Ian Anderson

The Sage, Gateshead

13 September 2015

Ian Anderson used to front a band called Jethro Tull, named for the 18th-century agricultural pioneer. Now Anderson has written a "rock opera" using the music of Jethro Tull (the band) to tell the story of Jethro Tull (the man) except transplanted through time to be about a fictional 21st-century agricultural scientist called, er, Jethro Tull. Are you with me so far?

What this actually is, as Anderson openly admits in the programme notes, is "another grim attempt to put a spin on what is patently yet another 'Best of Jethro Tull Tour'".

Which works fine, because the packed audience in Hall One of The Sage are more than happy to hear the best of Jethro Tull.

Anderson has written new, short "recitative" songs to link the classics into a coherent whole and tell the main story, but other than that it's one "hit" after another, and pretty much everything you would wish from an Ian Anderson (or Jethro Tull) gig. Some of the classics are worked seamlessly into the narrative — Heavy Horses is an obvious easy win. Others are more contrived, but who is ever going to complain about Aqualung being shoehorned into the set?

In addition to Anderson's band (John O'Hara, Florian Opahle, Scott Hammond, Greig Robinson), three guest singers take the roles of characters in the story: David Goodier, Ryan O'Donnell, and Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir. But they don't appear on stage, they are credited in the programme as "virtual guests", and all their parts are pre-recorded back projections. It actually works really well, and the synchronisation with the band, and when duetting with Ian, is flawless.

The whole two-hour show is accompanied by a back projected film with a variety of interesting and inventive imagery in addition to the guest singers, which all helps illustrate the story. The video creator gets a (virtual) bow at the end of the show, and he deserves it: there's a tremendous amount of creative work up there.

But even though it's hard to take your eyes off the screen, the man we've all come to see is Ian Anderson, and he doesn't disappoint. He's singing less on each successive tour now I think — with three guest singers on this one, he's probably handling less than half the vocals himself. I imagine there are practical reasons for this (for God's sake, the man is 68!), but the way he has structured the show around the extra singers really works. And if he's saving his voice, he's certainly not skimping on his flute playing. He plays throughout virtually the whole show, actually adding extra parts where he would normally be singing, and taking plenty of "show off" solos. And he does it with as much energy as I've ever seen,throwing himself along the whole (considerable) length of the stage to make sure everybody gets a good look at him.

The whole package is massively entertaining. But I don't think Ian Anderson knows how to be not entertaining.