June 5, 2024

What Steven Wilson does I actually don’t want to know about, because some of the things that he does technically-speaking, and indeed artistically-speaking… it’s better that I don’t know.

Ian Anderson

Nobody is 100% sure how far these deluxe book-style reissues of Jethro Tull albums are going to go. We’ve now seen this tremendous and acclaimed series stretch from the 1968 debut album This Was all the way to 1982’s Broadsword and the Beast, which almost certainly covers the most sacred Tull ground according to the vast majority. And as of 21 June we can add the double live album Bursting Out to the collection, as the powers that be found that gap worthy of filling, and once again tapped Steven Wilson to remix the entire project, which is now ‘inflated’ to six (!) discs. Behind-the-scenes rumblings over the past while indicate that Wilson is not terribly interested in continuing beyond Broadsword into the mid-80s-and-beyond albums, and with Tim Chacksfield – the man largely responsible for the look and quality of these sets over the past dozen or so years – now retired, it’s looking increasingly like the series could be reaching its end point, at least in this lavish hardbound book format. Yes, there have been whisperings of recording real drums for a deluxe version of Under Wraps, but it’s anyone’s guess at this point as to whether that comes to fruition and in what format it might see the light of day. But that’s all in the future. Right now, the ‘Inflated’ edition of Bursting Out is bestowed upon us in a matter of weeks, and it’s a tasty package which highlights a band at or near the height of its live powers and and popularity.

The question on many fans’ minds upon hearing this news was: is this expanded reissue necessary? After all, the Heavy Horses ‘New Shoes’ edition showcased the entire May 1978 concert from Bern, Switzerland that chunks of Bursting Out were taken from. And the Madison Square Garden live broadcast was issued about 15 years ago as a DVD set. If one combines these with a prior edition of Bursting Out, does that not make a reasonably complete collection of live material from this era? For some, perhaps. But for many others, including myself, there is much to be found here in this shiny new set that is simply too good to pass up. I’ve spent a solid two weeks with this beauty, delving in thoroughly with as fresh an ear as I could, and I’m ready to report back. Let’s investigate the contents further.

First and foremost: The sound. Wilson brings a remarkable clarity to these recordings, with a slicing punch to the guitar and kick drum, a crispness to the snare and cymbals, and a rosiness to the keyboard work of Dee Palmer and John Evans, while Anderson’s trills and snarls bite their way through the mix. He also brings the stellar guitar work of Martin Barre more to the forefront, as it should have always been… in all Tull recordings. Barre turns in spectacular performances on all of this material, weaving through the various styles required of such a varied catalogue of music, from early chestnuts like Sweet Dream and A New Day Yesterday, through to then-current pieces like No Lullaby and Heavy Horses, and dazzling instrumental pieces like Quatrain and Conundrum.

The (Madison Square Garden) audience weren’t there to hear me strumming an acoustic guitar, they’d gone to see a rock band with big hair, big lights, big everything.

Ian Anderson

There’s a good balance to the mix as Wilson avoids going too far in any direction that would inevitably be to the detriment of the music. It all sounds top-notch, never better, and whether your preference is stereo or surround, you won’t be disappointed. Wilson’s touch lends itself to Tull’s music in a way that others have not quite succeeded at to the same degree, and perhaps is even still improving after a dozen or more years of hands-on experience with the Tull vault reels. With no disrespect to Jakko Jakszyk and Peter Mew, they simply do not touch Wilson in this regard. He really opens up these 46-year-old live recordings without changing their aura or atmosphere, but he accents and highlights particular sounds along the way. One does not want major or jarring alterations, of course, but it would also be pointless to essentially copy the original mix and slap a new price tag on it. Besides, a flat transfer of the original mixes is also provided, as always, so anyone who wants to compare and contrast can do so easily.

