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16 November 1974
TULL PUT BACK THE FUN
Chris Charlesworth reports from Edinburgh on Jethro Tull's triumphant comeback
Rise Sir Ian of Flute, for thou hast indeed redeemed thyself. The critics have had their way, the Passion Play has been forgotten and Jethro Tull are back once again playing the kind of music that won them their hard-earned reputation as brilliant showmen and inventive instrumentalists.
'Tis now over a year since Tull shattered the rock world with their announcement that they would cease live performances because of the critical abuse heaped upon Passion Play and though some wags were overheard to suggest that tax problems may have also been a factor involved, no-one seriously expected Jethro Tull to cease operations overnight.
Now they're back, as we all predicted they would be, and the lay-off has certainly been beneficial. Twelve months of heart-searching on the part of Ian Anderson has quelled his fury at the critics and enabled him to examine, in the cold light of day, just where Jethro went off the rails.
Wisely, he's decided that the fans — in fact everybody — would prefer to hear more familiar music, shorter tunes and a little less soprano sax.
You could call it putting the fun back into the band for that's the overall impression I came away with after their tour debut appearance in Edinburgh's Usher Hall on Saturday evening. Ian and his musicians were smiling and laughing which is a sure sign that all is now well. Their stage antics, totally unpredictable as always, were a model of professionalism and the music, I am happy to report, was for the most part a joy to hear.
The show is a well-rehearsed piece of theatre as much as a rock concert. Like strange English eccentrics, the five members of Jethro Tull behave like possessed demons for a full two hours. Outlandish clothes, curious props and an attractive brunette clad not unlike a Bunny Girl are all produced from the conjuror's top hat that Anderson must consider to be his arena.
Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, in a black and white candy stripe outfit and matching bass guitar, leaps to and fro as if the floor beneath his feet were constructed from hot bricks, while Martin Barre, in a peculiar floral outfit that may have been borrowed from Elton John's elaborate wardrobe, joins him in these sorties, criss-crossing the stage and covering a remarkable distance during his two hour reign.
At the keyboards, John Evan resembles an ice-cream vendor in his ill-fitting white suit and baggy trousers held aloft with a wide leather belt, all of which accentuates his already portly demeanor. Attached to his Hammond organ is a small urinal into which he apparently relieves himself following his now accepted somersault routine.
At the drums, Barriemore Barlow appears clad in red shorts over what seems to be a red body stocking. He resembles a featherweight boxer, but his percussion work on the double bass kit is anything but featherweight.
The rhythms he pounded out on the bass drums, and his superfast snare work, lifted an otherwise routine drum solo into a technical achievement par excellence.
But for all the action that surrounds him, Ian Anderson remains the supreme showman: a ringmaster whose flute substitutes for a whip and whose gestures put one in mind of a completely mad professor over-injected with vitamins or perhaps some less harmless drug.
Like an American cheerleader, he rallies his musicians, whipping up tempos with circular movements of his right hand or balancing precariously on one leg while executing a delicate flute passage. His wispy beard, tights and cod-piece give him the medieval air of a court jester, a role that I am certain he would not be loathe to acknowledge.
An added attraction is Miss Shona Learoyd whose duties as props handler makes that institution, the British roadie, redundant forever. Instead of a hairy, denim-clad member of the crew handing over instruments when required, Jethro now utilise this petite brunette, suitably costumed for this task. A definite aesthetic improvement. There is also a four-piece string section comprising three violins and a cellist. The four ladies concerned are clad in black and all wear identical platinum blonde wigs, making them look rather like oversize dolls.
As Fanny open the bill, it doesn't take a degree to come to the conclusion that Ian Anderson has decided to surround himself with girls for his UK tour. That, coupled with a crack about David Bowie and rubber underwear, would seem to indicate that gay liberation exerts no influence within this band.
The concert opens with a piece of orchestral music played through the lofty PA system and the arrival onstage of a tuxedo-clad conductor waving his arms around amid a profusion of dry ice. This lasts for some minutes before the restless audience, right on cue, begin to demonstrate their impatience. Two bright flashes burst and Messrs Hammond-Hammond and Barre appear through the smoke, dressed identically in flowing Japanese robes (which are later discarded) and play a doctored version of the riff from 'Aqualung'.
But when the lights go up and Anderson is in view for the first time, the band switch into 'When I Was Young' ['Wind-Up'], thus setting the tone for the whole show which comprises mainly familiar pieces from the Tull repertoire. Jethro frequently slip in passages from one song into another, and throughout their concert I detected bits of the dreaded Passion Play here and there, and one reference to a rabbit who had lost his spectacles.
'Thick As A Brick' follows 'When I Was Young', and that moved into a very long rendering of 'My God'. It was during this piece that Ian chose to undertake a particularly lengthy solo on the flute designed primarily to demonstrate his skill on the instrument rather than actually play music. Though I was impressed by his speed, his ability to wheeze at the same time as he played and the various tricks he played with electronics, I became restless, perhaps because the flute isn't my favourite instrument but more likely because I'd much prefer to listen to the group instead of one man's virtuoso technique.
John Evan followed Ian Anderson in the spotlight, playing a peculiar piano solo with classical overtones, which drew the odd shout of "boring" from an audience who obviously felt the same way as myself.
After an interlude which included some tom-foolery with a wooden dog called Brian and a moving tree, the whole band came back for 'Skating Away' and it was here that the music reached its highest peak with Anderson on acoustic, John Evan on accordion, Barriemore Barlow flitting between bongos and an elderly xylophone and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond on stand-up bass (also painted in black and white stripes). The song just floated out into the hall with Anderson's voice at its most gentle. 'Wondering Aloud', taken at a similarly relaxed pace, preceded the first new song of the evening, 'Ladies', another quiet, simple piece that was chosen as the vehicle for Barlow's drum solo.
A burst of flares and flashes signalled the arrival of 'WarChild', a brash piece of loud, extrovert music containing none of the subtleties of the previous three pieces. During the breaks from vocal work, Anderson chose to balance a large balloon on his head, eventually bursting it at an appropriate moment. 'Bungle In The Jungle', the band's single, followed, a jolly rollocking item, and the concert ended with 'Aqualung', thus satisfying requests that had been levelled at the group all evening. They played this faultlessly.
There is an encore that includes various pieces of Tull music all stitched together and the band leave the stage to the continuous, unanswered ringing of a telephone that has now become an accepted feature of their performances.
Various other special attractions are promised for the shows at the Rainbow this week, but even without them I can happily report that the post-retirement Jethro Tull is well worth the price of your concert ticket.