by LIZA MITCHELL
If it’s good once, it’s bound to circle around again. Classic rock never really burned out or faded away, but many of its original players have long since hung up their guitars and retired to the golf course (I’m talking to you, Alice Cooper) or simply drifted into obscurity. Classic rock stations remind us why these artists enjoyed their time in the sun, making the opening riffs of songs like ‘Smoke on the Water’ or ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ forever recognized and instantly air-guitared.
Many musicians with decades in the game phone it in, coasting on the vapor trails of their former career and choking out the same old hits at reunion shows and county fairs. Others embark on a complete rebranding of image and sound, often with disastrous results. Trying something different doesn’t always work. Fans want to hear the hits. Same is good. It’s less confusing, and it keeps the seats warm. It’s the rare artist who can breathe new life into an old story and make it sound both familiar and new.
The First Coast is enjoying a resurgence of 70s rock with upcoming shows by Adam Ant, Blondie, Devo, Stevie Nicks and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. All are all stopping in the Jacksonville area this month in support of new, or relatively new, material.
Anderson will perform the Jethro Tull album Thick as a Brick in its entirety as well as its follow-up Thick as Brick 2 on September 21 at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. Tickets range from $29.50 to $69.50 (www.staugamphitheatre.com). Gates open at 7 pm and the show begins at 8 pm.The following night, Deborah Harry and Blondie share the bill with Devo at the same venue.
Nicks performs September 25 at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, where she will play singles from her May 2011 release In Your Dreams as well as classic Fleetwood Mac and solo hits. Adam Ant is also in town on September 25 with his band the Good, the Mad and the Lovely Posse at Freebird Live in Jacksonville Beach (www.freebirdlive.com). It is his first tour in several years.
We were able to have a chat with Anderson, who is touring in support of his mammoth undertaking, Thick as a Brick 2. This sequel to the original 70s concept album catches up to the album’s protagonist as he would be today. Anderson shared with EU the challenges of re-creating magic, the pitfalls of nostalgia and the real reason he finally said yes to the project that almost never was.
It was 1972 when Ian Anderson last played the Jethro Tull classic Thick as a Brick in its entirety. Sure, snippets of the album were bandied about over the years, a riff here and a verse there with both Jethro Tull and in Anderson’s solo endeavors. But the story of the child prodigy called Gerald Bostock fell quiet, his fictional accomplishments shelved indefinitely following Jethro Tull’s tour of the U.S. and England 40 some odd years ago.
Anderson never wanted to write a sequel to Bostock’s story. The original release was huge, with multidimensional arrangements and overlapping vocals that required great precision to execute while simultaneously playing both guitar and flute.
Through the years, Anderson said he was often nudged about writing a follow-up to the progressive rock classic about Bostock, a fabled child poet whose fictional parents were said to have fibbed about his true age. He politely declined each time someone – friends, colleagues and record execs – broached the subject. “I gave it some dutiful deliberation for a couple of minutes and politely declined. It was a nice idea, but after some reflection, no,” he says. “When anybody says ‘no’ repeatedly, perhaps they begin to question the reason for saying no after all. After 40 years, it seems impossible to create something without being totally nostalgic. Only when I found something conceptual did it seem more like a valid idea, the adult life of a fictitious schoolboy.”
Anderson credits the enthusiasm and “gauntlet challenge” of 70s progressive rock vocalist-turned-record-executive Derek Shulman for giving him the final push he needed to embrace the concept. And so, Thick as a Brick 2 was born of resistance, introspection and blind faith that this bold and monumental undertaking would all work out for the best.
The full-length concept album looks back at what might have befallen the young Bostock, now 50, his fate spelled out in multiple scenarios involving several alter-ego characters. The various what-ifs of life take shape in a myriad of plot twists that are illustrated through the sequel’s lush, musical landscape. Themes of fate and chance, opportunity and possibility are explored within TAAB2, proving that our destiny can be completely altered in a single moment, with “actions all pulled back into a singular, predetermined space.”
