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Ian Anderson gets thick as a brick

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I've often said that if I had my druthers, I'd interview no one but English people of a certain age, and I'm only half-kidding about that. While I'm sure there must be a bad egg or two in the population of Greater Great Britain, I've never interviewed anybody from the U.K. who wasn't unfailingly polite (if occasionally hard to understand -- I was wishing for subtitles while on the phone with Roger Daltrey a few years back).

That especially goes for Ian Anderson, an extremely articulate gentleman who knows how to give good quote. He's coming to Durham this weekend to perform the Jethro Tull eight-track-era signpost "Thick as a Brick," and there's ample chit-chat about it here. And as long as I'm at it, below is another interview with Anderson from some years back.

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Rub elbows with Tull
By David Menconi, News & Observer
No. 14, 2003

Lots of people wish they could be young again, but not Ian Anderson. All things being equal, the 56-year-old Jethro Tull mastermind is glad to be where he is right now -- comfortably established as a rock icon, and able to stay as busy as he wants playing music. He plays Tuesday at Durham's Carolina Theatre.

"If I came along today, I'd be playing jazz or classical or something totally different, " says Anderson, speaking by phone from his home in England. "It's just incredibly difficult to find something to play that's not already been done. 'I think I'd like to be a flute player and do rock 'n' roll.' 'Uh, wait a minute, that Jethro Tull guy's been doing that for the last 30-odd years.' It's a very crowded world, and everything that can be sung has been sung. Every riff or combination, people have done it and there's nothing new. All you can do is try and polish, put a different spin on something that's been done before, and that's kinda OK. But it's hard to find anything truly original within this limited genre we call rock."

Within rock, Anderson definitely helped forge something new and different with Jethro Tull in the 1970s. Named after the inventor of the seed drill, Jethro Tull always seemed to exist in a parallel universe of its own making. The group combined elements of hard rock, classical gas and Elizabethan folk into a progressive-rock synthesis unlike anything ever heard before.

"Locomotive Breath" and "Living in the Past" remain staples on classic-rock radio, and early-'70s concept albums like "Thick as a Brick" and "A Passion Play" still stand as landmarks of the genre. They also earned Tull an exalted place in the ultimate music-industry in-joke -- satirization in Rob Reiner's infamous 1984 comedy "This Is Spinal Tap, " which deftly parodied Tull with the song "Stonehenge."

"The whole 'Spinal Tap' thing was obviously very entertaining to all of us, " Anderson says. "It's something we've all lived through one way or another -- getting lost under the stage, shaken down at airports -- although I don't admit to having a cucumber stuffed into my pants. But I was strip-searched at JFK once because they thought I had something concealed in the nether regions of my sartorial elegance. Once I dropped my drawers, it was all me. My trousers made me look more, er, 'impressive' than I actually was."

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Two new albums

Nowadays, Anderson divides his time between leading Jethro Tull and a solo career. He has new albums out in both guises, "The Jethro Tull Christmas Album" and a solo effort called "Rupi's Dance" (Fuel 2000 Records). Both have Anderson's trademark blend of rock whimsy and Victorian stoicism, and lots of flute.

Both albums will also figure prominently into Tuesday's set list, a show billed as "Rubbing Elbows With Ian Anderson." The show includes Tull chestnuts, solo material and even a question-and-answer session with the audience.

"People often think, 'What is the point of Ian Anderson doing a solo album? Isn't Jethro Tull just Ian Anderson and a bunch of other guys?'" Anderson says.

"Well, that's not really fair to the other guys. When I write music for Jethro Tull, there's the opportunity for them to have input and for me to exploit their stylistic endeavors in a positive way. But solo, I don't have to worry about making the drummer happy. So there's more freedom in the approach, of just serving the song in the most organic way. And it affects the lyrics, too. Some songs are so intimate and personal, it would feel strange to present them in the context of the cooperative identity of a band. Some things are best served by a more solitary approach."

"Rupi's Dance" and the Tull Christmas album share one song in common, "Birthday Card at Christmas." Inspired by Anderson's daughter's birthday, which falls three days before Christmas, the song takes a rather jaundiced view of the season: "I am the shadow in your Christmas, I am the corner of your smile/Perfunctory in celebration, you offer content but no style."

"Christmas is supposed to celebrate the birth of little baby Jesus, " Anderson says. "But to a lot of true-blue Christians, it's more about making themselves and their families and friends feel good than about acknowledging any spiritual sense. It's one of the more positive things in life -- but being a bit of an old grump, I can't resist sneaking in some of my alternative cynical downbeat impressions of the season. It wouldn't be Tull and it wouldn't be me without that."

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Tull tours again

After Anderson's solo "Rubbing Elbows" tour, the Jethro Tull warhorse will crank up again, with dates all over the world. Given the drift of world events, Anderson finds it advisable to keep up with the news. A CNN nightcap is a standard touring ritual for him now.

"If I'm in Tel Aviv and I see bombs going off in Jerusalem, I'll know to be more cautious when I go for dinner that night, " he says. "That sounds glib, but it's exactly what happened the last time I was in Tel Aviv. It can be quite unnerving, to know that people are killing each other just a few miles away from a concert. In the not-too-distant future, I'll be traveling to parts of the world where I'll feel a little more exposed than in Scranton, Pa., or Durham. We've gotten away with it thus far, but somebody might use a Jethro Tull concert to make a point since we're playing in some countries where the population is predominantly Muslim, or has a lot of right-wing extremism.

"But you can't let the terrorists beat you by staying home."

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About the blogger

David Menconi has been the News & Observer's music critic since 1991. Before that, he spent five years at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo. He has a masters in journalism from the University of Texas and a B.A. in English from Southwestern University. You can find more of his writing here.

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