The Bern tracks on Bursting Out total eight, if you count the introduction from Claude Nobs, and were 24-track recordings. The remainder of the songs were captured on 8-track and are simply listed as being from ‘various venues across Germany from 16 May – 2 June 1978’. Unfortunately, the boxes containing the tape reels did not indicate which shows most of the remaining tracks were plucked from, to answer anyone who may be questioning why this info was not provided. The Wilson stereo remix is spread across the first two CDs, with each rounded out by previously unheard soundcheck recordings. These were put to tape during the same run of shows, by the same engineer, using the same 8-track equipment, but in these cases the dates are specified. Curious. Even curiouser, however, is that among the concert staples being run through on those afternoon soundchecks were a couple of songs that weren’t even being played in the shows: Botanic Man – issued as a bonus studio recording on the Heavy Horses: New Shoes edition – is rehearsed in instrumental form (Anderson opting for flute rather than voice), and an early work-in-progress rendition of 4.W.D. (Low Ratio), later recorded for the A album in 1980, is also run through (and in fact, not the first example of a future A track being rehearsed by the classic lineup). Anderson explains in the accompanying book that he often had the band play such songs he was working on at soundcheck, to give him an idea of whether they might work or not.

The third CD is Wilson’s stereo remix of the Madison Square Garden show from October 1978, edited just enough to fit on one rather… um, bursting disc. As with the summer recordings, Wilson brings out a shine in the MSG concert and delivers the definitive version of this classic live Tull document. He also retains the live ambience throughout, and that’s important, particularly with crowd-pleasers like Aqualung, Locomotive Breath, and a particular feisty performance of Thick as a Brick. This CD has had a few full spins on my stereo already, as I found I prefer some of the renditions here over those of the springtime shows. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that I might compile a personal ‘best of’ hybrid concert using both sources.

The 3 DVDs (2 audio, 1 audio/video) are comprised of the 5.1 surround remixes of all of this material, as well as the 50+ minute concert video of the famous MSG transatlantic broadcast. I opted, as usual, for the DTS audio choice and was rewarded with a thoroughly enjoyable immersion into this 1978 concert with highlights from each band member popping out in various channels throughout (as well as that annoying prick with the air horn). The running order – both here and on the accompanying CD – remains basically unchanged from the 2009 CD/DVD release of this show, but again the big improvement here is in the sound, with Wilson’s mixes superseding Peter Mew’s fairly easily. Stabs of thick organ chords lurch forth from a maniacal John Evan, clad in all white and grinning like an escaped asylum inmate. Barrie Barlow’s bass drum and tom rolls thump in one’s chest as he locks in with Tony Williams, who I must say was in startlingly good form considering the short notice to step in and play this complex, dynamic material in place of the ailing John Glascock, and Anderson’s folky acoustic strings ring out while his snorts and wheezes are spat from his frequent flute solos. It all adds up to prime period Tull, when they were always at their best: live.

Amongst a number of missiles I’ve picked up from the stage have been live rounds of ammunition. It’s a concern to this day even, that you have to assume that there are people out there who truly do hate you… it’s worth the price of a ticket if you can murder a rock star, isn’t it…

Ian Anderson
Barrie auditioning for the role of third flautist.

The 96-page book proves another informative and engaging read, jammed with copious Tull Tidbits that include period photos, a lengthy interview with Anderson, reminiscences from prominent road and stage crew that provide glimpses of life behind the scenes, Chris Welch’s original writeup in Melody Maker reviewing the MSG show, and an in-depth article on the making of the album from the engineers who were there. These books are a goldmine of information, whether for the casual reader or the obsessed (read: me) Tull fanatic. It’s always a good day when one can add yet another of these tomes to the growing collection.

What’s the final verdict then? If you’ve read this far, you’re not looking for the short answer, but here it is anyway: Two thumbs up. Yes, in my estimation – and considering my discussions with Tull fans and collectors over 30+ years – I can say it’s worthy of replacing older versions. Paired with a smooth glass of Amarone, flipping through the pages, and heartily cheered by the glistening new sheen given to the superb music within, I can genuinely think of no better way I’d like to spend an evening. Make that a season, actually. This beauty is kicking off the summer for me, and I’m not even close to being ready to file it on the shelf. Looks like I’ll need more wine though!