Across London they came, travelling by iron steed or double-decker charabanc, drawn to the Apollo, hallowed shrine of the god of music, to witness the flowering of ye olde progge rocke with Ian Anderson and his merry troupe . . .
Whoops. Don’t know what got into me there. Or rather I do: Jethro Tull’s 1972 concept album Thick as a Brick, which was recreated in all its fanciful glory by Tull frontman Anderson at the Apollo last week. It was a flashback to rock’s golden age, a time when anything seemed possible – even a 44-minute song-suite based on a fictitious eight-year-old boy’s poems.
Anderson claims he wrote Thick as a Brick to spoof the idea of the concept album. He was annoyed that critics had described Jethro Tull’s 1971 breakthrough Aqualung as one. The same critics would soon turn on Tull, foreshadowing prog rock’s fall from grace later in the decade. In 1972, however, Anderson and Co. were at their peak: Thick as a Brick topped the US charts. Could Anderson, 40 years on and with a different band, do justice to its flowing blend of folk, hard rock, medieval minstrelsy and theatre?
The backing musicians didn’t let him down. John O’Hara on keyboards went from skiddy riffs (a residue of Jethro Tull’s roots in Stones-style blues) to mock-ecclesiastical organ motifs. Guitarist Florian Opahle faithfully reproduced the original’s curlicues and solos. David Goodier on bass and drummer Scott Hammond effectively marshalled the music’s capering rhythms.
Anderson, 64, is a less antic performer these days. There was the odd extravagant gesture – at one point he looked like a spider doing karate – but time has subdued the 1970s wildman-troubadour. His flute-playing, however, remains magnificent; it gave the music an intoxicating sense of freedom. Meanwhile a younger vocalist, Ryan O’Donnell, helped out with the singing. The contrast between his and Anderson’s more grizzled voice added new power to the theme of growing up that runs through the album.
The second half was devoted to Thick as a Brick 2, which Anderson released last month. This sequel follows the original album’s boy-poet into middle-age; it held up surprisingly well next to its 40-year-old precursor. The lyrics cleverly imagined Gerald Bostock’s possible range of occupations (one being a villainous banker) while the music developed themes from the 1972 record. “All the time life slips away,” Anderson sang. Tonight’s display of vintage prog ranked as one of the better ways to spend it.