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30 June 1973

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Rob Mackie reports from Wembley on Jethro's 'Passion Play'

On the surface, it was as if they'd never been away. There was Ian Anderson, still in his long tartan coat and his lace-up boots like he used to have even in the days of Stand Up, still wielding his flute as if it were a fly-swatter, still with that inimitable stance, splay-footed and leaning back far enough to defy gravity. He's cut down just slightly on the manic wild-eyed rushes at the microphone.

There was Martin Barre, looking like an introverted and slightly shorn Anderson taking the ear with some splendid guitar playing on the odd occasions when he was allowed to let rip a little, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond wearing a silly suit as usual, and stomping around in annoying little circles, Barriemore Barlow hamming it up a bit and getting his drum solo, John Evan quietly impressive on keyboards. The lights flashed brightly and appropriately and the sound system was excellent.

Behind the surface so much seems to have changed since Jethro Tull's last appearance here in March '72. When I saw them at the Albert Hall, there was a great feeling of rapport with the audience, an old and friendly humour that came over in asides and in the vigour and inventiveness with which the band put over their slick but beautiful show. Remember that superb beginning when Jethro's and assorted roadies and friends all took to the stage in identical white coats and tartan caps and strolled about aimlessly, gradually multiplying in numbers until eventually the genuine article emerged from their uniform and ripped into it?

This time, there was so much more reason for the band to go out of their way to attempt that sort of rapport after the lengthy disappointments their fans have gone through here, terminating in a controversial withdrawal in April which has never satisfactorily explained.

What did we get? At the first house of Friday's concert at the Empire Pool, we got a 45-minute break between Robin Trower's support band and the emergence of Jethro. For the last half hour or so of the break, the audience was presented with the thrilling sight of a dot of light gradually getting larger on the screen above the stage, in accompaniment to a loud and incessant 'Man And A Woman'-style throbbing heartbeat.

They jeered, they booed, they slow-handclapped, they threw darts, and they waited. Finally, they got a black-and-white film of a ballerina rising slowly towards and then dancing through a mirror. And then Jethro Tull was on (amid a few puffs of dry-ice smoke), and the Passion Play was under way.

Passion Play has more changes of instruments for Ian than usual, as he plays alto sax as much as flute, and as usual, switches to acoustic guitar for the quieter passages. At first hearing, it seemed much more fragmented than Anderson's previous works on a theme, with less recurrence of easily identifiable riffs or phrases.

Any scholarly analysis of it on one hearing [was impossible] when much of the lyrics were inaudible — the only two phrases which stick in the mind from the quieter passages were "Some of this and some of that's the only way to skin the cat," and (a much more typical Andersonian juxtaposition) "Mine is the right to be wrong." Without hearing the words, the film in the middle, featuring the tale of a hare who had lost his glasses, and two ballerinas, one of whom bites into a large apple and both of whom dance around the may-pole with people with animal masks on, was baffling and apparently irrelevant. Ian Anderson makes a brief Hitchcockian appearance, looking as puzzled as I was.

I'm willing to suspend judgement on Passion Play — I'm aware that the re-arranged concert was ill-timed because people would naturally want to hear the new piece, but would not yet have had time to accustom themselves to it on a record. Thick As A Brick sounded pretty awful on first hearing, and improved considerably when I saw it on stage.

The point is that the style of presentation of Passion Play seemed to be just another reflection of Tull's apparent lack of concern for their audiences here. Pete Townshend launched 'Tommy' by explaining the story, talking about it both on stage and in the press, inviting comments like 'Sick' and replying to them. Anderson launched straight into Passion Play in a void. Not a word of explanation to anyone, barely even time for applause between sections of it. At the end of it, there was only a vague, grudging apology for the long absence, partly drowned by Barlow's rat-a-tat on the drums.

"I suppose we ought to apologise for (blur)... anyway, here we are. This is part of the troubled life and times of Gerald Bostock."

And off we went into Thick As A Brick, providing the audience at last with something familiar to roll the tongue around. There was a fine long flute solo, marred a bit by excessive grunts and snorts, and the bit where Evan's vibes take the tune suddenly into 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' got a lot of applause. There was the dreaded inevitable drum solo, and then after a rather undistinguished bit following that, it was uphill all the way, with Ian's first two attempts at an extended theme, shorter, more concise, simpler and more musical — 'Aqualung' and, for the encore, 'My God'. When a concert's improving and building nicely, it ought to be great, but when the material's simultaneously getting earlier and earlier, it's time for someone to start worrying a little.

There were some dire attempts at humour as well.

"The cat crapped on the crypt,"

says Hammond-Hammond proudly, whereupon Anderson adopts a farting posture and Evan makes an appropriate noise from his keyboard. Far out. Eventually, there was enough salvaged from the concert to make it disappointing but worthwhile, but Anderson seems less able to use the stage as if it were an extension of himself. Maybe it was just me, but I felt that he and they no longer feel at home here. When Thick As A Brick came out, the sleeve included its own built-in review, including this: "The boys had recently returned from yet another tour of the US (when are we going to see them perform here?)." I don't like to say it of a group I've enjoyed so much for so long, but how thick do they think WE are?