Published Jul 07, 2018Most bands don't make it to their 50th anniversary; band members retire, people pass away and fans move on.
So, while everyone under the age of 20 at this year's Ottawa Bluesfest had relocated to a nearby stage after the War on Drugs' mid-evening set to see Brockhampton, the area in front of the main stage remained rather sparse (minus the usual swarm of lawn chairs), even minutes before Jethro Tull — the legendary progressive rock act — took the stage.
A regular to the city's National Arts Centre, as well as concert halls around the world, Ian Anderson isn't quite the must-see act he once was, having played before the same crowds many times over, and he seems to know it. (As he recently told PopMatters, he was reluctant to go on a 50th anniversary tour, being that he's normally "not given to nostalgia.")
Still, the 70-year-old didn't hold back on his return to the nation's capital, appearing limber and agile as he ran onto the stage, flute in hand, while an array of TV screens projected images of him thrice as young on Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test behind him.
Supporting their recent three-disc retrospective 50 for 50, Anderson and the modern-day Jethro Tull dug deep into their archives for their current tour, playing tracks mostly from their first ten years.
Openers "My Sunday Feeling" and "Love Story" showed off the band's British blues rock and psychedelic beginnings, while later tracks like "Bourrée in E minor" and "My God" helped chart their progression into more experimental, thought-provoking realms.
The songs stand on their own, no matter what order they're performed in. But tonight's show — and this tour in general, which seems to sequence the same tracks in order, night after night — wasn't (and isn't) so much about the songs themselves, but the history they represent.
At the beginning of the night's set, Anderson took to the mic to mention their current tour is a celebration of the band and the 36 musicians that have joined their ranks over the years. A number of them — including Jeffrey Hammond, who left the group in the mid-'70s to focus on painting — appeared on screen to introduce some of their favourite tunes (in his case, "A Song for Jeffrey"). Their brief appearances, as well as those from some of rock's greats like Slash, Joe Bonamassa, and onetime member Tony Iommi, gave weight to the band's overall legacy.
But it also made the evening feel fairly predictable, almost like a pantomime, what with Anderson's well-rehearsed anecdotes and perfectly timed onscreen interactions.
In the set's bucolic final quarter, the band were backed up by pre-recorded singers, performing in farmhouse kitchens and open fields, and scenes of country life, as tracks like "Heavy Horses," "Songs From the Wood" and "Farm On the Freeway" whizzed by. (And by the time "Aqualung" rolled around, it wasn't surprising to see the band's singer trading verses with what looked like a canned college-aged version of himself.)
Was it cheesy? Hell yes, it was. But Jethro Tull have always seemed more about the spectacle than the moment, and there's something to be said about an artist with such a definitive vision for his band, especially half a century in.