Ian Anderson presents old songs in new way with ‘Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera’

Ian Anderson (front) and Jethro Tull will perform at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Nov. 11.

Ian Anderson (front) and his band will perform at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Nov. 11.

For decades, Ian Anderson has been telling people that Jethro Tull is a band, not a person. But now he can say it’s a rock opera, too. Anderson, frontman for the band Jethro Tull since its formation in 1967, has put together “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera,” utilizing many of the band’s best songs. Its hero, Jethro Tull, is a modern version of the 18th century British agriculturist the band was named after.

Anderson will present “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Nov. 11, with backing by bassist David Goodier, keyboardist John O’Hara, guitarist Florian Opahle, drummer Scott Hammond and “surprise virtual guests.” The show is one of only eight that he is presenting in the United States this fall. (For information, visit NJPAC.org.)

I spoke to him recently about it.

Q: Jethro Tull, the person … when your manager first suggested the name to you, did you know anything about him, or was he a mystery to you?

A: Well, I didn’t do that period of English history when I was at school, so it was a complete shock to me to find out, a couple of weeks later, that our agent had named us after a dead guy who invented the seed drill. At that moment, it was too late to change, because we had just got a residency at the Marquee Club in London, and this was a big career move. To have changed our name again would have been a pretty bad move to have made, so we stuck with the name, even though I felt a little uncomfortable about it. But that’s who we now were. And people were beginning to take notice of us. So Jethro Tull it was.

But as a result of that feeling of unease and embarrassment, I’ve rather avoided knowing too much about the original Jethro Tull, over the years. I think somebody once gave me a copy of his book, a long time ago. But I didn’t read it. I didn’t want to know about Jethro Tull. It was only last summer when I was driving through Northern Italy, I think, on my way to some place to do a concert, that I was looking at the agriculture around me, through the car windows. We drove through rural pastures, and thinking about different agricultural methods set me wondering what Jethro Tull would have made of the different forms of agriculture. And I looked it up on the internet, since I had a connection while I was in the car, and found, to my astonishment, that Jethro Tull had in fact driven through France and Northern Italy, to learn about agriculture, and the way it was done there, and he incorporated some of those thoughts into the building of his ideas, which led to him being something of a agricultural pioneer in Britain, and very much part of the agricultural revolution.

So I found myself kind of getting interested in this guy, and what his life and times were about. I was astonished to find that many of the songs I had written over the years seemed to jump right into his life story. Over a period of an hour, I probably came up with the whole idea of, ‘Let’s build a narrative of my best-known songs around Jethro Tull’s life, but rather than do it in the historical context, let’s reposition Jethro Tull in the present day or near future, and see if we can make some parallels, and draw some ideas about how agriculture may play an ever-growing, important part, and how do we, as a species, learn to cope with the growing population and the effect of climate change on agriculture in different parts of the world.’ Just a way of getting into, for me, an interesting comparison.

But as I say, I’m doing this with songs that you might broadly think of as ‘The Best of Jethro Tull.’ So as a toe-tapping experience for the less motivated fan, it’s a Jethro Tull tour in all but name. The fact that it’s given a narrative context is just for people like me, who like a bit more than meat and potatoes on our plate.

Q: Did you write new material for it, too?

A: There are five short new songs, and in some of the existing songs, there are changes of pronoun. An “I” becomes a “he,” or a “we” becomes a “they,” according to the character singing that line, because my virtual guests, behind me, play some of the characters in the story. Jethro’s wife, Jethro’s son, Jethro’s father. The young Jethro, the older Jethro. There’s a degree of theatricality that, I think, makes it interesting, and a bit of fun to watch. But the music is all very much the original arrangements. I really wanted to keep the music authentically like the original records. And the new material, which is the five short new songs, plus the recitative – that operatic device that joins arias together, and explains where we are going with the story — those are obviously new elements, though they may last only a few seconds, in some cases.

Q: What do you think of the term “rock opera” itself? I know some people don’t like it.

A: Well, I’m amongst those. It’s a regrettable place to be, to have to use that term. I cringe when I hear it. I just can’t, for the life of me, think of another way to describe what you do when you put songs into a narrative context and you have a theatrical performance in which you have characters and you present it. If there was another term, hell, I would have used it.

Q: I think, particularly for the real committed long-term fans, this gives them a new way to experience the songs, and keeps it fresh for them. 

A: Those are the people who, as we know, are very often caught in a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, they know what they like, they want to hear the classic stuff, they want to hear the things that they know they love. But at the same time, they’re sort of agitating for something new. I think the problem is, they’re not really looking for a new Jethro Tull album. What they’re looking for, really, is a new “old” Jethro Tull album. They want something that sounds very much in the genre of that musical part of Jethro Tull that they specifically like. But given that Jethro Tull, over the years, has played many different kinds of music, there are five or six different Jethro Tulls, in the sense of musical styling. So you can never please all of the people all of the time. You’ve got to just try to find some broadly middle ground that keeps people more or less content with what they’re getting, even though they’ll all have their gripes and moans and complaints.

But that’s the way we all are. We like to have opinions. And in this age of social media, those opinions are often expressed in perhaps in a more vehement or strident form than perhaps would be the case if people sat down and thought about it a little more before they put pinky to the QWERTY.

Q: Uh, “put pinky to the QWERTY”?

A: Put fingers to the keyboards. QWERTY is on the typewriter keyboard.

Q: Oh, right. I had just never heard it put that way.

A: It’s the first time, and possibly the last time, I’ll say that. It just popped out. You were the first person to hear it. And it had you stumped for a moment.

Q: It did. But maybe it’s a good future song title or something.

A: You never know.

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