Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull Took on Time and Won

August 24, 2008 6 min read

Hell has not frozen over — an increasingly unlikely prospect in these harrowing days of global warming — but something nearly as unlikely has happened.

That's right, Jethro Tull, the pioneering English prog-rock band that your parents or grandparents may have rocked out to in the late 1960s and early '70s, has suddenly become cool. Again.

At least it has for the members of such young buzz bands as Midlake and The Decemberists, whose members recently sang Tull's praises in Mojo, one of England's most savvy monthly music magazines.

Then there's Australian post-punk icon Nick Cave, who named one of his sons Jethro in honor of the group and sometimes plays Tull's 1971 classic, "Locomotive Breath," during his pre-concert sound checks.

Moreover, the band that helped pioneer the use of the flute in rock 'n' roll is still active, decades after its commercial heyday and decades after it successfully fused jazz, blues, classical, folk and increasingly complex art-rock into chart-topping, album-long opuses, such as 1972's "Thick As a Brick." And Tull's impact extends beyond classic-rock radio to the music of such disparate artists as South Africa's Johnny Clegg, England's Firebrand and California's recently reactived Blind Melon.

"There are people out there who seem to like us, such as R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe," said singer-flutist Ian Anderson, who has led Tull since its inception.

"The mainstream in music today just molds itself to a new haircut and pair of trousers. There's not a huge amount of ground being broken. You have to conform to stylistic constraints and demands from record companies, managers and concert promoters. They want you to do a certain thing, because they know what the best thing is to get a return on their investment.

"But, sometimes, you can buck the system and go your own way, without undue pressure from the powers that usually exert control. I would like to be remembered as an example of that."

Anderson and his band are spending much of 2008 performing a series of 40th anniversary concerts around the world. Make that the latest edition of the band, since Anderson is the sole original member.

That his group is still active, after so many years and at least 28 lineup changes, is a surprise to some, him included.

"When we started, I certainly didn't think we'd still be around 10 years later," he said, speaking from his home office in the south of England.

"But I intended to be around longer because my heroes growing up were all guys of my father's age, people like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson. So it was my hope, if not confident belief, that I'd be around in at least a few decades to come. But I didn't think for a minute it would be with the guys in Jethro Tull, or that even the name Jethro Tull would stick around, because groups came and went back then."

Anderson and his band do not have a new album out, although their 1968 debut, "This Was," recently was reissued in expanded form to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release.

"The title, 'This Was,' reflected that this was what we were playing in 1968, as in: 'This was Jethro Tull back then,'" he noted. "As a band, the group has gone on much longer than I would have anticipated, partly because we have a life outside Jethro Tull. We do solo projects and I think that's quite healthy."

Also out now is a DVD of the band's performance at the legendary 1970 Isle of Wight festival in England, which also starred Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell. Coming up this fall is a Tull tour of India with Southern California resident Anoushka Shankar sitting in on sitar.

"We haven't met up; we don't know each other at all," Anderson said of Anoushka, the daughter of Indian music legend Ravi Shankar. "Anoushka is doing seven shows with us in India and Dubai. I've checked out her website and we know each other, musically speaking. We're working on the elements that would allow some fusion between Indian and Celtic music.

"We'll play a couple of pieces from her more crossover-oriented solo albums, as opposed to her Indian classical music albums. And we'll try to find a couple of pieces where she can join us on more acoustic-oriented Jethro Tull songs that we can bend around to make work on sitar. The bulk of our focus will go to new material, which is special for this series of concerts."

Anderson, who turned 61 last Sunday, is enthusiastic but pragmatic about the future, both his own and his band's.

"I think it's probably OK to continue a musical career into your 60s, if you keep rehearsing and playing," Anderson said.

"The reality is you have to practice more than ever before. You have to work harder than ever before to maintain a degree of mental and physical fitness ... So far, so good."

Ian Anderson (third from the left) still leads Jethro Tull after 40 years. Photo courtesy of Jethro Tull Productions. (end caption)

To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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