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NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
23 October 1971
NEW YORK FALLS TO JETHRO AND THE KEN BARRINGTON ALL STARS — 23000 not out
"I want it to be just another gig, a routine gig,"
Jethro manager Terry Ellis is instructing aides and press representatives as the band arrives at the New York hotel. That means nobody in the dressing room with the group before the show, Ellis insists firmly. Afterwards okay, but not before. And he breaks off to tell me that he's gone as far as keeping one record company representative right away from the band because of his excitable nature.
Ellis's instructions — would I also help to keep the temperature down by under-playing the occasion when talking to them? — are the manager's way of attempting to lessen, in the band's eyes, the nevertheless daunting prospect of stepping out later that Monday evening before a 23,000 strong sell-out crowd at New York's monster Madison Square Gardens.
I mean, nothing is designed more to instil an acute attack of the shakes than misguided well-wishers constantly bombarding a group with "Hey man, how does it feel to be playing the Gardens?" or, "I say, aren't you chaps frightfully nervous?" So when later on in the dressing rooms an unsuspecting Chrysalis New York aide begins to animatedly inform Jethro Tull that they'll have the visiting Mr and Mrs Lennon in their audience, the poor man is promptly cut off in mid-sentence by Terry Ellis, and taken out into the corridor for a hurried briefing.
Jethro anyway, from what I can discern, are not suffering any undue nerves, although when at the afternoon's soundcheck/ rehearsal they receive their first sight of the awesome Gardens bowl I can imagine Ellis's "routine gig" patter springing holes like a torpedoed ship.
Five days into this, their ninth North American tour, the band has flown up from North Carolina to play the illustrious Gardens, a venue second only to the mammoth Houston Astrodome as America's largest indoor auditorium. As viewed empty at rehearsals it's an impressive sight; the ten foot high stage surrounded by row upon row of seats spiralling skywards and away. During their sound check I decide upon a saunter round the building and find myself engaged on a major piece of mountaineering as I climb to the highest, furthermost point, looking down from which the group appears ant-like on the stage.
Primarily the sporting venue where the New York Knicks, the Milwaukee Jets, Cassius and Fraser knock hell out of each other, the Gardens had its first taste of rock some two/three years ago with the Stones US tour. Today it represents the summit of American (or at least East Coast) rock acceptance.
Still, it takes a major name to fill it and even the stellar names of rock who do — the Bangladesh spectacular, Ten Years After and Grand Funk have been recent attractions — don't always get to notch up the total sell-out three weeks beforehand that Jethro did. The group's success now in the States is at super status, the culmination of a carefully conceived and executed assault on American rock that has run over a three year period.
On their ninth tour, few groups can match the business they have and will be doing and, as Terry Ellis points out, it's an achievement based purely on gigs and albums in that order. Jethro have never had a top selling US single but had a million seller LP with Aqualung. Before they did it, it was an unwritten music business law that one couldn't be achieved without the other.
Yet despite the amount of time Jethro now spend on the road in the States, they remain a very English group. Much of their success, again, is dependent on this very Englishness; because to see their acceptance in front of an American audience is not just to witness a response for good rock music but to see a realisation of the foreigners' vision of the eccentric Englander, slightly insane, always unpredictable.
Offstage, the band lives as a very insular, tight unit, drawing their strength from each other even more so since the arrivals in the band of bassist Jeffrey Hammond and more recently drummer Barrie Barlow. On the subject of eccentricity, they certainly present a bizarre sight to any American who might catch them offstage. Three of them — Barlow, Hammond and John Evan — turn up at their New York hotel looking like refugees from a freaks' cricket gala; Barlow and Hammond in white suits and plimsoles, John Evan going one step further with genuine Ken Barrington slacks, cricketing cap and navy blazer.
But not even young Barriemore himself — playing his first New York gig in front of 23,000 people when just months before his musical high points were British Legion dances and the like — allows himself a flutter of nerves, although it's a safe bet that the band will always have a problem with illness. It's the almost inevitable occupational hazard of life on the road.
The problem this time is Ian Anderson's throat, a recurrence of an infection that has forced Jethro off the road in the past.
"I've seen a specialist about it," Ian tells me as we wait in the hotel foyer for the limousines to take us to the Gardens.
"Apparently I've got a crooked bone in my nose. I was told that if I had an operation on it and had my tonsils out it would be okay, but it would mean a two month layoff that I'm not prepared to have. I'd rather go on and risk the odd bad gig."
