Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: Still Thick after All These Years

in Production Profile

Ian Anderson, left, performing with his new band mates on TAAB2As the wild-eyed flute-wielding frontman of Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson has often presented, with a hefty dose of camp, highly theatrical musical productions, and he’s been doing in over a span of 40 years. Whether through comic absurdity, interactive props, visual spectacle or dramatic flair, Anderson and Tull rarely disappoint audiences. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Anderson has challenged himself, his band, his creative tech team and potential audiences once again by organizing his latest ambitious tour.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of 1972’s satirical concept album Thick As A Brick (TAAB), Anderson will be performing TAAB and its sequel, 2012’s Thick As A Brick 2 (TAAB2), in their entirety on a 200-date run that stretches into the fall of 2013. Billing himself as “Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson,” the Scottish native will hit the road with a relatively new, albeit highly capable, band featuring guitarist Florian Opahle, keyboardist John O’Hara, bassist/multi-instrumentalist David Goodier and drummer Scott Hammond. (Legendary Tull guitarist Martin Barre and longtime drummer Doane Perry do not appear.)

Although some might label Anderson brave (or even thick) to undertake such a demanding production in the year 2012, the iconic rocker says he is up for the challenge. “It’s a big project, and one I wouldn’t really want to tackle this late in life if, for one thing, I didn’t really feel confident about it and, for another, that I would really be enjoying it a year and a half from now,” Anderson tells PLSN.

“Ian does like a challenge, and he definitely has taken one on with this tour,” says Light Creations’ Mark Wheatley, the tour’s lighting designer and video director. “The production rehearsals, which were basically three days in the studio, were almost a sort of learning curve for everybody. Ian had these things in his head, what he wanted in the show, and we had to find ways of making them work.”

“We’re all hungry for a degree of responsible, disciplined opportunities in music, and we know we have to work to achieve them,” says Anderson. “It doesn’t get any easier as you get older. It doesn’t get a whole lot harder, but it certainly doesn’t get any easier.”

Spin Back Down the Years

Anderson’s current tour revolves around the original inspiration for TAAB, which sought to parody a popular artistic vehicle of the early 1970s: the rock concept album. As such, Anderson created the fictional character, literary prodigy Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock, winner of a local poetry competition, who was later disqualified due to the “unwholesome” nature of his work. The entire sordid tale was reported in the fictional weekly newspaper, the St. Cleve Chronicle, a physical copy of which served as TAAB’s original LP packaging. Bostock’s poem, “Thick as a Brick,” was printed in these funny papers and conveniently served as the album’s lyrics.

Fast-forward four decades. Anderson had considered writing a sequel to TAAB for years, but had finally penned and recorded one in 2011. The result, TAAB2, updates us on what Bostock, now aged 50, might be doing with his life. The substance of Bostock’s possible future life paths has made great fodder for Anderson’s theatrical rock production.

To illustrate Bostock’s journey from youth to middle age (and various lyrical ideas such as war, coming of age and eroticism in both TAAB masterworks), Anderson and his son, James, the tour’s video designer, present original short video clips, pictures of the historic Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and Vincent van Gogh’s post-impressionistic “Starry Night,” the apocalyptic visions of painter Hieronymus Bosch, startling stills of 20th Century battlefields, an oddly entertaining faux prostate exam and other compelling (if slightly less gratuitous) photographic artifacts.

Using only one projector (either a Barco SLM R12+, a 12K Sanyo PLC-XF46N or a 15K Sanyo PLC-XF47), exporting HD video at 720p, Mark Wheatley beams these compelling sights onto a white projection screen at the back of the stage. (Anderson tours with two lens sets for visual options; the crew relies on the venue for the screen.) A 12K lumens minimum and a 700-watt LED fixture array help create a delicate balance between video and lighting on the backdrop.

“You can see pictures in your head as you were singing bits of music that cried out for visual representation,” says Anderson, who compiled a reference document called “The Show Bible,” listing all of the theatrical and production directions for the show. “Other elements perhaps had to be explored a little more carefully. Sometimes what we do is a literal depiction of scenes; sometimes it’s more abstracted and sometimes it’s interplay between the characters on the screen and the musicians on stage.”

