There aren’t many surprises on Ian Anderson’s current tour, save for this: Who knew that his secret ambition was to have his songs performed on “Glee”?
Billed as “Jethro Tull” on the ticket, “Jethro Tull: Written and Performed by Ian Anderson” on the Pantages maquee, and “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” on the title card seen as the lights go down (the last allows you to guess the crowd’s reading comprehension, as the enthusiastic cheers deflate into puzzlement—”YAAAAAaaay-uh?”
What follows is not, thank God, a musical retelling of the band’s history, and it’s not really about the 18th century inventor/agronomist who lent the band his name. Rather, it’s about his great-great-great-great-great-great….grandson, also named Jethro. He’s gone into the family business, only instead of a farmer, he’s a bio-chemist. But he’s a good biochemist, or something, spurning the father and his awful city to toil in the fields. It’s all very muddled, truth be told, railing against GMOs and “Frankenfields,” while also warning darkly of famine and crop failures caused by global warming (which, I think, young Jethro manages to thwart, so…better living—or not?—through chemistry…).
Anderson—a musician who has never shied away from conceptual bloat—does manage to pull off a neat trick. Instead of presenting his “opera” as a discrete composition, to be followed by a set of hits, he absorbs Tull’s best known songs into his opera. (And it’s a good thing he did. The new songs and interstitial material composed for the piece are a sorry lot, lacking any memorable melodies or prog-rock riffage; Anderson is not the type of songwriter who can make intellectual property or biological patents hummable. Things reach their nadir on “Fruits of Frankenfields,” an interminable screed against GMOs and Big Agriculture. It could make even the greenest among us feel sympathy for Monsanto.)
The production doesn’t help matters. In the interest of drama (or, if you’re less charitable, to give his badly deteriorated voice a rest), Anderson has apportioned the lyrics to different characters: the young Jethro, his father, and his wife. He’s cast two additional singers: Ryan O’Donnell as young Tull, and Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir as his wife (bassist David Goodier takes the role of Jethro’s father). But rather than appear on stage, they perform on video. It feels like a cost cutting measure, as does the video, which follows the action from the British countryside to London to Oxford to Italy by inserting the actors over backdrops. It’s pomp on the cheap, which is never pretty.
It’s musically unsatisfying as well. My heart’s not so small and black that I didn’t feel a thrill when the six-note riff introducing “Aqualung” was played, but if I were a fan, I’d feel cheated once I realized the song was going to be performed by Anderson’s Harry Potter-manque….on video. What’s surprising is how easily Anderson’s songs fit into musical-theater trope. “Wind-Up” is turned into the hero’s declaration of intent, a “Don’t Rain On My Parade” for a cloudy country; “With You There To Help Me” a duet of long-distance love.
The musicians are all fine, but little more than that. They’re asked not to add personality, but play to a track. Guitarist Florian Opahle manages to not only recreate the recorded solo on “Aqualung,” but to perform it in unison with a video of him playing said solo. It’s a talent, but only a superfically impressive one. The finale, a bit of Bach-rock (including “Bourée”) allowed the band a chance to stretch out, and gave Anderson his longest flute solo.
There’s something to be said for classic rockers trying to recontexturalize their catalog, and Anderson has seemingly solved the problem of how to keep fans in their seats for his new songs. But for now, Jethro Tull: the Rock Opera is a prog-rock jukebox musical, a repackaged hits collection taken on the road.