In the back of the car nosing through the milling crowds outside the Gardens, we touch on the subject of the next Jethro LP (the one after the soon to be released 'collection' album) and Anderson ventures that this set will see the band "taking chances".
"We've always felt restrictions in the past as to what we can play," he explains. "Partly it's been because of the image thing, whatever that is, and partly because of the musical abilities of the people in the band. But I think the band is good enough now for us to be a bit more adventurous, to take a few chances."
In the dressing room, eccentric road wear is exchanged for eccentric stage wear, Jeffrey's 'circus master's' silk striped suit just taking the edge from Barrie Barlow's simple red vest and shorts. But for the bovver boots that complete the gear, he might be going out for the New York Knicks. They are lads, aren't they?
Ian should be resting his voice, which he fears will crack up after two numbers, but isn't taking to muteness easily, and the only flurry of semi-excitement is the John and Yoko rumour. No gig is complete, however, without the guy — hall manager/ police chief or whatever — who's brought along a distant relative or friend to meet the band.
"You Ian Anderson?" asks the smooth gent who's just appeared at the door, stopping conversation dead in its tracks. Stepping into a group's dressing room is always rather like sitting on the tube with your flies undone; unnerving to say the least.
"I might be. What's it for?" returns Anderson tentatively.
"I'm with the Gardens."
"Oh, you're with the Gardens. You come thrown in with it. That's nice."
Man From The Gardens presses on. Would Ian do him a mighty favour and meet his friend's uncle's aunt's daughter, and keep his friend off his back for a year? Ian would and does.
Entering the darkened auditorium — blinking from the backstage lighting — a monstrous roar of recognition rings around the bowl, repeat performances greeting Anderson's opening to 'My God' and the band's subsequent arrival on stage. Once they are in their stride, I'm more impressed with their second number, a 10 minute composition of varying moods and dynamics that on the new Jethro Tull album — the name of which is announced by Ian as Thick As A Brick — has the working title 'Poet And The Painter'. It's a good explanation of Anderson's "taking chances", and evidence of a much tighter and adventurous Jethro than that of Aqualung and Benefit.
John Evan's organ playing has a prominent role in that direction, while Barrie Barlow's fleet-footed drum work and Jeffrey's bass perfunctorily kill any ideas that the pair of them got into the band purely for old times, and "old boys", sake. Over some nifty and exhilarating fast-tempo ensemble playing, Martin Barre's guitar alternatively further fills the gaps or rings out stirringly above the flow.
They go on, through 'Aqualung', 'With You There To Help Me' and into 'A New Day Yesterday', similar qualities as those mentioned on 'Poet And Painter' noticeable in the new arrangements of the old material. The roars of approval are more than deafening. As I stand on one side of the stage, the clamour appears to have powers that almost physically cause unbalance.
Towards the end of the set, when they get into 'Cross-eyed Mary' and Barrie's drum solo, a good deal of stroppiness begins to break out at the foot of the stage. They end in a flashing blur of hair and power rock and, when they return for an almost half-hour encore, a cordon of stewards and roadies have to fight away the grappling bodies and arms at the front of the stage.
Mostly, it's the males who are plunging forward and it's hard to figure what they want to get on the stage for anyway. The only person who did make it, a tank of a man who tore past two truncheon-carrying cops, leapt up the 8ft side stage I was standing on and whistled past my ear onto the main stage, was content to fling his arms victoriously skywards then placidly retrace his steps back. I don't mind admitting that his sudden appearance — which almost disjointed my shoulder — left me a little uneasy and what with Fraser, Jethro's roadie, almost being dragged off stage in his efforts to keep people back, it became an unnerving spectacle.
Backstage, amid the champagne, tour manager Eric Brooks arrived from the sound box with the group's "bounce" rating. Gardens sound engineers, apparently, can gauge a group's response by whether the floor at the foot of the stage can be seen to bounce. It had for Jethro, as it had previously for ten Years After; but it hadn't for Grand Funk. Terry Ellis, however, dismissed this news scornfully.
"That's nothing to do with music. That's just rowdyism."
In next week's NME: Nick Logan continues his report from new York, talking with Ian Anderson on the subject of "taking chances" and the next Jethro LP.
Note: Kenneth Frank Barrington, cricketer, played for England between 1955 and 1968.
Thanks to Matthew Korn for this article.