Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson speaks freely before Sun concert
Who knows how many interviews Ian Anderson has done over the course of his half-century career? As the flute-brandishing front man, hyper-literate poet-in-residence and deftly complex structural architect of Jethro Tull, Anderson oversaw the creation of such genre-spanning and -spawning (and hugely-selling) progressive rock records like "Aqualung," "Thick as a Brick," "A Passion Play," "Heavy Horses," "Songs from the Wood," "A Minstrel in the Gallery," "Crest of a Knave" and many more.
What question(s) could a journalist possibly ask that Anderson hasn't heard before? Particularly since multiple press phoners have been ongoing with the artist in preparation for the multi-date "Jethro Tull the 50th Anniversary Tour by Ian Anderson," which lands tonight in the Mohegan Sun Arena?
Well, as one of rock's wittiest and most eloquent stars, Anderson has anticipated this problem. Publicists provide prospective interviewers with a comprehensive list of questions/answers that Anderson has already dealt with myriad times. This is indeed helpful and gives the writer advance opportunity to think of at least a few unharvested topics prior to the conversation. The current lineup, for example, includes guitarist Florian Opahle, drummer Scott Hammond, bassist David Goodier and keyboardist John O'Hara.
On the appointed date in late August, the phone rings and, yes, that mellifluous baritone voice — far more John Barrymore than any Cockney Rock Dude — says, "Hi, this is Ian Anderson. Apologies for being (five minutes) late, but you're the last one of the day's schedule, so we have a few minutes ..."
The problem is, as the writer finds out, Anderson doesn't really require questions anymore. He just starts ... talking. He speaks fast but in a pleasant tone of voice, and the filibuster begins in response to the journalist's polite "How are you doing, Ian?"
"I'm fine," he assures. The journalist is hoping to immediately ask about the difficulty in choosing an anniversary tour setlist that representatively reflects the many stages of Tull's history — but Anderson is already expounding on health and, in general, the process of aging in society. He says, "I hate this idea that people are pushed, through cultural and economic pressure, to retire at 65. Older people have appreciably more to give in terms of productivity, and there's the issue of their dignity, as well. I'm 72 years old and still working and fortunate to be in a line of work that enables me to do that. If I was a British Airways pilot, I'd have been given my notice. It's strange. I think we can provide quite a bit of guidance and advice to younger people ..."
Anderson has the well-reasoned logic of a veteran debater, as well as the inclination to pounce on a topic and wrestle it to the ground. The reporter is hopefully wondering how and if this line of thought might suddenly hopscotch into an explanation of Jethro Tull's incredibly creative and innovative approach to arena show staging.
"Mr. Anderson," it would be fun to say, "what about the time you had a silent telephone on a footstool at the lip of the stage for the entire 'Passion Play' concert — something audience members couldn't ever quite NOT notice, which was of course the whole idea — and only, as you'd finished the encore and the house lights went up and people were getting up to leave, only THEN did the phone ring! Loudly over the PA. We were all frozen in shock. And you picked up the reciever, nodded your head and, leaning into the still-live vocal mic, extended the phone towards the crowd and said, 'It's for you!' Who came up with that?"
Unfortunately, Anderson is now expressing hope that the younger generation will "manage our resources — planetary and food supply but also the forces of government because we have so many extremes today. There's Trumpism, of course, and now we have something equally calculated over here (with Boris Johnson): pushy, braggy and devoted to the creation of unnecessary divisions as a means to an end ... well, I have to be careful what I say about Trump or I won't get the visa for that leg of the tour. Same with Putin for when we tour Russia next year ..."
With that, in much the same fashion that, onstage and performing complex compositions like "Velvet Green" or "Living in the Past," Anderson deftly segues between delivering polysyllabic lyrics and blasting into rabid-hare flute runes, the musician smoothly downshifts without a moment's break.
"There IS one Republican I'd have liked to see as President; unfortunately, he died," Anderson says. "His name was Tony Snow. He was a press guy for both Bush administrations and much loved on both sides of the aisle, back when that was still possible. He was a dear friend and, like me, a flute player. That's how we met. He was a dyed-in-the-wool ideological Republican, which has become a very different thing, and he was utterly genuine and a humanitarian ... We argued a lot about a lot of things, but it was in a good spirited way with mutual respect and the sense that we both might learn something ..."
The fact of the matter is that, while there have been no great truths or revelations about Jethro Tull in the "conversation," Anderson IS damned entertaining and intriguing to listen to. It occurs to the reporter than Anderson would have been an excellent teacher or even a politician, which, if just a few musical questions could be dispensed with, might be a fun avenue to pursue —
— but while that thought is percolating, Anderson has somehow managed to seque onto the topic of religion and spirituality. Now, this is in fact something significantly related to many of the themes of both "A Passion Play" and "Aqualung" and other Tull recordings. Anderson is explaining that, while he adheres to the ethical and moral teachings of Christianity, he himself is not a quote/unquote believer.
"I like the idea of not being sure — the mystery, if you will — and there's something very intriguing about not having the total faith but rather a fascination with the possibilty," Anderson says. "I might be a three or even a six in terms of belief — NOT a zero or ten, based on rather pragmatic signs and reality and research into spiritually, and speaking intelligently with people committed one way or another. In a lot of ways, (Jethro Tull's music) is a conduit to people who might not go into the doors of a church but are curious and want to consider the spiritual."
Ah, that IS a bit of a musical allusion, and Anderson follows by explaining he's happy to do benefit concerts for certain of British cathedrals that are on the verge of bankruptcy. (Note: An early Tull album is called "Benefit," though Anderson has long dismissed it as being a remnant of the band's blues-riff origins a la Cream and not reflective of the identity they'd forge. Still, a connection is a connection.)
"I've played two benefits because they're in tremendous trouble," Anderson elaborated. "And, though I don't have the Faith with a capital F, I'm happy to help pay the heating bills because I DO have a sneaking suspicion ..."
Anderson, in fact, is active in a variety of charities and, as he speaks, alludes to a few including the Polyphony Foundation (helping young classical musicians); Shatil (an organization supporting a just, democratic and shared soceity in Israel); Population Matters (helping women across the globe make informed choices); and Scotland's Oak and Furrows Wildlife Fund. He's clearly passionate about all these things.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Anderson cheerily says, "Well, listen. Did you have a musical question before I go off to supper with my children and grandchildren?"
There are several questions, if fact — the same ones as from the start of the interview. But it HAS been interesting. Somewhat randomly, Anderson is asked if there was a particular text of British folklore — "The Golden Bough," perhaps — that inspired the acoustic/medieval tones of the "Songs From the Wood," "Heavy Horses," "Stormwatch" trilogy.
"Not really, nothing like that," Anderson says, and then somehow twists the answer to "A Passion Play," describing it as a "tongue-in-cheek look at the stereotypes of Good and Bad, and that we should be able to look at the concept of the afterlife with a bit of a smile on our faces, be it good OR bad ... That we should be pleased with where we are without worrying about trying for a speedy boarding pass to the beyond or VIP access at the Pearly Gates." He laughs. "I think I'll just amble up and say, 'Any chance for a room at the inn?' And St. Peter will say, 'Nope. No room right now.' And that's OK."
As he's saying goodbye, Anderson does have a quick thought. "I hope you'll come to the show," he says. "We'll do a nice variety and have a fond, nostalgic look back — but we'll defiitely set it in the culture of the day so as to appeal to a variety of generations."
If you go
What: Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour
When: 8 tonight
Where: Mohegan Sun Arena
How much: $35-$55
For more information: 1-800-745-3000
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