A bitterly cold Thursday evening rolls around and Bob, Derek and I set off for another evening of quality musicianship in the company of Jethro Tull, whose tour this year celebrates the 35th (!) anniversary of their classic 1971 album, "Aqualung". The tickets say the gig starts at 7:30pm, and in recent years Tull, who have a huge treasure trove of a back catalogue, have taken to performing with no support and very prompt starts : however, tonight we arrive spot on half-seven to find that Tull have shown us mercy by disgracefully coming on late... at 7:35 !
As the lights go down, the band take their places all down the front of the stage to warm applause. Keyboardist Andrew Giddings is on his bête noir the squeezebox, with customary gold lamé waistcoat protecting his chest, new (fifteen years a member this year) bassist Jonathan Noyce is dapper in a black suit and thin brown tie,
Martin Lancelot Barré sports a Viv-Stanshallesque fez and smoking jacket with emerald green cuffs, while Doane Perry, behind a tiny percussion kit, and Ian Anderson, have plumped for smart casual with shirts and waistcoats. Anderson plucks his parlour guitar from its stand with a flourish and the night has begun...
...with "Life's A Long Song", a stripped-down, semi-acoustic version : this is the Symphony Hall, after all, and behind the tasteful level of p.a. volume you can hear the accordion and Doane Perry's tiny splash cymbals acoustically, even up in the Gods, where we are. After our applause has died down, Ian Anderson says "That was 'Life's A Long Song', ladies and gentlemen, from Ninteen-Seventy-f*****g-ONE ! But enough of the old sh** - here's a more recent one... from 1974..." ! It's one of my personal favourites, "Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day", with the tabla sound nicely captured by Doane Perry's bongos (I'm sure there must be a technical term for changing a drum's pitch by pressing the skin with your elbow) and it's a fine, pleasing rendition. Next, Mr Anderson tells us a jolly anecdote covering performing on Top Of The Pops, bri-nylon and the 2½-legs dancing requirement of Sir Cliff Richard (mail me for the legally unexpurgated version... :) ! The song accompanying this tittersome story is the five-four-tastic "Living In The Past", once again with the band's semi-acoustic configuration enforcing a sparser arrangement, so the originally intricate arpeggio bass line is toned down and there is space for Doane Perry to mirror Ian Anderson's solo flute riffs with some exquisite tambourine fills.
Ah ! Next up is a nicely executed "Slipstream", first of the night from the "Aqualung" album under consideration, which answers one question ("are they going to play the whole album in track order ?") ("that's a 'no' then"). But now they're on the subject, they follow on with a faithfully delivered "Up To Me", with Martin Barré particularly fine, and which proves the most satisfying song of the evening so far, judging by the audience's response.
Ian Anderson has a surprise for us now : this tour, Tull have invited a young Hawaiian-American classical violinist named Lucia Micarelli to occasionally accompany them, and on she bounds, all gypsy hair, amply filled décolleté black dress, bare feet and, courtesy of Tull, recipient of an alleged recent crash course in surviving a rock tour bus... She cuts an earthy, feisty figure which is, to be frank and for all their collective musicianship, a welcome improvement to Tull's attractiveness quotient :^) When she kicks off accompanying Tull in the instrumental "Griminelli's Lament", she's certainly in Tull's musical league to boot - classically trained, certainly, but playing with a fluid, celtic passion and not afraid to mix it without the dots, and at the end, the Symphony Hall gig-goers show that they're suitably impressed.
Having let the poor young lady have the briefest of warm-ups, Tull, ever the gentlemen, scarper sharpish for a quick Sanatogen, leaving Ms Micarelli alone on stage to delight us with Sibelius' dramatic "Aurora", composed, we are informed by Ian Anderson, whilst "on the lavvy-loo !" Lucia Micarelli proves herself a technically accomplished violinist with a healthy sense of theatre, and she's constantly on the move, covering the stage with confidence and authority. She sweeps back and forth in her bare feet, pivoting and hair flailing, stance at times balletic, at times karate-like, hunched over her violin, like a voluptuous, teenage Samara from "The Ring", attacking the piece with a romany ferocity which is loudly appreciated by the punters. This signals the return of the members of Jethro Tull, this time with Doane Perry mounting his huge, enclosed drum riser, to revisit tonight's theme of "Aqualung" with a tight "Wond'ring Aloud" : then Ian Anderson introduces a medley of Mozart compositions (when Ian reaches to pick his parlour guitar from off it's stand, it snags, causing him to exclaim "Gerroff ! Bastard ! I hate it when it does that..."). It's a multi-time-signature, fiendishly challenging item and each of the musicians on stage seem to have their work cut out, but it's pulled off without a hitch and we warmly applaud their efforts.