One of the most evocative bits of imagery involves a lost frogman (i.e. a deep-sea diver with an “Aqua-Lung”). This concept dates to the early 1970s, but a fresh visual twist underscores TAAB2’s conceptual thrust. “The frogman … has a different and rather much more complex role to play in reminding us what it’s like being a fish out of water,” says Anderson.

“We [rented] a frogman’s outfit from a London store and went out to Warwick,” says James Anderson, who was using a 35mm Nikon D5100 DSLR camera. “Ian got one of his friends to wear it, and we had some shots of him in [the scuba suit]. Then I … put the suit on and we went around Brighton and Ian filmed me. But [Ian] didn’t seem too keen on putting [the suit] on himself, though.”

Modern technology has reinterpreted some other visual elements important to Tull’s early 1970s TAAB tour. For instance, when the band took the stage in 1972, they were wearing overgrown rabbit costumes. Rabbits do make an appearance on the current tour, but via video imagery, what Anderson calls a “bewildering array of abstract images,” which ultimately coalesces into a single rabbit playing a flute.

“As is often the case these days it’s difficult to digest the lyrics whilst the show is in progress,” says James Anderson, who created HD content with Adobe Photoshop and Premiere on his MacBook Pro and iMac. “This helps bolster some of the thoughts and feelings behind the lyrics.”

Before Anderson ever breaks into the famous acoustic guitar riff opening TAAB, the band waltzes around the stage, inspecting it in near darkness, while wearing factory laborer coats and hats. (It’s a wardrobe design — or is it malfunction? — that’s reminiscent of Tull’s 1972 TAAB tour.) A few minutes later, a short video sequence is shown on the projection screen. Anderson, dressed in white lab coat, glasses and wig, assumes the role of psychotherapist Dr. Maximilian Quad, who’s attempting to help a middle-aged Bostock through his personal issues. Bostock never actually appears on camera and, in a weird and quite ironic way, it’s as if we’re watching psychoanalysis of Anderson’s own mind. “That’s a clever vehicle to start ‘Thick As A Brick,’” says production manager Chris Archer.

After an intermission, and before the second half of the show begins, video appears on the projection screen, spoofing MTV’s Cribs. The camera follows one Colonel Archibald Parritt (Anderson), who takes us on a guided tour of his expansive mansion for the YouTube channel, St. Cleve TV. “It’s completely preposterous, because it’s a … middle-aged English gentleman trying to portray himself as a bit of a playboy,” says James Anderson.

Skype Hype

In the hopes of adding further visual excitement to the show, the band attempted to use live cameras on stage. But budget constraints made attaining the proper equipment for image processing impossible. James Anderson, however, found a solution: he filmed the band during some of the tour’s earlier shows and edited these performances together. “Every night the music is played to a click, so I was able to sync the footage,” James Anderson says.

“You have the impression of live cameras being on stage when there actually never is,” adds Wheatley. “It’s a neat little trick that works really well.”

Another creative sleight of hand involves a takeoff on an old gag in which Anderson answers a ringing phone on stage after bring the musical action to a screeching halt. In the 2012 performance, Anderson answers his cellphone. The person calling is versatile violinist Anna Phoebe, who’s asked to perform with the band in a few minutes via Skype. “Then a Skype window appears on the projection screen,” says James Anderson.

“Trying to make that work had us all scratching our heads,” admits Wheatley. “‘Do we sync this video to timecode? No, that’s far too complicated. ‘Do we do it to click?’ Won’t the click affect what people are going to be seeing and hearing?”

As realistic as this action might appear, Phoebe is not really on Skype: she’s been pre-recorded for greater control of the interactive environment. “If the video goes wrong, timing wise, then you have a 12-foot woman playing a different song,” says Wheatley.

Wheatley admits that the Skype sequence went awry, once. “[Drummer Hammond] played the whole song with a baffled look on his face, the poor man,” says Wheatley. “He took his inner ears out and managed to get through it.”

Show In Suitcase, Will Travel

Given the scope and budget of the tour, the theatrical rock crew’s lighting and video solutions needed to be flexible. With a ChamSys MagicQ Playback Wing, Green Hippo’s HippoCritter rackmount media server/video playback unit and a laptop running ChamSys software, the crew can “pretty much carry the show in a suitcase,” says Archer. “Mark has [the ChamSys] software on his laptop and the control surface with him no matter where we go. He can automatically update his programming and tweak things a bit.”

