By James Hicks
It was an event four decades in the making as last Thursday’s concert marked Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson’s first appearance in Morristown.
The intimate acoustics of the Community Theatre proved to be an ideal setting for Anderson’s musical language, a style that draws upon such diverse elements as rock, Celtic, blues and international influences.
Traveling without his usual cohorts from Jethro Tull, including guitarist Martin Barre and drummer Doane Perry, Anderson has put together a crack ensemble for this autumnal tour of 26 dates that includes guitarist Florian Opahle, drummer Scott Hammond and two members from the current Tull roster, keyboardist John O’ Hara and bassist Dave Goodlier.
The Jethro Tull songbook reaches all the way back to 1968 and Anderson, himself, has made four solo recordings, so it was no surprise that Thursday’s performance drew upon a wide variety of sources.
Given the longevity of Anderson’s career, it was appropriate that the concert began with a tune from the early period of Tull, Life’s A Long Song.
Although Anderson’s voice occasionally betrays the passage of time, his command of an arsenal of flutes and guitars is sharper than ever. The opening half, primarily acoustic in nature, demonstrated a fresh approach to many familiar Tull classics.
Rather than performing a by-the-numbers retrospective, Anderson’s troupe delved deeply into the Tull canon, rediscovering such esoterica as Wond’ring Again from the Living In The Past album and Up To Me, an unlikely selection from the benchmark opus Aqualung.
Anderson even resurrected The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, a hilarious excerpt from the controversial prog-rock album A Passion Play, performed here for the first time since 1973.
Interspersing new material, some of which was written for this tour, with new interpretations of Tull standards, Anderson’s band demonstrated an accommodating versatility as keyboardist John O’Hara also played accordion and percussion while bassist Dave Goodlier showed his proficiency with the glockenspiel.
Perhaps the most overtly virtuosic musician on this stage was the youthful German guitarist Florian Opahle. Technically adroit in any style, Opahle moved effortlessly from flamenco to baroque to hard rock in a truly incendiary performance.
The second half of the program progressed to a more electric, aggressive approach with such staples as Thick As A Brick and a glorious rendition of Budapest from 1987’s Grammy Award winning album, Crest Of A Knave.
The latter received a brilliant reading, replete with an inspired improvisatory dialogue between Anderson and Opahle. Even the expected warhorses, Locomotive Breath and Aqualung, were conceived in such unusual presentations that they sounded more like like new creations rather than the 40-year-old songs that they are.
All of this music seemed right at home in the Community Theatre, in contrast to the gargantuan arenas that have often hosted Tull concerts in the past. Indeed, the match between music and setting made one wish for selections from the folksy, late seventies masterwork Songs From The Wood and the blues-tinged Catfish Rising, an often underrated opus from the early ’90s.
The compelling perspective that the group brought to this repertoire makes one wish that Anderson would take a break from the road and re-enter the studio on a more regular basis.
Anderson has recently opined that he increasingly sees Jethro Tull functioning more as a live band rather than one that records new material, primarily due to the logistical difficulties of getting the various members together for the required length of time necessary for such an endeavor and the economic reality all musicians face in the online age.
Nevertheless, here is one commentator who is ready for a new offering by Anderson and company, perhaps, at least, a live CD of highlights from this tour if a return to the studio is not in the offing. If life is truly a long song, then there are surely more verses left in the hearts of these artists.
James Hicks is music director at The Presbyterian Church on the Green in Morristown.