Jethro Tull – Jack in the Green: Live in Germany [DVD] Eagle Rock Entertainment (5/20/08)
Jethro Tull skirts a strange line in the world of classic rock. Their schtick was just left-of-center enough to convince a few of the ’70s nascent rock enthusiasts that there was something profound going on there. (Lester Bangs, in particular, gave them a panache amongst we music geeks with his “Jethro Tull in Vietnam” piece that they’d have never picked up on their own.) As it stood, and still stands with the youngin’s these days weened on classic-rock radio, Jethro Tull are either a slightly eccentric middle-of-the-road rock band or just those guys with the flute that effed Metallica out of a Grammy.
In their ’70s heyday, however, they took acid-damaged hippie-folk-rock and scored an arena-size stage show with it that was sheerly Dadaist in execution. I heard tell of band members in gorilla suits and scuba gear, and other assorted zaniness that read like Alice Cooper on an Andy Kaufman bender.
There’s none of that on Jack in the Green, a DVD of performances by Jethro Tull in Germany throughout their career. (Apparently, Deutschland holds a dear place for sub-Zeppelin hippie mysticism, the Haight-by-way-of-Mordor variety.) The theatricality here is limited to frontman Ian Anderson’s bulging eyes, exuberant gesturing, and general camp. Bathed in sweat from literally the first note of the first song, Anderson is almost always the sole member of the band visible in all these clips, and watching him evolve from his ’70s reigning heyday to a subdued and deflated 1993 performance is one of the more fascinating things about this set.
I’ve seen footage from the Tulls before where Anderson is channeling his inner Hendrix, writhing about the stage in his saffron blouses, miming the summoning of demons and wielding his flute like equal parts phallus and scepter. Most of this set showcases the songs where Anderson plays guitar or mandolin, and it’s more subdued and far less Freudian. He nods his head and gesticulates like a kid’s show host, accenting his obtuse lyrics with flourishes that I’m sure seem far more dramatic if you’re actually taking the time to figure out what he’s saying and what it all means.
The first set is really the only one you need to check out here—a piece from the Rockpop in Concert series filmed in 1982. At this point the Tulls were already past their primal prime, but they had the set down to a science and some of their best tracks get showcased. The folksy “Jack in the Green” takes hold of the woodland-sprite vibe with a fiddle-dee-dee Irish folk melody, hold the really overt Irish qualities; it works out to where you don’t feel like they’re imitating that style but rather trying to slip underneath it and work it like a puppet to tell their story. Characters with mystical undertones that are used as a moral allegory are, in fact, a staple of the Jethro Tull canon. “Pussy Willow” tells the story of a woman “with a very boring job”, and it has an epic-sized groove to it, while the ubiquitous “Aqualung” energized the pallid Teutonic crowd.
Just in time, in fact, because the bluesy tactical weapon of “Locomotive Breath” comes next. Here Anderson really lets loose, spinning his flute like a cheerleader’s baton and conducting his band through one of their heaviest songs. The crowd is truly electric for this one, and you can tell this was mainline dope for Anderson because he ditches his formalist theatrical pose and clutches his microphone like it’s the last thing holding him on this earth. The galloping bom-chicka beat and guitar driven riff gives this track some epic-sized power, and flute never has since nor ever will sound like a more valid instrument being used by a rock band, let alone one once miscast as “heavy metal”. Although with “Locomotive Breath”, you really see why one would call them that.
Not much else of note happens in any of the other included performances. A 1986 show features a lengthy piece of their album-long “Thick as a Brick” track, variations on a simple marching theme that shows what possibilities can lie in even the simplest of melodies. The same show features a Tull track that showed their hand and probably sealed their fate—”Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die”. The ’93 performance, set in a small formal venue, features some sub-Dire Straits drabness that is only uniquely Tull by virtue of the flute—which, for all the derision they suffered over it, was actually a really cool touch for a rock band. The ethereal windy quality of the instrument, when brought up as high as the vocals in the mix, is a really cool accent to the multiple guitars and keyboard calamity that’s going on behind it; a little needed hint of intimacy in an otherwise cold mass-production. All the wind is firmly taken out of Anderson’s sails here, and while he’s still over-the-top compared to most frontmen, you can see how stiff and lifeless he is by this point. Compare this to the following pieces, some rare footage from 1971, where Anderson clearly is still in the “before” stage of his transformation into a rock-show troubadour.
Set in the order it is, Jack in the Green shows a band in various stages of decline, and then delivers a final kick in the junk by showing them when they had barely started to ascend at the end. The 1982 section is all that you need to see, because it shows Jethro Tull sitting comfortably on the mountaintop of stardom and relativity; it’s a triumphant and cathartic last gasp from a band that would spend the next 26 years and counting still flogging out the same string of hits that were only hits among their already pre-existent fanbase. Like any fan of genuine talent, I’m definitely in the burn-out as opposed to fade-away mindset when it comes to acts like this that don’t want to die. However, when I watch Ian Anderson in his early stages and see the shameless and pure-hearted emotion he put into his imagination-outlet of a stage show, I can kind of understand why they would go on like they have—maybe that microphone really is the only thing holding him on this earth.