Thick As A Brick 2

"...moving up to number ten, the one and only Mr Jethro Tull, and here he is right now... yeah!"
Jimmy Savile introducing "The Witch's Promise" on 'Top Of The Pops' in 1970

Cringe... Has IAN ANDERSON finally got sick of having to explain that JETHRO TULL was the name of the band? Even today, one still reads comments on YouTube clips along the line of  "I used to love Jethro Tull... what a great character!"

After forty-odd years of people thinking that he is a man called Jethro Tull, he's going out under his own name, possibly for contractual reasons. 'A bloke at the record fair' was heard to say that he's had a 'major falling out' with long-time oppo Martin Barre, that they couldn't agree who gets the name in the divorce and that the band that was Jethro Tull is no more. ALLEGEDLY.

"THICK AS A BRICK 2" really is a Jethro Tull album, even though it's credited to JETHRO TULL's IAN ANDERSON, as is the tour to support it, of which more later. The only ones who might appear confused by this are the people who rack the CD in HMV shops. It's there under "A" for Anderson, not "J" for Jethro (by the way, if it ever does get racked under "T" for Tull, then those responsible are not fit to work in a music store anyway!)

"THICK AS A BRICK 2" really is a Jethro Tull album because it sounds like one.

It doesn't matter if the band that plays on it are all relatively new young whippersnappers. Anderson and co-producer STEVEN WILSON (yes, him again!) have done a bang-up job of making the album sound suitably 'vintage'. It's as if it could have been started the very next week after they finished recording the first “TAAB” album. Despite the presence of all manner of modern digitalia listed in the sleevenotes (Tascam X-48 and Yamaha Digital Mixer; iMacs running Sibelius and Logic software; all those other toys that make the modern musician less concerned about watching the clock), the album carries on where the last one left off, sonically as well as musically. Real Hammond organ. Real drums. Real flute, of course. A real band shifting real dust particles around a real room. That occasional vocal treatment that sounds like a megaphone, you know the one! All the trademark 1970s Tull elements are present and correct.

Musically, it's as gloriously, fiddly-twiddly complex as ever. You wouldn't want it any other way. You'll have hours of fun playing 'Spot The Quotation', as there are dozens of references to earlier Tull albums (and not just "Thick As A Brick 1" either). Anderson has always maintained that the first "Thick As A Brick" was a parody of a 'concept' album rather than the real thing (discuss!). So this could be seen as more of the same?

After all... chortle chortle... who would release a real progressive rock concept album in 2012?

There can't be that many people who have liked everything that Anderson and Tull have produced over the years. Like any band well into their fifth decade(!), they've had their highs and lows. But if you enjoyed Jethro Tull during their 'seventies prog heyday, then you will not be disappointed with "Thick As A Brick 2". It's the album that you always wished they would make, while all the time they were giving you the Christmas albums, the horribly-dated 'eighties output or that time during the 'nineties when they seemed to be trying so hard to sound like Dire Straits.

The 'story' of the album revolves around what might have become, forty years on, of the GERALD BOSTOCK character credited with the poetry on the original album. The piece is subdivided into several movements, each of which explore possible outcomes for the adult Gerald (a banker, a homeless person, a soldier, a 'most ordinary man' and so on). I must confess, I haven't yet 'studied' the lyrical content as much as I should, but if you play the music via the DVD, you get to read the lyrics on your telly as you listen, which goes some way to helping you unravel the 'concept'. You can also print out the words in a choice of languages via the magic of the Postscript Distribution File format. I hope that hearing (and seeing) the music performed live will aid my understanding, but then again, I'm still not entirely sure, forty years later, what the first "Thick As A Brick" was actually about. Who cares when it's full of such cracking tunes?

A QUICK WORD ABOUT THE PACKAGING... The idea of bringing the Pythonesque "St Cleve Chronicle" newspaper cover up to date, by doing it in the form of a parish 'website', is a good'n. It doesn't quite come off as a sleeve though. There's that thorny old issue that a little CD digipack is a bit feeble compared to a 'proper' twelve-inch LP jacket when it comes to 'impact'. In recognition of this fact, they have included a whole bunch of dummy web pages in PDF format on the DVD, so you can chuckle over them on your computer instead. Better still, there's now a 'real' interactive website online at www.stcleve.com

Sunday 6th May 2012 ...and so to the Southampton Guildhall. It's the final date on the UK leg of the tour, celebrating forty whole years since the first "Thick As A Brick" came out. A rare chance to hear and watch the entire flummoxing saga in the flesh, so to speak.

An easy set list to remember then: First half -"Thick As A Brick"; second half - "Thick As A Brick 2"!

