More and more I am starting to suspect that Ian Anderson is actually the Doctor. Yes, as in Doctor Who. And yes, I mean the lead singer, songwriter, and flautist of Jethro Tull. (No, I don’t mean the 18th-century agriculturalist.)
Now hold on, hear me out. His music seems to jump through time, he’s privy to wear interesting clothes that certainly don’t seem to fit the current chic, he’s got a bit of a madman flare, his lyrics often question humanity, and tell me he wouldn’t be the kind of person to travel in an antiquated police box.
Okay, okay. I’m being silly. But this legend of prog rock might as well be a time-traveler given the breadth of sounds he’s explored since Jethro Tull’s humble beginnings in the late-1960s. His music has touched on jazz and blues, classical and medieval, hard rock and once or twice bordered on psychedelia, and even pop. So maybe he’s not actually a time lord, but that doesn’t make him any less interesting.
This past Sunday I ventured to the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ, to see Mr. Anderson perform on his world tour, which both promoted his latest solo album, Homo Erraticus, as well as showcased his large body of work with Jethro Tull. Fans may wonder why the band was not billed under the Tull moniker; after all, it’s undergone so many lineup changes that there doesn’t seem to be a problem with carrying on the name with new personnel backing Anderson. The liner notes to Homo Erraticus explain Anderson’s mode of thinking:
Is this a Jethro Tull or an Ian Anderson album, I hear you whisper? Well, to many observers it is both one and the same. In all but name…But I think I prefer, in my twilight years, to use my own name for the most part, being composer of virtually all Tull songs and music since 1968. After all, being named after a real-life historical character of no little importance is a bit weird, to say the least…I think it might now be time to use the name Jethro Tull as reference to the repertoire rather than the man or the band.
And of course, he is right. I found that I was not disappointed that the show was billed under his name; it doesn’t retract from the songs, or his performance. The faces are new, but the spirit is still there.
On this tour, Anderson is joined by Florian Opahle on Electric guitar, Scott Hammond on drums, David Goodier on bass, John O’Hara on keyboards, and on secondary vocals as well as supplying some theatrical fun is singer and actor Ryan O’Donnell. O’Donnell in particular can not only nearly mimic at times Anderson’s voice “back in the day,” but seems to serve as a kind of youthful shadow of Anderson’s Tull-persona. A somewhat black-humored look at aging, but effective all the same.
The first half of the show featured a selection of songs off Anderson’s latest release; he playfully remarked afterwards that many members of the audience coincidentally seemed to arrive late, missing the new material. And it’s a shame, too, as Homo Erraticus is just as inspired as any previous Tull record or any progressive rock album in general.
Released back in April, Erraticus is unsurprisingly and unapologetically a concept album, a story within a story translated into music. If you’re confused, I suggest you buy the album and read the liner notes which reveal the entire premise, but I will say that this album revives the life, once again, of a certain Gerald Bostock, who first “collaborated” with Jethro Tull on 1972’s Thick as a Brick and Anderson’s 2012 sequel. The performance of this album Sunday night was note-perfect to the album; not only does this demonstrate the tightness of the band Anderson is currently playing with, but the quality of the album’s production. The stage was transformed into both a traditional concert as well as a something akin to a pantomime. Together with projected background videos, Anderson and his bandmates not only performed the selection of Erraticus, but acted it out as well. (The videos featured in the show are also available on a special DVD included with the Tour Edition of the album.)
The second half of the show featured a creative back and forth leap through the Tull discography, employing some background visuals such as a scrolling date as we jumped with Anderson through time to various songs from his career. (See, I still think he could be the Doctor.) Again, the band is so well-rehearsed that we can even see Anderson singing along with old footage of himself from his youthful days in perfect sync.
In a phone interview with Ian Anderson at the end of October, he explained the basic concept of Homo Erraticus as well as discussing his career.
REBEAT: I’ve been listening to your new album and I really love the way it’s structured, how it’s a story within a story within a story. Could you talk more about that?
Ian Anderson: Well it’s a story within a story within within a story. It started off with a simple conceptual notion of looking at different examples of migration over the past 10,000 years since the last Ice Age. It’s the story, of course, of which [The United States] is made and my country and all of Europe and most of the civilized world since our ancestors first left Africa some 65,000 years ago being driven by climate change, the thing we read about in the paper constantly being provoked to argue over by climate change deniers and doom-laden soothsayers who proclaim the end of the world as we know it. Somewhere down the middle is probably the true reality. Migration, of course, continued right across the planet, the sense of humans having to move to places to survive and grow food and find work. It’s a political hot potato in most countries of the western world including yours, but even moreso in Europe where we already have a huge amount of unrestrained and morally and ethically difficult migration issues to deal with.