“We did have to update the ChamSys software to merge some Robe Robin 600 LEDWash fixtures into the show, because they were set up [for a festival] as multi-part heads,” says Wheatley. “Having contacted ChamSys and explained the problem, they emailed a firmware update within the hour.”

Wheatley’s laptop outputs Art-Net to the ChamSys DMX interface and the HippoCritter via a small Ethernet switch. Macros in Wheatley’s main lighting cues trigger video. “Ian likes some form of continuity from one [show] to the next,” says Wheatley, who says there are nearly 500 cues for the entire show. “It’s a case of making the lighting, the general list of the equipment, as flexible as possible, because then we can achieve the same overall look no matter what [fixtures] we use.”

Wheatley’s lighting designs are bolstered by the strategic placement of three 12-meter trusses. The front truss, which secures moving lights, is located nearly two meters from the front edge of the stage (largely because Ian’s main position “is about two meters upstage,” says Wheatley). The mid truss, situated center-downstage and draped in black gauze for theatrical effect, often secures the projector and a small number of moving lights. The back truss “is where all the interesting stuff happens,” says Wheatley. “I have 10 wash lights, eight spots and the black gauze on there. The spots needed to be punchy enough to give me beam definition without using a smoke effect, because Ian is not a big fan of too much haze. The spots are also busy doing backlight on all the main positions on stage and, at some point in the show, I’m able to get acute angles to use for the black gauze backdrop when there’s no video playing on the screen. The mid truss moving lights are used for this backdrop as well, and to isolate the downstage area. Because it’s much more of a theatrical show, there are certain points in which Ian is literally walking the downstage area. This means I can isolate the downstage area rather than having to light through the band from the back truss.”

Getting a Leg Up

An unexpected feature of the TAAB tour is the addition of actor/co-lead singer Ryan O’Donnell, who appeared in a 2009 U.K. theatrical production of The Who’s ode to schizophrenia, Quadrophenia, and helps to bring to life Anderson’s lyrics by portraying a military soldier, a priest, a banker and more. (“I think perhaps people see [O’Donnell] as an alter ego for me, almost like a young, parallel Ian Anderson,” says Anderson.) O’Donnell, as a kind of acolyte, even provides comic relief by using his one main prop, a broomstick handle, as a make-believe flute while mimicking Anderson’s signature stage pose: a balancing act on one leg.

“We’ve always played little snippets of [TAAB] in many concerts over the years, but we have never played all of it,” says Anderson. “Indeed, we couldn’t have played all of it, because it was not really playable live onstage with five people. So, I knew I would have to have an extra man [Ryan] to give me a chance to do all the other bits that crop up in the music …”

“They’ve tried to remain true to the original,” says sound engineer Mike Downs, who recorded TAAB2, which, like its kin, was not swimming in unnecessary effects.

O’Donnell also performs other stage functions for the band, such as opening and closing black gauze, which hides large white projection screens. “That completely changes the look of the stage,” says Wheatley. “It’s makes a big difference, being able to lose that white backdrop reflecting all that light onto the stage. In addition, when the gauze is drawn, a double image is produced by the gobo’d effect being cast onto it and through it, and onto the video screen behind it. It’s a nice, diffused, almost-3D effect. It’s an old gag, but it works.”

Anderson has encouraged O’Donnell and, indeed, the entire crew to develop their performances throughout the tour. One recent example of the tour’s creative evolution involved the musicians sweeping their heads, in unison, from side to side as keyboardist O’Hara and drummer Hammond trade fours. “It’s as if they’re watching a tennis match,” says James Anderson. “I’d never seen that before they toured Iceland. I suspect this tour will be an evolving beast, much like the first [TAAB] tour was, open to reinterpretation and reevaluation. I think that’s why the guys enjoy doing the show.”

“We’re a team,” says Ian. “The good thing about having a team of people with you is that they’re there to realize my sometimes not-too-carefully worked out visions and find a way that allows them to make their creative effort felt. There’s a degree of team spirit going on, and that’s nice to have.”