Writer: Ian Anderson
Video Creator: James Anderson
Reviewer: Helen Jones
Ian Anderson has long been known as the sprite-like figure who is the voice, flautist and writer behind the prog-rock band Jethro Tull. The band was formed in the 60s and finally named Jethro Tull by their agent in 1968. Anderson confesses that at the time he hadn’t even realised they were named after a long-dead historical figure. The original Jethro Tull was an English agriculturalist, writer and inventor, who helped form the basis of modern British agriculture by using science and technology to improve farming practices.
Anderson began to investigate the life of Jethro Tull and recognised events in Tull’s life which were echoed in music that Anderson had written for the band. He made a list of their music which he felt had a degree of relevance in the man’s story and then began building a show that weaves the two together. Rather than set it in the late 17th and early 18th Century, when the historical Jethro Tull lived, he moved it to the near future and modern day parallels in the development of agriculture. Anderson tweaked lyrics, wrote some new material and links between the songs and Jethro Tull The Rock Opera was born.
The show combines rock concert with video footage. The video has singers portraying characters from the story who provide the links and additional vocals to carry the plot forward, but the majority of tracks are sung live by Anderson. Unnur Birna Björndöttir as Jethro Tull’s wife Susannah has an excellent voice and skilled violinist, while Ryan O’Donnell as the young Jethro Tull not only has the voice to carry the songs but also the phrasing of Ian Anderson to make them sound closer to the originals. The timing of the video and live performance is excellent and at no point in the performance do they become out of alignment. The recorded singing is always perfectly in sync with the live music and the images change in split second timing with the music. However, the singers seem under used and spend the majority of the time they are on screen simply standing there singing.
Ian Anderson himself has lost none of his talent or charisma. He is unsurpassed as a rock flautist and although the voice might show traces of aging, he still carries his songs with a style and conviction. As a Jethro Tull concert, the evening is a roaring success. As an experimental rock opera it is lacking some basics. The plot is near impossible to follow as there are no real visual tags to aid understanding and the sound balance, certainly on the heavier tracks, is biased to the band, so the all important lyrics are indistinct.
Jethro Tull The Rock Opera is a brave attempt to do something new with the music of one of the principal bands of prog rock, but at the moment it needs to decide if it is a rock opera or a concert.