There’s just something about Jethro Tull music that lends itself to this time of year. The rosy and comforting quality to Ian Anderson’s rustic, folk-tinged tale spinning feels made for the ripening autumn season and its gradual build to the merriment of the holidays. Perhaps it’s Anderson’s own fondness for all things crisp and yuletide, or perhaps it’s plain overthinking to attribute seasonal traits to music that is in fact appropriate any time of year. But it does seem that with the first whispers of cool evenings and cracked leaves spiraling to the ground, my hand is guided by some unseen force to the ‘J’ section of my music shelves. And as the weeks grow gradually more snowy and festive – and I pretend the depressing bleakness of January is not just around the corner – so do the hours devoted to Tull music seem to increase.
For those of us easily appalled by the deluge of syrupy Christmas songs blaring from shopping malls and radio stations each year, Tull’s own Christmas album is a more gratifying alternative. But even that is really only appropriate as the actual day draws near. A much more suitable ‘full season’ choice might be Ian Anderson Plays The Orchestral Jethro Tull, a complete 2004 concert from Mannheim, Germany that draws on Anderson’s own solo catalogue as well as the vast Tull oeuvre and a dash of holiday-themed pieces, performed with the Frankfurt Neue Philharmonic Orchestra. Some may know of this release already while it will have passed others by (especially those who live in an all-vinyl world). Originally released on CD and DVD in 2005, the complete concert sees its first ever vinyl release on 18 November on Parlophone. It’s a beautiful and hefty 2-LP gatefold edition cut using direct metal mastering and pressed on 180-gram vinyl, and the sound is top shelf. Wax lovers rejoice!
There’s a gleaming elegance to these orchestral interpretations of Anderson’s music, and the arrangements benefit from being properly integrated into the band’s performance, rather than the all-too-common scenario where a disembodied orchestra plays a carbon copy of the main melody – or worse, drowns the band out altogether. Not to mention, classical flavours have been woven throughout Tull’s music dating back over 50 years, so perhaps this shoe is a more comfortable fit for Anderson than it is for musicians with nary a classical bone in their bodies.
The band members are no strangers to latter-day Tull fans, with Florian Opahle on guitar, John O’Hara on keyboards, David Goodier on bass, and James Duncan on drums. The concert boasted an eclectic set list, too, with fewer repeats here than on more standard live releases. Sure, old warhorses like Aqualung and Locomotive Breath are trotted out, as they have been at every concert Anderson has performed since who-knows-when, but given this treatment they are not quite the stale eye-rollers they can be for some of us longtime concert attendees. And as this was not technically billed as Jethro Tull, it seems Anderson felt free to pepper the show with solo tracks which prove to be some of its finest moments.
Opening with a pair of ditties from then-recent Rupi’s Dance, the show kicks off with a string of band-only tracks before the orchestra settles in. Anderson and O’Hara trade off some fine flute and accordion solos during Europa, and Anderson is in good form vocally for numbers like the beloved Skating Away and the rarer Up The ‘Pool. O’Hara admirably conducts the orchestra from the comfort of his keyboard rig, and the moody In The Grip Of Stronger Stuff, from Anderson’s Divinities album, proves a highlight. Strings are dutifully employed on acoustic pieces like Wond’ring Aloud and Life’s A Long Song, while Cheap Day Return is charmingly augmented by bassoon. The more dramatic and dynamic compositions like My God and Budapest arrive late in the show, the orchestra accenting their epic nature, while Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane is a haunting and beautiful moment in the set, just as it was on The Jethro Tull Christmas Album.
Anderson’s jazzy spin on We Three Kings and even jauntier arrangement of God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman provide a taste of holiday carols without becoming saccharine or overbearing (the latter is no stranger to Tull concerts year-round anyway). On the whole, it’s a remarkably balanced collection of songs, and it’s good fun to listen to these musicians as they move from strength to strength.
It’s lovely to see titles like this being dished out on the ol’ black platters, and I can think of several more that hopefully will see the light of day in this ongoing vinyl renaissance. In the meantime, Parlophone has made a great choice and done a lovely job with this one. Any wax-loving Tull fan would doubtless appreciate finding this one under the tree this year. I can think of a lot worse ways to spend Christmas than kicking back with a tipple in your mug and some Tull on your turntable.
Hey! Santa! Pass us that record, will ya?
Ian Anderson Plays The Orchestral Jethro Tull double vinyl is released 18 November.