There were several instances Saturday night at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion when two generational visions of the same prog rock intellect were at work.
In one corner, we had Ian Anderson, flutist, founder and warload of Jethro Tull conjuring with often astonishing precision two editions of his landmark 1972 album Thick as a Brick – the entire original work along with a more segmented sequel that surfaced last year as part of the former’s 40th anniversary celebration.
At 65, Anderson bears little resemblance to the robed, hair-infested ruffian that was at the helm of the original Thick as a Brick. While his voice bears the wear of the years – especially in the higher register – his playing, as well as that of his band, has become leaner and more orchestral. There wasn’t an once of fat on this music, especially in segments punctuated by drummer Scott Hammond, keyboardist John O’Hara and the resourceful young German guitarist Florian Opahle that drove the newly resurrected finale segments of the piece (performed on this tour for the first time since 1972). The sound mix was splendid, to boot. You could even hear every bell-like chime bassist David Goodier summoned while moonlighting on glockenspiel.
But the double vision aspect came into play with the addition of actor/singer Ryan O’Donnell. A veteran of, among other troupes, the Royal Shakespeare Company, O’Donnell shared lead vocal duties throughout the program with Anderson. He swapped verses, handled much of the upper ranges and handled the bulk of the singing when Thick as a Brick’s latter passages grew more treacherous and demanded Anderson’s full attention as an instrumentalist. It was also hard not to view O’Donnell as a younger Anderson (minus the volcanic hair frizz), especially during the moments when both artists performed side by side. Two Andersons. Two Thick as a Brick sets. How novel.
If anything, the 17-song sequel – unceremoniously titled TAAB 2 – was the more inviting work. It was certainly more accessible, aided by a series of film clips (including a rather startling time-lapse view of a sunny English countryside slowly overtaken by storm clouds) and a more streamlined and episodic thematic flow (the storyline dealt with Thick as a Brick “composer” Gerald Bostock’s misadventures as a financier, evangelist and middle age miscreant while echoing back to the stifling social and familial intrusions of his youth). While there was a generally lighter compositional tone to the newer works, several selections – particularly Shunt and Shuffle and the Eastern inclined A Change of Horses – rivaled the complexity and instrumental might of any Jethro Tull record from the ‘70s.
It all made for a keenly designed program that was as potently nostalgic as it was refreshingly forward thinking.