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Ian Anderson: Theatrical Music

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Ian Anderson knows his audience. Near the end of act one of his current "Plays Thick as a Brick 1 & 2" tour, which I saw at The New Jersey Performing Arts Center on October 7, one of the band members starts to do a weather report which somehow morphs into a trope on prostate health and turns into a very strange and funny bit of business. This adds some levity to this remarkable show, which marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the original "Thick as a Brick" and the one-year anniversary of its second coming.

While many in the 50+ audience are probably familiar with the song "Thick as a Brick," heard once or twice a week on most classic rock stations -- the only kind many boomers listen to, as old habits die hard -- many may have never checked out the album because there was no song listing. Indeed, the "song" is actually an excerpt of a solid 45-minute piece of music. The "Thick as a Brick" most people know is actually pretty much an overture. The rest of the album uses the hallmarks of the Jethro Tull sound at the time: Anderson's picaresque musing on childhood and the unfairness of the adult world that most children enter, set to music that mixes a rock aesthetic with elements of baroque, jazz, and Celtic folk -- after all, Anderson's main instrument is the flute. It fuses the lyricism of Mozart with the bombast of Wagner and the instrumentation of the Kinks. Little wonder some labeled the album "progressive."

Now, to those who care enough to give it any thought, progressive rock is regarded as being a bit soggy in the middle for the most part, trying too hard to show the prowess of the players and the competence of the composer. It often leaves the audience out of the picture. Anderson is far too much of a showman for that, and even at 65 (or so), he is leaping gnomishly about the stage.
This is not a rock show, per se, at least not the main event. The playing is so precise and composed that even the videos -- obviously not live feeds -- are synced. It is a marvel of classic rock excess, but even more so of amazingly solid and polished musicianship that "feels" without being sloppy about it. Face it fans, when was the last time you heard a good drum solo -- melodic, terse, tense and dramatic? Or rock musicians trading fours like the jazz guys? Or even theatricality that is not done for the sake of being theatrical, but in service of the music? This show has that.

Especially in the first act, the dramatic effect is heightened by Ryan O'Donnell, Anderson's own Mini-me. The gamin-like O'Donnell sounds very similar to Anderson before the latter's voice aged and deepened. Occasionally it is hard to discern which one is singing. But in terms of "Thick as a Brick," their dialogues are impressive. O'Donnell is Anderson's doppelganger and alter ego on stage.

But there are other comical and theatrical elements as well.The show starts on that note with a bunch of guys in trench coats cleaning up the state to the sounds of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band on the sound system. One by one, they take off their coats and either get behind or pick up instruments. There are video vignettes that break up the musical tension as well: Anderson meeting the young Gerald Bostock -- the hypothetical author of the lyrics to the original TAAB -- in the facade of a psychiatrist; Anderson in other guise taking us through a tour of a decaying English manor house; the aforementioned prostate sketch.

What makes the show special, even unique, is the level of fastidious exactitude, from the lighting (which is extraordinary) to the staging, to the band itself. The musicians are not outdone by the technicians. They make the evening work, impeccably playing the intricate instrumental arrangements and occasionally engaging in taut -- if simple -- choreography. A couple of people seated close to me had seen the show a couple of nights earlier at the Beacon Theater in New York. They said that it was note for note the same show.

So when the encore came, the band trotted out "Locomotive Breath" in a very loose, loud, 15-minute, raucous rock and roll rendition, full of improvised solos and off-the-top-of-the-head arrangements. With none of the musical tension that informed the previous two hours, it felt like the band needed it more than the audience. Perhaps they did.