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A Late Autumn Evening With Jethro Tull in Ottawa, Canada


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Jethro Tull / Ian AndersonJethro Tull
An Evening With Jethro Tull
Southam Hall,
National Arts Centre,
Ottawa, Canada
November 26, 2007

While countless groups from the classic rock era reunite for tours seemingly planned as nothing more than a cash grab and one more last chance to feel the love, Jethro Tull can be accused of neither. First, Tull leader/songwriter Ian Anderson has proven himself to be as astute a businessman as he is a talented musician—a multi-millionaire who simply doesn't need to generate any more income. Second, Tull has never gone away, continuing to record and tour since its inception in 1968 (the group gradually came together prior to that year, but didn't adopt the name until then).

While any Tull show demands revisiting of material from the early years to the end of the 1970s, the group has managed to reinvent itself and evolve throughout the decades—from blues band to art rockers to progressive British folksters and even heavy metalers, with Crest of a Knave (Chrysalis, 1987) winning a Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance, despite there being little metallic about the group except, perhaps, for the sometimes hard rock stance of flexible guitarist Martin Barre, who has remained Anderson's constant companion in Tull since its second album, Stand Up (Chrysalis, 1969).

There was no shortage of gray hair in the audience at Tull's November 26, 2007 show in Ottawa, but few instances of the formal attire that's usually found when Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre is used for its symphony orchestra series. It was also a more rambunctious bunch, pumped from the moment Anderson and Barre took the stage for "Some Day The Sun Won't Shine," a blues from This Was (Chrysalis, 1968), with Anderson's harmonica playing in fine form. Unfortunately, Anderson's voice has lost much of its power and range over the years, and he was clearly struggling—something which could easily have marred the show had he not made some significant adjustments.

align=center>Jethro Tull / Ian Anderson l:r John O'Hara, Ian Anderson, David Goodier

While there's no getting around singing some of Tull's more memorable material, Anderson conceded to his weakening voice by placing far more emphasis on the group as an instrumental unit than ever before. The show was easily seventy-percent instrumental and, with his voice down in the mix, it was relatively easy to ignore any vocal missteps, of which there were sadly no small number. Anderson could be seen literally leaping after the high notes, and he sang so far behind the beat that, at times, the vocals seemed out of synch with the rest of the band.

Not that the rough edges mattered a whole lot to the near-capacity crowd. Anderson played mandolin and acoustic guitar, but it's the flute that's his main axe, and it's unlikely he's ever sounded better. It was easy to forgive the vocals on classic tunes like "Living in the Past" and "Nothing is Easy" when Anderson picked up his primary instrument. He's evolved from a decent flautist in his early days to an outstanding one now— assertive, inventive, possessing remarkable extended technique and a tone that's full and rich. Like a a coy but confident cat he prowled the stage, mugging for the audience and occasionally striking the one-legged "crane" pose that he's been doing since the beginning of his career with Tull. He may have turned sixty this year, but physically he's in better shape than many half his age.

He also entertained the crowd between songs, with the self-deprecating humor that's always been a part of the Tull stage act. Gone are the clown suits, codpieces and trench coats of mid-1970s Tull, but Anderson's throwback banter kept the tone light for the entire evening.

align=center>Jethro Tull / Ian Anderson / Martin Barre l:r Ian Anderson, Martin Barre

Why Barre hasn't achieved the "guitar god" status of many of his British peers has always been a curiosity. He's always been a remarkably diverse player, and at the Ottawa show he proved as capable of rocking out on a medley of material from Tull's best-selling concept album Thick as a Brick (Chrysalis, 1972) as he was at referencing jazz legend Wes Montgomery during a swinging version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"—one of two Christmas songs the group played, the other being a 5/4 take on "We Three Kings." He played bouzouki on "King Henry's Madrigal" (more recently renamed "Past Time With Good Company"), and even subbed on flute, while Anderson played mandolin on Stand Up's "Fat Man" (or, as Anderson introduced it for these politically correct times, "Don't Want to be a Clinically Obese Man").

Perhaps Barre, who deserved attention if not respect for his playing, but displayed none of the poseur stance normally associated with rock guitarists, is too humble for his own good. Regardless, his relationship with Anderson is one of the longest in the history of rock and, unlike some longstanding musical relationships that are more out of necessity (e.g. The Who), these two clearly continue to enjoy working together.

With Jethro Tull becoming something of a revolving door of musicians, especially after the departure of Fairport Convention bassist David Pegg, who played with the group through the 1980s and into the mid- 1990s, it would be difficult to say that the band as presently constituted has a particularly strong group identity. Still, drummer James Duncan, keyboardist/accordionist John O'Hara and bassist David Goodier were all fine band mates, especially when getting enough opportunity to prove their worth, though the trio largely played a supportive role to Anderson and Barre, providing accompaniment that was extremely tight (no small feat considering Anderson's often complex arrangements), in particular an idiosyncratic take on the title track from Aqualung (Chrysalis, 1971). Unlike the original recording, the background on this occasion shed the pseudo-metal, pseudo-riffing trappings for the most part and, to accommodate Anderson's voice, became a considerably gentler song.

Jethro Tull / Ian Anderson

The two sets were largely divided, as has been Tull's approach for the past few years, into a first, mainly acoustic, set and a second, more electric one. Not to worry: there was energy to spare during both sets, and no shortage of beauty either. A largely instrumental medley of two songs rarely (if ever) heard in performance—"Sossity; You're a Woman," from Benefit (Chrysalis, 1970) and "Reasons for Waiting," from Stand Up—proved that there's plenty of material from the Tull catalog that can be reworked to accommodate a more instrumental version of the group, such as the one heard in Ottawa on this late autumn night.

While the epic "Budapest," from Crest of a Knave, sadly didn't make it onto the Ottawa set list, Anderson closed the show with two more Aqualung favorites—"My God" and, for Tull's one encore, "Locomotive Breath." It was here that Anderson's deteriorating vocals proved especially problematic, but again the crowd didn't seem to care. They had come to hear their Tull favorites, and they got them—and a whole lot more.

In all candor, it's hard to say how long Anderson can keep the show in play, since his voice is already markedly weaker than on a recording as recent as Live at Montreux 2003 (Eagle Eye, 2007). But even if he's ultimately forced to give up singing altogether, it's highly likely that devoted fans will still come out to hear instrumental versions of their favorite Tull classics—and as long as Anderson can still play the flute, he's got more than enough reason to stay on the road.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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