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December 1995 / January 1996
On his first tour of America without Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson chose to play relatively intimate venues such as the ballroom of Chicago's Bismark Hotel. Touring in support of his solo album, The Divinities, Anderson assembled a small, flexible touring unit consisting of Tull members Doane Perry (drums) and Andy Giddings (keyboards) along with Whippersnapper alumnus Chris Leslie on fiddle and bassist Jonathan Noyce to play the orchestrally arranged instrumental music.
The entire Divinities album was played straight through for the first half of a nearly three-hour show. After a break, the band returned to play an unusual mix of Tull material, including rarely performed songs like 'Jack in the Green' and 'Heavy Horses,' along with radically retuned versions of familiar pieces like 'Locomotive Breath' and 'Aqualung,' performed mostly instrumentally with the flute as lead melodic instrument.
When the Divinities project was originally proposed to Anderson by the classical division of EMI, he had his doubts.
"I had presumed this would be the awful classical-symphony-orchestra-with-a-rock-group routine, so I didn't respond too quickly. But they said 'No, we want you to write some original music for the flute and perhaps other instruments of the traditional classical orchestra.' And they went further to suggest a religious or a spiritual theme."
After making a couple of demos, Anderson began working on the project in earnest, writing and recording the material between Tull tours during 1994. For the first time, he was writing material on the flute, rather than on guitar or keyboards. When he decided he needed a collaborator to work up the arrangements, he turned to Tull keyboardist Giddings.
"We worked on the thing from the very beginning. This was a different way of working for me. I felt that the greatest certainty of having something acceptable at the end was by working with someone that I knew. The alternative would have been to work with someone from orchestral music, a classical background. That would have meant taking a risk that I really didn't want to have to take, given that there was only a limited amount of time."
There is a significant baroque flavor to many of the compositions on The Divinities but it's difficult to pin Anderson down on his musical influences.
"I can't really tell you. I don't really know much about classical music so I can't really comment. I just write stuff. If I write a piece in a certain vein then I will try to let it flow in that direction, but it is not an analytical or a formal approach. I'm not interested in that sort of detail. I'm certainly not interested in that sort of historical perspective on different periods of music.
"It's one of the things I've always found really irritating about folk music. Many people feel that Jethro Tull has one foot in the world of folk, but I know nothing about folk music at all, in terms of traditional tunes. I don't know their names, where they're from, anything about them. What I do recognize is melody, harmony, and certain approaches, emotional and practical, because you're in many ways governed by the mechanics of the instrument you play. Fiddle players have a lot in common with mandolin players, because it's essentially the same instrument, so they are very much alike in terms of what you might end up playing on them.
"To me things fall onto your fingers or they don't," Anderson continued. "They're part of your vocabulary of influences or they aren't, but to sit and analyze them, you become sort of a boring academic. That was one of the things we used to find quite laughable about certain English folk bands — the sort of Smithsonian approach to folk music. I never had much time for that. I always preferred the folks like Bert Jansch and Roy Harper, who clearly moved on a pace, and whose influences were clearly much broader than the traditional English folkie thing. Bands like Steeleye Span were sort of cabaret folk; it was good fun, but I always felt they were at their best when they sort of stepped outside of that traditional format.
"It's not that I dislike traditional music, it's just that I find it unnecessary to be tied up in that rather restrictive world of mechanically and practically perfect renditions of English folk or jazz or black American blues. To try to emulate the music precisely as some sort of historical traditional approach of any culture seems almost irrelevant. Much better to sort of soak up the ambience of it and if that comes through your music, fine. If it doesn't, well, something else will."
The Divinities tour has afforded Anderson the opportunity to broaden his arsenal of wind instruments onstage. He had played some tin whistle in a pre-Jethro Tull band in 1967 and played one in recordings in 1975 and 1976.
"Over the years, I've picked up various sorts of little wooden flutes, and other members of the flute family. Usually they're sort of wall-hanging things that don't really play. When I was in Madras, India, last year, I picked up some flutes that weren't impeccably well made, or impeccably well pitched and tuned, but at least they were a step above most of the stuff that I'd seen before. I had used those on the Divinities album, all but a couple of tracks."
Anderson then found Patrick Olwell, an instrument maker, who makes replica Indian bamboo flutes.
"He really does build them much more accurately," said Anderson. "They are much more correctly in concert pitch."
Another big difference in the Divinities band relative to Tull is the absence of electric guitar, particularly a dominant instrumental voice such as Martin Barre. The solo tour's acoustic band has allowed Anderson to work with lower onstage volume.
"I personally have a real problem with playing loudly. I've never really liked loud, loud music, and I find, as I'm getting older, that I really resent music having to be at such loud volumes onstage. It's loud onstage, and then you have monitors with everything coming at you again, so it's doubly or triply reinforced. It gets crazy, and if you're acoustic musicians, you're fighting a losing battle every night because you can only go so loud. The flute, for example, sounds very unpleasant when played at levels substantially above its acoustic volume. It's a very piercing and demanding force with a limited frequency range, producing a very pure wave form that can be very hard on the ears over time.
"The nature of the music is such that the way we've arranged it, the way we've developed it from something that requires an electric guitar, it's an opportunity to switch the emphasis to the flute and, to a lesser extent, to the violin. I've always rather liked the violin as another instrument in the band but, for various practical reasons, it's a lonely and erratic voice. Any violin player in a band knows from experience that he's got the hardest job of all, having to find good intonation in the quagmire of sound you find standing onstage with everything flying around at you."
