Playing Colorado Isn't All Roses for Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson with the Carducci String Quartet.
Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson with the Carducci String Quartet. Anne Leighton
On May 26, English folk-rock veterans Jethro Tull will play a show with the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks. The beloved amphitheater was, of course, the site of an infamous riot in the summer of ’71 that resulted in a cloud of tear gas, 28 serious injuries and the cancellation of the remainder of the venue's 1971 summer program.

This won't be the first time that Ian Anderson and Tull have returned since then, but the ghosts remain. While Red Rocks is considered one of the best venues in the world by many bands and artists, Anderson, perhaps understandably, isn’t quite so besotted.

“It's outdoors, and altitude-wise, it’s very demanding for a physical performer like me, especially one who sings and plays the flute,” the frontman says. “It’s a tough place to work. It’s in May, quite early in the year for outdoor concerts, so it’s likely to be chilly in the evening. But of course, people regard Red Rocks as one of those iconic American venues that has a certain magic about it. But I have to remember being in Denver on a couple of occasions when bad things have happened at Red Rocks arena. I have to remember every time I go there that it’s not all rosy.”

It’s a shame, but not unreasonable, that Anderson doesn’t regard the venue as highly as most other performers. Still, this show with our local orchestra is likely to be something special, epic even, up in the mountains. Logistically challenging, sure. But the natural acoustics and almost-unearthly lights that bounce around the rocks will provide the perfect setting for this music, whether Anderson is feeling it or not.

The singer, flautist and songwriter has been working with strings extensively of late. Indeed, the most recent Tull album is called The String Quartets, and, as one might expect from that title, it sees twelve of the band’s classic songs reinterpreted for the Carducci String Quartet and conductor John O’Hara, with Anderson adding flute, some acoustic guitar and mandolin, and very occasional vocals. That album was released in March, but don’t get confused: The record with the string quartet and the tour with the full orchestra are very different animals, and one is not connected to the other.

“[The album is] a one-off stand-alone project,” Anderson says. “It’s not something that we’ll take out on tour. And yet here we are in Denver playing out with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, playing the kind of show that we’ve played many times with orchestras around the world over the past fifteen years, which is Jethro Tull the rock band, plus the orchestra. The difference being that I try to make sure that we become members of the orchestra. We’re not asking them to step up to where we are in terms of musical volume and musical stylings. We take a step into their world. We’re all capable of doing that, and the musicians I work with in the band are used to doing this.”

The latest Jethro Tull album, The String Quartets shot to the number-one spot on the Billboard classical-music charts, a stunning return for all of the work that Anderson, O’Hara and the quartet put in. Still, Anderson is realistic when considering his music's mainstream appeal. He’s well aware that these interpretations won’t appeal to every old-school Jethro Tull fan. The attraction to this current tour is a little easier to sell, though. Here, the full band is performing the old songs with the orchestra rather than fully reinterpreting them. They still need arranging, but they'll be instantly recognizable to fans.

“Some of our songs are maybe a little more obvious than others in terms of orchestral arrangement,” Anderson says. “In some cases, you’ve got to keep it quite simple and direct, and in other cases we try to be a little more intelligent in our use of the orchestra with the writing and arrangements, and change things around to fit the styling of orchestral possibilities given the various musical forces that you have on hand in a symphony orchestra. Not that we use all of them. We don’t use orchestral percussion, because we have a drummer and a bass player who plays glockenspiel, nor do we go particularly heavy on brass. But, yeah, we’ve done it before, so we’re not orchestral virgins, by any means, and the Colorado Symphony is used to playing with heathens and philistines such as I.”

There have been 33 members in Jethro Tull over the years, and the band has taken the occasional break. That said, the lineup has been fairly consistent for the past twelve years or so. Anderson often adds his own name to billings nowadays because, he says, he’s getting old and wants to be remembered.

“When I think of Jethro Tull in the musical context, rather than the historical agricultural inventor, I’m thinking of the repertoire,” he says. “The same way that if I think of Beethoven, I’m not thinking of a bloke in a silly wig and stockings. There comes a point where the music becomes the legacy that you leave.”

What is clear at this point is that, whether he’s struggling with the elements at a venue that he’s both reluctant to play but also reluctant not to, or recording with a string quartet at the ancient crypt at Worcester Cathedral in England, Anderson still likes to challenge himself artistically. On this recent album, he was keen to strip the old Tull songs down and focus on the essential elements. And while old churches present acoustic challenges, he’s attracted to the overall vibe.

“I work in churches quite a lot, so in some ways it’s another day in the office for me,” he says. “I feel very different about it now to how I did when I was a teenager, when I found churches really quite scary. I don’t count myself as a Christian — I have a deep respect, and a practical and tangible support for the Christian church, but I’ll never be a Christian, because there are some fundamental aspects of Christian worship which I can’t intellectually get behind, although I still feel that I should be giving people the opportunity to weigh up what the church in its traditional sense means to them.”

When this tour is over, Anderson will be thinking about the next Tull studio album of new material. He says that he’s getting close to being done and expects it to see the light of day in March of next year.

“During the next few weeks and months, I’ll be continuing to work on that, and hope to have it completed by the end of October,” he says. “The awful reality these days is we’ve got to think about bloody vinyl again. Everybody wants a vinyl version of the album. There are so few vinyl pressing plants left in the world; it’s a long production time. We’re looking at in excess of twelve weeks to sit in line to get to record press. We used to do it in a week in the old days. Now everybody wants their album released on vinyl again, but there aren’t the facilities there to do it. But that’s my problem, not yours.”

Jethro Tull and the Colorado Symphony, 8 p.m. Friday, May 26, Red Rocks, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.
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