Thick as a Brick 2 was released in two formats: a simple jewel-case CD with an eight-page booklet and a special-edition CD with a DVD of mixes, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the musicians, and Anderson reading passages of lyrics in various settings. The DVD also features excerpts of the St. Cleve Chronicle, the original newspaper featured in the first album. The sequel features the online version of the news publication as a testament to the current state of print journalism.
Also a nod to the present was Anderson’s decision to master Thick as a Brick 2 in a way that would be easy for fans to digest in small, downloadable amounts. “I knew that in doing such a big piece of music, I still wanted to make it something that can be unbundled for iTunes so you can navigate around. I had to think from the beginning that you have to be able to snack on it. We had to have it in bite-size portions,” Anderson says. “I had to visit the messy business of doing that with Thick as Brick, breaking down the first album so the radio DJs could play bits of it and have a place to drop the stylus on the album.”
In February 2011, Anderson began writing and produced a flurry of new material in just two weeks time. By the beginning of March, that material was ready for scoring and arranging. “Bang, I was on a roll. Once you get something happening, it is surprising the inertia is now as it was 40 years ago, how you can sustain that over a period of weeks just like the original process. You mirror the same sonic colors. These are the brushes of a painter and the music is the painter’s palette,” he says.
Anderson assumed the majority of the writing responsibilities. Learning and playing the new material as well as revisiting the original album would require the dedication of the entire band with Anderson at the helm. “It was difficult. It took us about 150 to 200 hours of learning and rehearsal and practice. The intention is to play all of Thick as a Brick and Thick as a Brick 2. That is a big chunk of music. You can’t read off the page the whole time. You have to look like you’re enjoying it,” he says. “It was a big job. We were not able to have fun for the first 25 shows or so. It’s all head down and trying to get through it. It’s very challenging.”
But it was rewarding as well. Anderson was able to get reacquainted with Bostock after 40 years of estrangement, but he says the distance between them was never that great. “To an extent, he was not that far away. Though it has not been played in its entirety since 1972, I’ve played bits in our repertoire over the years. In 2011, I really started to pay attention to the original one, and it did seem possible, but quite clearly it was going to be a big job.”
Ryan O’Donnell, whom Anderson describes as the “singer, actor, artist, theatrical type,” helps to breathe new life into Bostock. “He’s a nice young man. He is really accepted on the stage and is a bit of an alter-ego for me as he is seen as a younger Ian Anderson. It’s tough to find without it seeming like a parody or embarrassing.”
O’Donnell is essential to the success of the live show. He fills in empty spaces, covering vocals when Anderson is doing an important flute line. “There are only 16 bars in the entire show where I’m doing nothing but looking good. I’m well and truly busy all the time,” Anderson says. “There are a few seconds twice in the show where I can grab some water. I stay busy hydrating and singing and playing.”
On Thick as a Brick 2, Anderson said he was more mindful of structure than when arranging the original in ’72. Only a couple times do the vocals overlap on the current release, whereas the vocal Olympics on the first record were staggering.
“In ’72, I allowed the enthusiasm to get the better of me in the studio. I was a lot more careful this time around. We’re using the same tools, but we don’t have to paint the same picture. There was a deliberate, conscious attempt on my part to develop some maturity,” he says. “Like Beethoven: You hear the same notes in the 3rd symphony that you do hear in the 7th and 9th. That doesn’t mean you are running out of ideas.”
In the end, Anderson is at peace with his work and eager to share it with his fans. He is even hoping to win the grace and favor of some new fans, as his audiences have a tendency to swing demographically to the younger crowd. Either way, Anderson assumes a measure of comfort in his thinking that it will all be okay when, in reality, he knows that such expectations are without guarantee.
“Half of the fans will say this is okay, the other half won’t. Also, perhaps they’ve been there, done that. Some old folks like to do quiet fishing, lie down and wait to die. Others enjoy going to rock concerts and sinking their teeth into something new. If I could reach out to half the people who liked early Jethro Tull, I’m doing quite well.”
CLASSIC ROCKERS PLUG IN ON THE FIRST COAST
by LIZA MITCHELL