In particular, Anderson remarked on the sound of spontaneous outbursts from his audiences.
"We're trying to play a note that demands a lot of finesse just to be really in control of something and when somebody hoots or hollers or makes the noises they make, it throws you off completely. And it's not just me. Finesse and precision is just not something that is achievable in America. It applies in other parts of the world, but I'd say it's in America most often, that you have this sort of sports event mentality. I don't have a problem with people jumping up and down, whistling and shouting in the loud songs, but when you're dealing with a quiet and emotional piece of music, that's not the time to make the noise. People choose that moment because they like the sound of what they're doing better than the sound of what you're doing. You can make one or two kinds of loud sounds there to ruin it for everybody. They're kind of missing the point that those sensitive moments are to be savored and enjoyed as part of the balance of listening to music. The one dimensional approach of hooting and hollering, shouting 'boogie' and 'rock on' or whatever it is they shout — it is all associated with sports events and the encouragement to make a lot of noise."
Overall, though, Anderson was gratified at the audience responses to the Divinties shows.
"It's very endearing, and I take it as a personal compliment that they would be as supportive of music, a substantial part of which they're entirely unfamiliar with, and for which they would have very little natural inclination to be sitting down and tuning in to."
Anderson feels that he has been lucky in that the Tull audience is relatively willing to let them experiment with their material.
"We have a little more flexibility, at least in our personal top-10 of notable album tracks that people seem to like. We can fool around with those a little bit more and change elements within those songs that give us a slightly different angle on them without too much offending the audience. I'm aware of the need to satisfy peoples' expectations. They buy their tickets, they pay their money, they come along, and they have a right to hear at least half of what they come for. It's a simple division, divide it down the middle, half what they want, half what they don't want yet."
With this tour, Anderson did play with arrangements of familiar songs, as well as hauling out some rarely played compositions. For the second half of the concerts, he chose some songs that had some orchestral elements in the original recordings. With others, like 'Aqualung' and 'Locomotive Breath,' that didn't, he was able to play with the arrangements and have some fun.
"I'll be absolutely unapologetic in doing them that way because it is fun, and it is fun to give people the task of deciphering what they're hearing. Some of them get it in the first few bars, some of them halfway through the song. A few nights ago we were halfway through playing 'Aqualung' and some bozo in the front yelled, 'Play 'Aqualung',' and the rest of the audience was sort of groaning saying, 'We got it about a minute and a half ago.' You have to see the fun in that sort of situation. Some peoples' musical sensitivities are more well developed than others. In any sort of musical situation you have to play down a little. You have to make a guess. You don't want to treat your audience as if they're all completely musically sophisticated, knowledgeable, and academically aware of your music, or you'll leave most people behind.
"On the other hand, if you shoot for the lowest common denominator, then you're going to become Bon Jovi. Having said that, I suppose that Jethro Tull would still be termed more complex than most of its peers in contemporary rock music, but it's not from the point of view of trying to show off or anything. If we wanted to play more oblique or complex music, then that is always very easy. All you have to do is get five musicians in a room and say 'go for it' and it gets very complex very quickly. It gets very quickly to the point where it's very challenging and very fun to play, but to the casual listener, it becomes so much gobbeldygook."
Even while touring on his own, Anderson was in the midst of the next Jethro Tull project. The newest Tull album was released in early September and tours were scheduled to begin in late September in the U.K. The band rehearsed, recorded and mixed around Anderson's touring schedule.
In closing, Anderson had some words of encouragement for independent and small label artists.
"Even for folks like us who have been at it for a long time, it's encouraging to see what's out there. What isn't encouraging is the sad fact that most of them do not enjoy the benefit of a major record deal. The next five to 10 years are going to see some radical changes in the way the music industry has got to think about what it does. Record companies, right at the moment, are a bunch of worried guys because our way of accessing music is really going to change drastically. I think that a lot of bands are going to find, through the Internet or its successors, ways to get into communication about what they're doing and ultimately ways of selling and passing down to people what they're doing in a much more direct way.
"I think ultimately a great deal of music is going to get squirted down the line to you in digital format. I guess about 10 years from now it will be relatively rare to be dealing in tangible packaged goods that you will buy in a record store. It's going to be really good for the people who don't have major record deals because they are going to be able to sell directly to a smaller public. They will do so more efficiently and find a relatively acceptable margin of profit in relatively few sales."
Anderson also noted that the Internet era will create more opportunities for independent music to be heard than are currently available on narrow-format radio.
"I see the day when people are going to be able to find out about a new Jethro Tull album by aligning themselves to a short digital squirt of a few seconds of each track in order to make a decision about whether or not to buy this. If they press the confirm button immediately they'll get a seven-and-a-half percent discount off their purchase. That's the way it's going to have to work.
"I see a bright future for artists, the like of whom you will only read about in Dirty Linen. Those folks will have a better time five to 10 years from now in terms of the development that is going on, the opportunities for self-publishing and self-representation in terms of product in the real world. Acts like us — non-mainstream, but major label acts — are going to have our opportunities broadened, but, more importantly perhaps, those that don't have major record deals are going to really benefit."