trades and master of none,” he said.
The inspiration for Anderson’s songs comes at many different times and places.
“A small town in middle America could be the setting for playing a riff on the guitar and coming up with a song like ‘Aqualung,’” says Anderson. “While there might be many cases like that there are other times where I’ve been sitting in a more consciously creative state when I’m at my home in Wiltshire, England and I can concentrate on a new album concept. I have to think about all the details and structure and I start getting things on paper and then I start refining it. I share it with the guys in the band and organize some rehearsals and make demos. You get a mixture of ideas anywhere, you could be at home, on vacation, even in a supermarket when a little idea pops into your head. I tend to refine those ideas at times when I don’t have to jump on an airplane.”
Commercial success was not a factor in what motivated the novice band members 50 years ago.
“Just do something because it consumes you for a few hours or days to make some good music and then maybe you stop and think how this will sit with the rest of the world,” says Anderson. “Sometimes you manage to create something that will have lasting value. If I knew what the convenient trick was to writing popular songs I might be attracted to do that but I think it’s better that we don’t apply those convenient methodologies and it’s better that we just follow our noses, it makes it more fun and more authentic at the end of the day.”
He is also a believer in putting the sheet music to one side and learning to play by ear.
“Play from the ear and from the heart and try to develop some abilities to improvise. That seems to me something you don’t find among classical musicians. I can think of two eminent flautists I knew that can’t improvise at all. Kind of strange you take away their music and they don’t know what to do. They are able to memorize it once they played it enough times from written music but they can’t just pick it up by ear and that’s a shame. It’s the way they are taught and the way they develop. By the time they are in their 20s if they haven’t learned to improvise it’s very hard to learn that later in life if you’re afraid of playing the wrong note because you’re a famous flute player. You only learn to play the right note in improvisation by playing the wrong ones. It’s difficult if you are James Galway to accept that you’re going to screw up a lot. In fact we had this conversation a few months ago when he told me he was beginning to take some lessons in improvisation from a Brazilian jazz flautist. I absolutely applaud his decision to do that in his late 70s and to finally try to crack that nut.”
Jethro Tull members have seen many things on tour in every part of the world over the last half century. Memorable moments have included concerts where things went badly wrong during shows, but most of Anderson’s memories are of excited fans and historical venues.
“I don’t remember concerts because audiences loved the show, I remember them because of the ambience and environment of a particular venue,” he said. “If you were one of the very few performers who got to perform at Ephesus, the ancient amphitheater in Turkey where St. Paul famously preached the word of early Christianity to a quite hostile, small audience in a 23,000-seat amphitheater, it was a great thing to have stood on that stage and not perform to a handful of angry people, but 23,000 who came to see the concert, and hopefully we gave a good show. There was a ghostly, spiritual nature of those who had stood on that stage. We also performed on the stage of a more modern amphitheater built in 1930 as a Nazi rally arena where Hitler delivered one of his rabble-rousing speeches. When you stand on that stage you’re aware of your predecessors. It was an opportunity to bring a lightness to that dark history.”
When it comes to music and memories Anderson says listening to a certain piece of music will remind you of a certain time in life, a place where you lived, relationships you might have been in.
“I can’t be nostalgic about my early music because I played it a few days ago and I’ll be playing it tomorrow and next week on tour. It’s hard to be nostalgic about something you just played a few days ago. For me it doesn’t have to do with nostalgia it has to do with intense focus on memorizing thousands of notes and hundreds of words. Every evening I have to remember not only the words and notes but put them in the right order. You’re forced to exercise your brain in a way that requires being on top of what you set out to do. If you see me reading from an autocue, which I’ve seen a lot of artists do because they can’t remember the words to their own songs – I won’t name names – that would be kind of weird. Luckily, I haven’t gotten to that point in my life where I have to be reminded. They are in my head and all the music, whether I’m playing guitar or flute, I work on it. It requires quite a bit of preparation, rehearsal. I go through everything in my head not just to know which notes to play and in which mechanical order, it’s the nuances as well. You have to remember you’re in a performance and you have to bring it to life by playing it in a certain way with the subtle nuances that bring it to life. You have to prepare like an actor on Broadway or the West End of London, you can’t just remember the words, you have to know how to say them, the timing, the nuance, the diction. Prepare to do homework, keep up to that standard. You can’t just walk up on stage and expect it all to be just like it was last week. A little preparation to make sure you feel it’s the way you want it to be to give the audience value for money, a good representation of the best that you can do.”
Anderson says he tends to have his head in the sand when it comes to contemporary musicians. He loves music of all kinds but doesn’t want to be inadvertently influenced by the way other musicians do things.
“If it’s something really good and people are saying they’re the biggest and best around I almost turn away, I don’t want to be influenced by who people think are great,” says Anderson. “I don’t want to feel that I’m being enticed into trying to emulate them in some way. We were the opening band for Led Zeppelin back in 1969. I watched them night after night, but I didn’t want to be influenced by the way they did things. I wanted to do my own thing because I knew I couldn’t be Robert Plant. I couldn’t sing like that and I couldn’t look like that. It was beyond me. I always tried to find something inside myself or from some musical genre way outside the rock industry. I tried to avoid what other people were doing. Sometimes I’ve been unsuccessful at that. Sometimes I’ve drawn upon what someone else is doing and I usually regret it because I see later the degree that I have done something perhaps under the influence of someone else who I admired and enjoyed from the contemporary peer group of music.”
Although ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ was the mantra for many of the bands that rose to fame in the time when Jethro Tull was at the height of their fame, Tull’s band members tended to be private people who, pre-show, were all about calmness and quietness.
Keith Moon, drummer for The Who was destroying hotel rooms and throwing full-sized pianos into the hotel pool and Ozzy Osbourne was biting heads off of live bats on stage, but none of this was even remotely appealing to Jethro Tull members.
“I always say we are one of the dullest and unexciting rock bands you can ever imagine,” says Anderson.
There were no groupies or hangers-on allowed backstage. They prepare in their own ways and the hour before the show is private for every member. Anderson says they are “quiet as mice” even in the shared dressing room so they don’t destroy their moments of personal preparation. After the shows they clean up and tidy their instruments and then get together for a beer or a glass of wine.
“Then that’s it, we’re done and go to bed,” says Anderson. “Once on the tour bus, a half hour later everybody is fast asleep. Everyone has to work the next morning. Band guys like to get up early and explore the town they are in and see cathedrals and art galleries and sit and people watch. Most people would find it excruciatingly boring to be on tour with Jethro Tull. Sex drugs and rock and roll are somewhat exaggerated. Most bands now and even back then realized that they had to get up in the morning and start their day and turn into an amazingly efficient and hard working and musically capable bunch of people and you can’t do that if you’re hung over from the night before or you are out of your box on drugs. You have to be pretty sharp and on top of things. The bands who did a lot of drink and drugs had to mend their ways or in many cases they’re no longer with us.”
For Tull fans who plan to see the 50th Anniversary concert Sept. 1 at Starlight, Anderson feels confident that they will have a good night as they experience some music they will be familiar with, along with some new Tull songs that they will never have heard before.
“Some we have never played on stage except in the last few months,” says Anderson. “A bunch of iconic heavy hitters are among the repertoire we will be playing, mostly focusing on the first 10 years of our record releases. That applies to the production, the video screen will help to put into context the age of Jethro Tull – we’re spanning 50 years now. The video screen will highlight 36 other band members who have played over the years and I want to make sure audience members will catch a little glimpse of every one of them. I think people will go away feeling they got what they came for, plus a little extra stuff they will feel put the fairy lights on the Christmas tree and sparkled things up a bit.”