It's back to "Aqualung" again now, with the ode to Preston Station, an oddly wistful "Cheap Day Return", which continues into, for me, the musical gem of the evening, "Mother Goose" : quintessentially folky and beautifully performed, and featuring delicate conga work by Doane Perry and stereo whistle and recorder playing from Barré and Giddings, on either end of the stage. Splendid stuff.
It's Lucia Micarelli's turn to shine again now on the extremely trad-sounding lrish instrumental "She Is Like The Swallow". Andy Giddings maintains an atmospheric octave bass drone on his keyboards, while Lucia's playing is slow, haunting and Celtic, so engrossing that you hardly notice that Mr Giddings has joined her in the melody playing. Meanwhile, Lucia and Ian are sparring with beautiful, alternating phrases, tapering their instruments' volume at start and end so that their contributions cross-fade into each other, breathtaking interplay building to a soaring, sweeping crescendo whereupon Andy's keyboards have somehow graduated to an eerie, high drone. The whole spellbinding piece is suddenly brought to a climax by Doane's only percussive contribution, a building, roaring, crashing splash on the drumkit washing over us like a storm breaking on rocks. Utterly mesmerising. Following our grateful applause, Tull still have enough in the tank to play us "Bouree", which is faultless and features a particularly fine bass solo from Jonathan Noyce : odd that it seems somehow ordinary following the preceding item, rather than the spectacle it actually is. No wonder that "Bouree" proves the end of the first half, allowing Tull to go for a well-earned lie down and we go numbly in search of our pre-ordered cans of bitter.
Break over, and back in our seats, and Tull scurry on stage in the dark, the spotlights focusing on Andy Giddings and Lucia Micarelli. Without any preamble, they launch themselves into a gypsy flavoured "Nocturne", Lucia wringing sensitivity out of her violin, until - hello ! - that's a familiar phrase : Lucia has segwayed into a pretty full-on instrumental rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody", even nailing a Brian-Mayesque solo, with the other Tull members joining in with gusto ! Audible chuckles ripple around the room as the penny successively drops, but after all, you can't play "Bohemian Rhapsody" without commitment and a healthy sense of, er, theatre, and Ms Micarelli gives us that in spades : a hearty burst of applause erupts from the entertained Brummies at the end. But pandering to this Midlands audience isn't quite over yet, as Ian Anderson tells us we might recognise the next one too, and it proves to be a rather epic version of "Kashmir", driven by some lusty violin-playing and managing to include a smattering of "Whole Lotta Love" in there too.
Back to the Tull material now, with "Cross-Eyed Mary" - a vigorous, infectious rendition which even has the normally staid Jonathan Noyce's head nodding and foot tapping (Tull's website, www.j-tull.com, says that Mr Noyce was born 3 months after the original release of "Aqualung" !). Following that, Mr Anderson announces "Hymn 43" to an oddly muted response from the Symphony Hall crowd : "Don't worry," says Ian, "I don't know it either..."
We've arrived at a section of the show reserved for a solo piece from Martin Lancelot Barré and tonight it's "Morris Minus", apparently inspired by a cat's encounter with neutering... as ever, Martin is magnificent on guitar, coming over on this number as a skilful blend of Edward Van Halen and Jan Akkerman. This marks the stepping up a gear for the night's entertainment, as we are treated successively to a thoroughly splendid "My God" (with Ian Anderson chuckling evilly into his flute mike), the all-stops-out triumph of "Budapest", finally to return to the theme of this year's tour with the 35-year-old ode to lechery and pneumonia, "Aqualung", all musicians driving the song on to a heady, theatrical crescendo and, with the room resounding with our applause, Tull scurry off to play the old 'encore' game with us...
...and with hardly enough time to towel down, they're back on again to perform a jolly d "Wind-Up", to complete tonight's self-imposed "Aqualung" task with a jaunty and intense "Locomotive Breath", and then it's time for the theme to "Protect And Survive" to herald Ian Anderson's heading of white balloons into the auditorium and wishing us a musical "Cheerio !", and they're off, presumably in search of a balti house which cooks with habañero peppers, and it's time to go home. Spare a pitying thought for Lucia Micarelli though, at the mercy of those experienced, old muso curry enthusiasts !