Jethro Tull is one of the somewhat underappreciated bands of the 1970s I've always wanted to see, and based an impulse decision, I went down to Constitution Hall in Washington, DC to check out their live show. It is a decision that I do not regret in the least, and I ended up with an amazing and unique concert experience.
We arrived just as the band opened with the title song from their latest release, Roots to Branches, which I do not own. But based on what I heard, the album definitely bears checking out. It sounds like a return to the sounds of old, particularly the period between 1969 and 1971. While they didn't play a lot of stuff from their latest release, I don't think it was necessarily a bad thing since I was seeing Jethro Tull for the first time and I wanted to hear all the old stuff live!
The first act, which was about a half-hour, included Thick as a Brick I, Hunting Girl, and songs from frontman/lead vocalist/flutist/acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson's, and guitarist Martin Barre's solo releases. The entire set consisted of two songs from each person's solo efforts. The act ended with a long rearranged and improvisational version of Aqualung. Part of the medley involved separate flute, guitar, and keyboard (Andrew Giddings), solos from the band which all converged together in a crescendo fashion just before the lights went out. This was pretty amazing in and of itself, but the incredible thing was that it was all done in a 5/4 time signature, syncopated even further by Doane Perry's amazing drumming!
Right from the first song, the rhythm section was really tight, and the guitars, keyboards and the flute complemented each other well. Anderson's vocals still have the same energy and the power they have on the 25-year old studio recordings, but for some reason he sang in a lower octave range and was off-pitch a few times (which given the power of his voice, I'm assuming, was intentional since he also sang stuff fairly differently from the studio releases).
Most of the songs they played were "golden oldies". Four of the songs were from their 1969 release Stand Up: Fat Man, Nothing is Easy, Bourée, and We Used to Know. Anderson mentioned that in '71, they had a band open for them who used to watch them while they performed We Used to Know. That band was The Eagles, who, according to Anderson, "have moved on to become bigger than we did." We Used to Know and Hotel California both have the same chords (information courtesy of Martin Barre) and Anderson claimed that The Eagles should share with them the royalties from Hotel California, so we could all go out to a big dinner. While there is a resemblance between the two songs (particularly when Barre played the solo parts, which sounded somewhat like the Hotel California solo at the end), I don't think it's an infringement of any sort. More interesting, however, was their rendition of Bourée, which was originally written by J. S. Bach. It consisted of both Anderson and Barre on the flute along with Giddings' keyboards playing brilliantly off of each other.
The highlight of the evening for me (and most of the crowed) was when they played Locomotive Breath. While I wouldn't claim Jethro Tull as an influence to my own music, Locomotive Breath is a song I cover and I think it is one of the coolest 4-chord songs ever written. It's one of those songs that's really aggressive and heavy, but yet can easily be performed with just a guitar and your voice (excluding the flute part, of course). The order of the song was changed around a bit: it started with the flute replacing the vocals for the first verse (presumably so we could all sing along to it) and then the next two verses were the first and third verses in the original song. Besides Locomotive Breath and the title track, there was My God and Mother Goose from Aqualung. There were a couple of songs I didn't recognise which I presume were from the Roots to Branches album. The encore consisted of Jump Start, a bit of Thick as a Brick, and two balloons that were popped very quickly.
The concert experience was unique not just because of the brilliant music and performance, but because Anderson was in a wheelchair with a broken leg. While I cannot claim that this is the first time I've ever seen a frontman in a wheelchair, this definitely is the first time I've ever seen such an energetic one! Anderson explained it saying that it happened as a result of him "trying to act like a 20 year old." This comment probably referred to the fact that he tried to jump high in a recent concert in Lima, Peru, and as a result broke his leg. Still, I do think it was rather valiant of him to keep going and not cancel the tour---I guess now the phrase "one-legged flute player" takes on a new meaning, eh?
This was the first time I was going to Constitution Hall, and it is a great venue to sit down and see a show. The acoustics are great, and in this particular case, the mix was impeccable. There's really not a "bad" seat, since the place is not too big (about 3000 people). The downside is that there's very little place to move around.
All in all, it was a great show: Anderson's flute work is maniacal, and his vocals are as powerful as ever (even though he's turning 49), Barre's guitar work (he's turning 50, and was the subject of Anderson's banter) is spectacular, Giddings' keyboards and Perry's drumming are simply sensational. The sheer technical ability and improvisational of the band, combined with their innovative and experimental songwriting, make watching Jethro Tull live a worthwhile experience. I'm looking forward to seeing them again, perhaps with a set list that includes a lot more stuff from their Roots to Branches album. At the rate they're going, it doesn't seem like there's no way they're going to slow down!