It turns out that the British prog rock band Jethro Tull and the 18th-century agriculturalist Jethro Tull have more in common than just a name.
Ian Anderson, the group’s longtime frontman, says he didn’t know much about Tull when his band was formed (the name was actually suggested by a booking agent in the late ’60s). And while those similarities are relatively minor, there are quite a few of them.
For instance, Tull had musical ambitions when he was young, but his parents made him attend law school. The song “Wind-Up,” which closes Jethro Tull’s 1971 album “Aqualung,” begins with the lyrics, “When I was young and they packed me off to school.”
Here’s another: Anderson says Tull suffered from bronchitis as a teenager, which is unintentionally echoed in the band’s signature song, “Aqualung.” And Anderson has frequently explored themes of agriculture and farming in songs like “Farm on the Freeway” and “Heavy Horses,” which obviously lines up with Tull’s work.
“In many cases, it’s a little uncanny,” Anderson said during a recent phone interview. “It seemed like a good opportunity to come up with a theme for a live concert that would embrace the use of modern technology with videos and special guests, make it more of a theatrical event.”
Anderson’s research into the life of Jethro Tull inspired the musician’s current stage show, which he’s bringing to Northern Quest this weekend. The set list features some of the best-known tunes in Jethro Tull’s catalog, but those songs are structured and paced in a way that serves as a musical biography of the real Jethro Tull.
“It’s essentially a best of Jethro Tull show, the mainstream Jethro Tull repertoire that most of our fans will recognize,” Anderson said. “I’m really telling (Tull’s) story through the songs I’ve written over the years.”
Anderson has written a handful of new songs specifically for the live show, many of which serve as transitions in the story. They also touch on 21st-century political, religious and sociological issues, especially GMOs and corporate agribusiness. While much of Jethro Tull’s music was concerned with such socially relevant themes, Anderson is clear that he’s not out to lecture anybody.
“I think the trick is you’ve always got to give them a popular appeal,” Anderson said. “There’s no point in using (songs) to hector an unwilling audience. You’ve got to make it musically entertaining. If you can’t get people tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music, you’re not going to seduce them into paying attention to the subtlety of lyrics.”
Jethro Tull went through numerous lineup changes over the years, officially calling it quits in 2012. Anderson has a full schedule outside of touring as a solo act: He’s finalizing an album of string quartet arrangements of Jethro Tull songs, and he plans to start work on a new studio album soon.
“It’s nice to keep busy at my age,” he said. “You don’t want to fall off the bicycle, best to keep pedaling. The danger is if you fall off the bicycle you won’t be able to get back on and pedal off into the sunset, which, of course, I’d like to do.”
Anderson’s stage persona remains the same as it was back at Jethro Tull’s creative peak: He bounds about the stage, often with his flute, and tears into the songs with a crazed zeal. Although he’s the only member to remain with Jethro Tull during its entire four-decade career, Anderson says he doesn’t think of the band as his own.
“There have been 26 different members of Jethro Tull over the years, and I think that’s, in a way, part of our strength,” Anderson said. “I tend not to think about Jethro Tull as a band identity, because you can’t encapsulate all 26 members in your head. It’s like this big extended family.
“It’s rather like your favorite football team. The people who are kicking the ball about and whatever they do in American football, which I can never understand, they’re not the same guys who were there 20 years ago. So it’s an ever-changing rotation of talent, and that’s the way I think of Jethro Tull.”
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