[In Homo Erraticus] I’m talking about little snaps through history illustrating that idea of people going from somewhere to somewhere else and after all this doing it perhaps initially kindly, in many cases leaving behind some positive benefits and lasting examples of the goodness and cleverness of our species, but I also talk about migration in the non-human sense, of ideas, the migration of aesthetics, of art and entertainment and culture, of science of engineering, of commerce and industry. Some of the lyrics touch upon those other forms of migration which were in your country. In mine, we’re very good at doing it. We don’t have a great track record of putting men on the ground with boots and guns, but when it comes to sending our arts and entertainment around the planet, we achieve. We dominate other countries extraordinarily well through movies, through television, and of course, in my case, through music. In the case of my son-in-law [actor Andrew Lincoln], through the 150 countries that subscribe to AMC’s The Walking Dead. You know, we’re very good at getting out there across the planet and making our emotions and our ideas and our personalities felt in a more benign way than by trying to invade with bombs and guns.
Would you consider your career from the beginning a migration until you could make a name for yourself? Is your career your own migration?
Well, it does form a very real physical reality of migrating, in my case, the short distance from the north of England to the south of England. We knew to have a successful musical career based in the north of England wasn’t going to be very easy, we knew we had to go down to London to make it. So at the age of 20, I set off in a very cold winter of 1967 with only a harmonica and a flute that I couldn’t yet play to try and seek my musical fame and fortune in London. And against all the odds, [I was] lucky enough to succeed within three or four months; things had started to look up. The little band that I was a part of became known as Jethro Tull, and we got a residency at the Marquee Club. Within a year, we were traveling abroad to other countries and by the middle of ’69 we were out there in the USA on our first tours.
I think of the image you had when you first started of this vagabond kind of character, and throughout your career, the costumes in your performances changed and migrated. Do you think the migration of your entire career is reflected in Homo Erraticus? Do you think it connects?
Well, I think most things do connect; it would be a shame if they didn’t. I rather like the idea that there is a logical and organic growth in the way that people as individuals develop in terms of personality and the way their lives develop, perhaps professionally. Indeed, my stage attire when I first started playing, I believe, was thought to be that of a homeless person, someone living in the streets, rough. A shabby old coat, unkempt hair, and things weren’t quite as bad as that, but it is true that in the first few weeks of moving south in that very cold winter I had to sleep in that coat and work in that coat. It was an absolute necessity. It became something of a talisman, that old overcoat that my father gave me when I left town and that stayed with me until one of the US tours — I’m not sure which one — in 1969 when we were supporting Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, it disappeared, I think, backstage at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, and I never saw it again.
I feel like that happens a lot in the music business, things tend to disappear.
Actually, in all of 46 years of being on tour, we’ve had remarkably few thefts from dressing rooms. We did learn very early on that we had to request the keys for our dressing rooms and keep them locked at all times so everybody’s pretty used to locking everything up all the time these days. The buses lock, the truck is locked, the dressing rooms in venues are locked, we make sure our hotel rooms are locked and we don’t leave stuff lying around. But you know, I guess we’ve probably all had one thing stolen somewhere along the line. And of course it might seem like an insignificant thing, you can go out and buy a new coat, but this was a coat my father gave me. It was an emotional blow to lose it. But the loss of other things, you can replace. I’ve had a flute stolen. Martin Barre had his mandolin stolen. These are things that you can go out and replace.
People often talk about the instrumentation, your use of the flute, or just the lyrics in your music. But your voice has had enormous shifts throughout your career. You started out with a very bluesy, raspy voice, and you’ve had melodic moments as well. When you got to around Heavy Horses and Songs From the Woods, you have a very gruff voice. In your new album, it’s gentler. Do you do this deliberately? Do you think about how your voice is going to sound for the album, or does it just come naturally based on the music?
I was not born with the equipment of Robert Plant or Lou Gramm of Foreigner or any of the great rock ‘n’ roll singers. I’m not really naturally a singer. I found it very difficult and I was always very self-conscious about singing. But it was something that I tried to do as I suppose most of us do early on, we try to imitate other people. So when I was in my teenage years, I suppose listening to the blues and jazz, I sang with a fake American accent, which is what we thought we had to do. But it dawned on me by the time I was a professional musician and making records that this was really rather silly. It wasn’t my voice; it wasn’t reflective of my origins. And whilst other British rock stars like Elton John and Mick Jagger affected these quite absurd American twangs totally unlike their speaking voices, I tried to tame that approach. While still using rather blunter vowel sounds I tried to avoid it sounding obviously like imitating American regional accents. And probably through my career and perhaps through the career of David Bowie, for example, we’ve tried not to fall into that trap.