If you find the 'concept', such as it is, confusing when you listen to the records, then the stage show probably won't clarify much. This is definitely theatre for "The Python Generation", full of in-jokes, surreal non-sequiturs and autobiographical red-herrings. Silliness for its own sake. So perhaps it is a 'parody' after all.

While the audience are still settling and the house lights still blazing, the road crew (and certain disguised band members), enter from the auditorium, dressed in brown work coats and flat caps and start busying themselves with brooms and feather dusters, or pretend to make adjustments. Occasionally, we see slides of factory interiors projected on the screen.

Lights dim and we see a PoV film clip of "Gerald Bostock" visiting a psychiatrist's office. The psychiatrist is played by Ian Anderson. We launch musically into the first 'movement', spotlight stage left on the lone figure of (the real) Anderson...

Can I just say here that I still think "I really don't mind if you sit this one out" is the greatest, most understated way ever of starting a forty-minute concept album, let alone a two-hour stage show!?!

The band are superb. Any nagging doubts that this was going to be a 'fake' Tull were immediately dashed. Particular kudos to FLORIAN OPAHLE for some glorious guitar work. He sounds just like Martin Lancelot Barre where it matters, but he has a youthful vigour all of his own. Keyboard and accordion whizz JOHN O'HARA seemed to be doing the work of several John Evanses all at the same time. The Hammond organ is a magnificent beast and he is its master. The rhythm section of bassist DAVID GOODIER and drummer SCOTT HAMMOND took every complex time signature in their stride. Tight as a gnat's chuff.

As if to emphasise the fact that this is a 'theatrical' piece, Ian Anderson has enlisted a real actor to handle some of the vocal parts (extremely well too!) and to strut about in a manner eerily reminiscent of the younger Anderson of forty years ago. His name is RYAN O'DONNELL – you might remember him from the stage version of "Quadrophenia" or from an RSC production or several? He also gets to sweep the stage ("Stage Brooms by Garners of Cirencester" says the programme notes) and attend to something behind the keyboard riser, I couldn't tell what.

There is another peculiar moment during 'Side 1' of "TAAB1" when the music is supposedly 'interrupted' by a call from a lady violinist. Moments later, she is seen projected onto the screen, literally 'phoning in' her orchestral part via the magic of Skype. Occasionally a man in a diving suit is seen walking across the room behind her. Apropos of nothing, "the man in a diving suit" subsequently becomes a recurring motif in the back-projected film show. He is seen wandering across fields and through car parks in a seaside town – I did say this was 'Pythonesque', didn't I? It was some time before I twigged - "Aha! AQUALUNG!"

During the interval, Anderson took the opportunity to promote his favourite Prostate Cancer charity with another piece of theatre of the absurd. Two unsuspecting 'volunteers' from the audience have to play doctor and patient...

There is a short film featuring Anderson as the village squire showing us around his gardens. Again, fitting in with the parish website theme, it is in the form of a fake YouTube clip. How did I know it was fake? Because the buffer/progress bar doesn't move throughout.

"Part Two" continues, but now he really piles on the in-jokes and red herrings. Slides include the covers of old Boy's Own Annuals and Biggles books (Was there really one called "Biggles Takes It Rough"?), a number of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, school photos and lots of film of the Blackpool Amusements. I can reveal to you now that "the man in the diving suit" eventually finds water.

There are some real musical highlights in the second half of the show. The Clannad-like celtic/folky section during "A Change Of Horses" (if I'm following this correctly) really comes together in a live setting. This is where the accordion is allowed out. Musically, it's not quite 'unplugged' but it's as near as it gets tonight.

It is the unison rhythmic passages that really show off this band's chops. They handle with ease all those choppy riffs that alternate rapidly between 7:8 and... oh, I lost count again...

Having Ryan O'Donnell there as an additional 'stunt vocalist' allows Uncle Ian to switch instruments easier and to be able to reproduce the studio arrangements where there are flute parts behind the vocals. By the way, there was also a real megaphone employed by young Ryan.

And so the whole saga ends as it began, with just Anderson and his little guitar and a reprise of the "and your wise men don't know how it feels..." bit.

The on-screen 'village squire' introduces all of the band as they take their bows. The hard working road crew also get to wave at the camera as their names are flashed on the screen. Is it just me or are we really giving a standing ovation to a Powerpoint presentation (I churl, of course!)? The final slide says "THE END... NO, REALLY...", just in case you were holding on for an encore...

www.iananderson.com    www.jethrotull.com   www.stcleve.com

There are already, you will not be too surprised to learn, audience clips of the tour appearing on that YouTube they have now. This one's of a production quality I don't mind sharing. Some of the others, it has to be said, are not quite as watchable, but there they are:-