Despite recently retiring the Jethro Tull brand, British baritone singer-flutist Ian Anderson has conjured his onetime band's namesake - an 18th-century English inventor-agriculturalist who modernized farming - for something new, pretentious, yet weirdly winning, in Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera.
Playing Saturday at the Academy of Music, this wasn't a reunion of Anderson's progressive-blues band, wasn't a theater piece, and wasn't some historically based lesson plan on tilling and seeding the land. The overall text of the new program - meant to flesh out Tull hits and original Opera Anderson bits - concentrated itself in an imagined present-day dialogue: What if the real-life Jethro Tull were working now?
This might not seem like every rock fan's fantasy of a weekend excursion. There were Spinal Tap-ish moments like the horror rock-ist "Fruits of Frankenfield." Then again, Anderson aficionados have forever watched their longtime hero wear codpieces and tell long, literarily lyrical, interrelated stories, such as those that fill conceptual LPs like Minstrel in the Gallery. What's one more night with plant-based rock songs and flutes?
Backed by a screen loaded with fast-moving landscapes and GMO-related graphics, Anderson and his quartet (highest marks to thick-as-a-brick organist John O'Hara) interacted with filmed singer-characters portraying young Tull and a damsel of the woods, who turned into a woman in a pantsuit (is this what the city does to a lass?) in the opera's second act. That interaction was surprisingly seamless, even when Anderson duetted with Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir on the sweeping ballad "With You There to Help Me" or (with Ryan O'Donnell) crunching, dramatic Tull classics like "Aqualung."
On hits such as that, the sensuously breezy-blue "Living in the Past," and the hard syncopated "Locomotive Breath," Anderson's rich baritone cracked when approaching breathier moments and highest-highs. Luckily, he didn't hide the stress, but rather pointed upward as though to signify the familiar sound audiences might've expected; or he just hit the flute and crafted lilting curlicues of tooty jazz. The pixieish "Songs From the Woods" found its voice, literally and figuratively, in the backing of his band's boyish vocal chorale. In other cases, Anderson doubled down on the deeper end of his voice for the familiar ground-dragging grumble of "Jack-in-the-Green" and its acoustic strum. Either way, when Anderson's voice warmed - whether it was the through-the-glen groovy "Requiem and Fugue" or the barbed "Farm on the Freeway" - his vocals were as saucy and rounded as his flute's flighty low tones.