Ah, the concept album: the ultimate proof that rock got too big for its boots and needed punk to spit on it until it shrank back to size. The late ’60s and early ’70s was the concept album’s heyday, with Jethro Tull trumping the rest by releasing a 44-minute piece of music in 1972 called Thick As A Brick
Many fans and critics missed its satirical intention, which was more obvious live, when it came replete with Pythonesque sketches enacting the stories on the album’s elaborate newspaper-like cover.
“They say humour is a great leveller, but it’s also a great writer’s tool,” says Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull’s composer, singer, flautist, acoustic guitarist and undisputed leader, who acknowledges Monty Python’s role in stretching satirical British humour. “There would be no Thick As A Brick if it hadn’t been for Monty Python,” he says. “There would be no Spinal Tap if it hadn’t been for Thick As A Brick – although [Spinal Tap co-creator] Harry Shearer begged to differ when I interviewed him once on the subject. He did admit to having a copy of Thick As A Brick at home, but said he’d never actually played it. A bit like Bill Clinton smoking a joint but not inhaling.”
For Thick As A Brick’s 40th anniversary Anderson (under his own name rather than Tull’s) returned to performing the entire album. Now it is Australia’s turn to see that show, extended once more with sketches and interludes that demand more than musicianship from his current crop of rock, classical and jazz players.
“It’s always rather fun when you draw out of people a little bit of the ham amateur thespian,” he says with wicked glee, “and get them to do stuff that’s so far beyond their comfort zone that you can see them trembling… It’s not like they’re going out there to play Richard III, but on the other hand they have to play their part in making the presentation of the music a little more than just playing.”
Following the complete Thick As A Brick in each concert comes a second half combining a Jethro Tull “best of” with some pieces from Anderson’s new Homo Erraticus opus. “It’s quite a long concert,” says Anderson. “I advise people coming to bring a cushion and sandwiches.”
He is somewhat cagey about the reasons for now performing under his own name rather than Tull’s, and skirts around the issue of whether he will work with long-term Tull guitarist Martin Barre again. “Martin and I have talked a few times about doing some duo things,” he says, “just going and doing acoustic dates, or whatever. But he’s a busy boy, and so am I. Is that slippery and evasive enough for you?”
For the first time Anderson brings a co-singer, Ryan O’Donnell, to help cover for the permanent damage that now makes his voice such a fragile instrument. “He gets some bits to sing, he gets to dance around, do a bit of mime and spoken word,” says Anderson, “and he’s a welcome addition because he’s a different focus… To some people it’s a bit like my younger self sort of materialising on stage. In reality I don’t think Ryan sees it that way and I don’t see it that way, because we’re different people. We have different ways of doing things. I see him as being complementary, not a surrogate Ian Anderson.”
Ian Anderson: Concert Hall, Thursday and Friday; Melbourne, Palais Theatre, Monday.