Jethro Tull at Royal Albert Hall, review - prog rock's dottiest frontman is still a true original

Ian Anderson performs as part of Jethro Tull's 50th anniversary world tour - © Nick Harrison
Ian Anderson performs as part of Jethro Tull's 50th anniversary world tour - © Nick Harrison

Every musical genre has a signature pose that defines it. Early rock ‘n’ roll will always be summed up by Elvis Presley’s crooked knees in Jailhouse Rock. Disco will be remembered for John Travolta pointing skywards in his white suit. And ‘prog rock’ will forever be associated with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson standing on one leg while playing the flute, his lustrous locks floating about him.

If the pose sounds eccentric, then so – frankly – was prog rock. The genre introduced complex chord changes and jazz and classical elements to late Sixties rock. Lyrics often dealt in myth and legend. Wind instruments abounded. And Jethro Tull were kings of the scene, despite myriad line-up changes. They sold 60m albums, had number ones on both side of the Atlantic and, in more recent decades, even beat Metallica to a Grammy.

Playing the Royal Albert Hall as part of a 70-date world tour to mark their 50th anniversary, the group provided a largely successful example of how to ‘do’ nostalgia in a modern concert setting. Exceptional archive footage was mixed with superb musicianship and engaging story-telling from Anderson. As singer, flautist and the band’s only original member, the night was effectively his. But unfortunately Anderson was also the reason behind the show’s biggest flaw. His voice. It was at times so weak and strained that it threatened to undo all else. 

Which was shame, as Anderson has incredible presence. He appeared on stage during opener My Sunday Feeling, flute raised, and he twisted and leapt like a pixie interrupted in a wooded glade. Anderson is 71 in August. He was soon pulling The Pose.

Initially, it was impossible not to be reminded of two other offbeat flute players from popular culture: David Walliams’ Ray McCooney in Little Britain and jazz flute fan Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. But these comedy figures were soon forgotten. By Living in the Past, from 1969, I realised that I was witnessing a true original. His locks may be gone and his voice may be going, but there was something pure and unbreakable about Anderson’s dotty magnetism.

The show’s main conceit came from ‘surprise virtual guests’ making video introductions to the songs. Guests included some of the 32 former Jethro Tull members such as Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath and original guitarist Mick Abrahams, who left to form the wonderfully-named Blodwyn Pig. Celebrity fans such as Slash, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris also provided links. While this technology was hardly in the realms of the Tupac hologram at Coachella, say, it gave a bulging back catalogue fresh life.

Thick as a Brick was almost baroque in its proggy complexity. But, once again, tracks like the pastoral Songs From the Wood – which celebrated man’s attraction to nature 40 years before Justin Timberlake did the same with this year’s Man of the Woods – were let down by Anderson’s vocals. It’s just a thought, but could he not draft someone in to sing the bits he can’t? He ceded the high bits of storming main set closer Aqualung to an actor on the video screens and it worked a treat. With dozens of Jethro Tull alumni to date, what difference would another member make?