A Trip to Italy Inspired Ian Anderson's New Jethro Tull Rock Opera

click to enlarge A Trip to Italy Inspired Ian Anderson's New Jethro Tull Rock Opera
A recent trip to Italy inspired Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson to create Jethro Tull — The Rock Opera, a new show that features a "quasi-operatic structure" with virtual guests on video and some additional newly written songs.

“I was driving through Northern Italy in the summer of 2014 when it amused me to look out the window and see what forms of agriculture were being practiced and what different methods of cropping they were using,” says Anderson in a recent Transatlantic phone call. “I found myself wondering what Jethro Tull, the 18th century agriculturalist, would have made of Italian agriculture. I looked him up and found that he too had traveled through Southern France and Northern Italy in his early years trying to get a rest cure from the chest infections and ailments he suffered. He also wanted to learn from them to incorporate into his ideas back home.”

As Anderson investigated the matter further, he realized that many of the songs he had written over the years with Jethro Tull had a connection to Tull’s life.

“It seemed a little uncanny,” he says. “I started writing down songs and had a full set list of songs that were either directly connected to his life or required little to rewrite them.”

Anderson realized he could write a narrative to accompany the songs and tie the concepts all together. 

“I thought it would be more fun to reimagine his life if he were alive today and working and using his inventiveness facing today’s realities of bioengineering and cloning and the demands of feeding more people,” he says. “Maybe it’s not an everyday aspect of us Brits or you Americans, where we have plenty to eat and eat too much generally. But we’re struggling to feed 7 billion or by the end of the century, it will be between 11 and 13 billon, so let’s call it 12 billion people. It seems like we won’t be able to feed that many people, especially in the face of climate change. Mr. [Donald] Trump might do all he can to persuade us that it’s a hoax, but most of us feel it’s real.”

While “rock opera” might sound rather onerous, the band, which these days features bassist David Goodier, keyboardist John O’Hara, guitarist Florian Opahle and drummer Scott Hammond, will revisit Tull hits such as “Aqualung,” “Living in the Past,” “Wind-Up,” “A New Day Yesterday,” “The Witch’s Promise,” “Locomotive Breath” and other favorites.

Way back in the late '60s, Anderson actually picked up the flute by “accident.”

“It wasn’t a dedicated, thought-through career choice,” he says. “It was a frivolous impulse buy. I decided not to continue being the guitar player. I decided to get rid of my old, probably rather valuable Fender Strat and they wouldn’t give me money for it. They would allow me to exchange it for something else. I picked the flute, which was hanging on the wall the music store. I liked it because it was small and shiny and not the sort of thing that you saw everyday in the world of pop and rock music.”

At first, he wasn’t sure how his flute, which he purchased in 1967, would work in the context of a rock ’n’ roll band. Within the next year, he had figured it out and Jethro Tull became a sensation.

“I tried to give it a role that was equal to the guitar,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be decorative addition in the way the flute sometimes did appear in pop music. I wanted it to more dominant and aggressive instrument. It became a guitar substitute. I was thinking guitar but playing the flute.”

With albums such as Aqualung and Thick as a Brick, the band provided a critique of organized religion and presented various other social issues too.

“I’m one of those songwriters who prefers to write about stuff,” says Anderson. “If I just write me and how my baby done left me, I think we’ve heard all that before by people who have done it far better than I could ever do it. I tend to steer clear of the common subjects of song lyrics. It’s been done and done again. I chose, as I have done most of my life, subjects that though sometimes they’re told from a personal standpoint, ones that people can relate to from their own experiences and imaginations. I write about stuff. I write about difficult stuff sometimes.”

But Anderson says the current tour doesn’t require any knowledge of the real-life Tull or agricultural techniques to make sense.

“It’s got to work for the toe-tappers and those who want to hear the best of Jethro Tull,” he says. “There are five mercifully short songs that help to tell the story as well as the bulk of the set that are songs that are the most widely known of the Jethro Tull repertoire in the sense that I’ve delivered songs with a big video screen and virtual guests, it has to work as a piece of entertainment. Just as you might go to the ballet, it might be good to know a bit about what you plan to see. Things can be less than obvious if you go to an opera or ballet. [There’s a synopsis of the concert on the Jethro Tull website] in a variety of languages, so you can read about it. You can do homework if you want. I’m not where to preach or tell people what they should believe. I present songs and give a little question mark here and there.”

Jethro Tull, 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 11, Akron Civic Theatre, 182 South Main St., Akron, 330-253-2488. Tickets: $42.50-$65, akroncivic.com

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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