By Jim Botticelli/Dirty Old Boston
"It was a new day yesterday, but it's an old day now," That Tull title came to mind at Harbor Lights Sunday on the South Boston Waterfront. Today Harbor Lights is named after another bank--no ink, they get plenty--and Jethro Tull fans are grayer save for a smattering of millenials. Anniversary tours are risky business. Aging audiences arrive ramped for rejuvenation. Yesterday's revolutionary fervor is eclipsed by today's reality--body scans and memorabilia stands. Reunion tours are often reduced to period piece paens. Gone are the $4.50 Tull tickets at Boston Garden, poor acoustics and bad views, where a flick of a Bic served as approbation. Heavy rotation on rock stalwart WBCN's playist and at least three bookings at Boston Garden made the band a hometown favorite from the early 70s onward. No wonder the show was sold out even at $87 a pop.
Following a dizzying massive screen presentation of photos and footage from yesteryear, Tull took the stage. Front man Ian Anderson, flute in hand, bounded aboard; energized and ready to work. At 71, his physicality is admirable; he's lean and mean, pulling off that one legged thing he became famous for as he plays the troubadour that inhabits his soul.
Therein lies the Jethro Tull mystique; a world of fables, of Aesopian imagery, a mystical world that recalls the Olde English rural landscape, much of it a product of Anderson's imagination. He presents as a wandering minstrel, full of threads and patches, of dreamy strummings and hummings. His dialog with the audience accentuates the world his songs create. He is that world onstage.
Expecting an Aqualung evening, this fan was surprised when the opener was "My Sunday Feeling" from JT's first LP "This Was." Recorded in 1968, this album's influence came from guitarist Mick Abrahams. Like his brethren in Fleetwood Mac, Cream and the John Mayall Blues Band, Abrahams was guided by American blues. Yet, as in all of Jethro Tull's work, it was syncopation, unheard of in the rock world of 1968, that became the band's calling card. Audiences acclimated to 4/4 timing felt the displacement of the regular metrical rhythm by the accentuation of the weak beat. That weak beat is what made the band strong contenders when it came to acceptance. Abrahams left the band to form Blodwyn Pig, but Jethro Tull had carved out a corner in the music world unknown to rock fans until their arrival.
Surprisingly, Anderson milked the lesser known album for some deep tracks including "Dharma For One" and "Song For Jeffrey," a tune written for bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond who provided the big screen with a well-produced video introduction. Hammond-Hammond was a bandmate of Anderson's from their adolescent hometown of Blackpool Lancashire. Old footage was screened showing the marquee advertising the band at the Marquee Club where Tull cut its teeth. The media mixing was what made this 50th anniversary show fresh. Old concert footage, images of plowshares (Jethro Tull after all was an 18th Century British Agriculturist), and screened 'requests' from prominent musicians from rock's aristocracy invested the program with a special punch. The band then broke into a fresh arrangement of their signature instrumental "Bouree" from their second LP called "Stand Up', their first commercial success, the one where the band members stood up in cardboard form when you opened the album's jacket.
The album "Thick As A Brick," a masterpiece mashup of rock, folk and symphony, was reprised for a short bit; how could they perform the whole thing? It would be a tour unto itself, much like Brian Wilson's "Pet Sounds" or the Zombies' "Odyssey and Oracle." The audience reaction to the brief reprise was fanatical. Thick As A Brick had clearly earned a seat at the Dirty Old Boston Table of Rock.
The band would have been remiss to leave out selections from Aqualung, easily their best known album, but the least syncopated. That album was driven by hard rock influences so it was only fitting that Axl Rose from Guns & Roses, today's lead singer for AC/DC, would provide another video introduction, a curiously effective tool in Tull's concert kit. The band broke into into it: "Sitting on a park bench. Eyeing little girls with bad intent..." Middle aged pandemonium erupted to the thrill of ear candy. "Snots running down his nose. Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes..." They got the job done. They worked.
The night was capped with "Locomotive Breath", also from Aqualung. This is where the video concept came through best. With a dizzying array of old Steam powered locomotive trains roaring through the countryside sometime in the 1940s and 50s, the sped up footage, lots of which was shot from the train engineer's window, literally made my companion dizzy. The video screen was 3XL, the sound was full throttle bass felt in the feet, and the audience--considerate and polite-- was left exhausted from a whirlwind two-hour performance by a 50 year old band.