We just accept that we speak in one voice and then we adopt the accent of a country 3,000 miles away. I mean, it’s completely blatantly absurd, as indeed, it would be so absurd if Iggy Pop sang with a fake cockney accent. He would be laughed off the stage, wouldn’t he? And quite rightly, too. We love Iggy and all the American rock ‘n’ roll heroes because they really sound like the real deal. They have authenticity, they sound like they really belong to the world that they sing about and their country of origin. But somehow you guys seem to accept such absurd insults as this skinny kid with the short legs from South London singing in a fake Southern American accent. His name is Mick Jagger. He should be laughed off the stage as well because the stupid way he sings really is ridiculous. I remember when I first heard the Rolling Stones thinking they were really quite a good group, but the singer’s voice was such a silly voice. It sounded like a really bad attempt to imitate something completely wrong. There are professionals who do it for a living. My son-in-law has to play a Georgian cop, so he has to has to have a Southern American accent. He has a voice coach standing next to him in every scene he’s in.
I don’t really understand why singers from Europe, not just British, but singers singing in American accents whose origins are from Sweden or Germany adopt these fake American accents. I’ve spoken to some who tell me, “Oh, if you were to hear my German accent when I sing in English my friends would laugh at me.” And I said, “Well, then get some new friends, because frankly, I would rather hear in your English-language singing that you’re from Germany or France or Italy or Spain or Sweden, or wherever.” That’s part of the charm. I want to know where you’re from. I want to know it’s you singing the song, not you pretending that you come from the Midwest of the USA.
Anyway, these are all things that are part and parcel in shaping the way that you develop as a singer, or at least the way I did. I try to work within the limitations that I have. I’m not a great, born talent as a singer, I just used the tools of my trade the best that I can. I sharpen the swords, I keep the heads of my screwdrivers well-presented because I have to do what I do every night, so I do a certain amount of rehearsal and practice. At the age of 67, obviously things get more difficult than they were when you’re 27. We work with what we can.
Before we go, I wanted to ask you about your work with the producer of the Wombles. [For our non-British readers, the Wombles are a group of fictional, furry creatures originally from a children’s book series and later a ’70s TV series. From the show, the Wombles became a music group of sorts, putting out pop songs in the UK.]
He’s a chap called Mike Batt. Today, he’s made quite a few successful pop records as a producer and even as a performer in his brief career dressed in a Wombles suit. Probably these days he’s more famous for being the manager and producer of Katie Melua who’s a hugely successful female singer/songwriter in Europe. Mike Batt has long been associated with producing mainly, but also writing music and songs for his artists and for himself. He’s a guy who’s thought of as being a little bit pop-oriented; he doesn’t really have any street cred whatsoever. The record company asked us to work with him to try to turn one of my songs into a Top 10 hit, but when they heard the end result, they didn’t like it very much and released the version that I’d already recorded both on the album and as the single. The song “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” became a late entry into the Christmas Top 20 charts in the UK.
That’s a beautiful song.
Well, thank you very much.
Returning to the concert, I reflected on Anderson’s thoughts on his own abilities, vocal or otherwise. Has Anderson still got it at 67? Amazingly so. Hairline notwithstanding, Anderson is just as animated on stage now as he ever was in the past. He breathes life into his music through his gleeful and sometimes manic facial expressions and his energetic prancing about the stage. He can still balance, perfectly poised, on one leg in his signature stance better than I can in any of my few failed attempts at yoga. And of course, the old sod is still as cheeky as ever with his suggestive flute handling. There were mutterings about the crowd afterwards, I noticed, questioning the employment of O’Donnell’s joint vocals on many of the songs and the quality of Anderson’s own singing, but I find the choice to bring in a second voice helpful. It maintains the integrity of the music and demonstrates that Anderson, as he said himself, can identify his own limitations. It hasn’t stopped him from making new music and performing and that, I believe, deserves complete respect.
Set List: Ian Anderson, Red Bank, NJ (11/9/14)
From Homo Erraticus
“Enter the Uninvited”
“Puer Ferox Adventus”
“Tripudium Ad Bellum”
“The Browning of the Green”
“Cold Dead Reckoning”
The Best of Jethro Tull
“Thick as a Brick”
“Living in the Past”
“With You There to Help Me”
“Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die”
“Songs from the Wood”
“Farm on the Freeway”
Encore: “Locomotive Breath”
Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Tour:
Anderson played his last US date of the Homo Erraticus World Tour 2014 this past Monday in Montclair, NJ, and will complete the tour in Switzerland and Germany beginning November 16. Both the regular and tour editions of Homo Erraticus are available at amazon.com.
(Cover photo by Carl Glover.)