Thick as a Brick?

It may explain why I don’t have the greatest physique ever, but I routinely lifted weights in high school while listening to Jetho Tull.  I may be off on that theory, my friend Bill, who I lifted with, still looks good after all these years, but either way, I couldn’t help but think of lifting weights while I was attending Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick Parts 1 and 2.

It was a pretty amazing show along with a pretty special night.  The night was special, because the aforementioned Bill made the trip to Chicago along with another high school friend, John, and we got to have dinner and catch the show together.  Thinking about it, even after so many years, they are probably the two people that I’ve seen the most concerts with.  Granted, I tend to see most shows by myself, but keeping the connection up in such a way is pretty awesome.  All three of us have come quite a way since high school, all married, all with kids, all three doing pretty well.  I’ve lost touch a bit more, but not completely.  I only managed to stick my foot in my mouth a couple of times, not remembering key events, like the birth of another child and the like.  Even so I’m so glad we got to catch up and getting to see a performance of a record that was a pretty important piece of my high school experience.

The show had a nostalgic air about it as well, but as I watched, it was apparent that our collective memory was a key to the performance.  Ian Anderson not only counted on our memory, like the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen does, but from start to finish, the show was more than just a rolling out of a couple of concept albums, but a meditation on growing up, getting old, and moving forward.  The great nod to this was Ian Anderson bringing in a lead singer for the performances.  Between the flute solos and singing chores over the course of forty plus continuous minutes of music, his 65 year-old pipes just can’t handle it.  The singer was also dressed in motley and carried a wooden stick like a flute, harkening back to a younger Ian, who definitely used the motif of minstrel throughout his career.  Adding to this reality of age, Anderson would often be side by side with the singer, or they would move in tandem saying, “this is my young reflection, pay attention!” The use of an additional voice worked.  I never felt distracted or felt like it was taking away from what I was watching.  It reminded me a great deal of Frank Zappa and how for much of his career, he used much more talented singers in his bands and stuck mostly to composing and guitar playing.  Paul McCartney could learn a lesson or two from this.

Speaking of Frank Zappa, at the point in the album that once meant it was time to flip the record Anderson used the break in the action to give a PSA about the importance of prostate checks.  If that isn’t a realization of aging, I don’t know what is.  It might have been a bit of a shock to some, but I respect his use of the time.  The announcement was also one of many instances where Anderson broke the 4th wall as it were.  Not only was he addressing the audience, but he stepped out of the 1972 era musical performance and planted himself and the show firmly in the 21st century.  Throughout the show a video screen was used, utilizing mocked up versions of YouTube, Skype and other multimedia tricks that could only have been imagined when Thick as a Brick was released.  Anderson even got a bit cheeky with the video clips, as is his character, by having a man dressed in scuba gear, or an “Aqualung” wander through the videos.  Not just a nod to his best known album, but a minor reflection within the show of the idea of what might have been.

Admittedly I was completely out of the loop regarding the second half of the show.  I didn’t even know there was a Thick as a Brick 2 released earlier this year.  Honestly, Jethro Tull and most of the music I listened to back in high school is pretty far from my normal playlist these days.  For the most part I was looking forward to hearing the new music, but a bit of dread was also in my thoughts.  I was slightly worried it was going to be an experience like listening to Meatloaf perform his sequel album Bat out of Hell II: Return to Hell.  Luckily even my smallest fears weren’t realized.

In keeping with the overarching theme Brick 2 is an older, more mature sounding record.  It isn’t even a Jethro Tull record, but an Ian Anderson record, as if to say that even he has moved on from his younger days.  Brick 2 isn’t nearly as ambitious as Brick one, it is a collection of thematic songs as opposed to one long composition.  It also doesn’t reach the musical heights and challenges as its predecessor, but it stays within itself.  It is a record, quite frankly, written by an older man and while I’m not 65, I still appreciate the slowing down, the more even pace.  The lead singer still had some duties during the second set, but Anderson took on more of the vocals.  Like any of us getting older, there were times when it felt like Anderson was able to reach back and capture the abilities of his younger days, like my friend said, “a great blend of the old and the new” but in truth it was a much more subdued sound.  The mood and performance mirrored the central question of Brick 2, “What if?” A question, I think, get’s played by so many of us as we get older. What if I went to this college, decided to move here, choose this job? and so on.  In the case of the main character of the Brick story it goes much darker than some of us do in our backward glances, but the impulse is the same, “What could have been?”  As a matter of fact the last song of the album is entitled “What-Ifs, Maybes and Might-Have-Beens” with trills and teases from the former album, but more deliberate, more standard rock and roll than the earlier prog-rock predecessor.  It finishes with the famous ditty closing the first record, “and your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick” even so it isn’t the same line.  The weight of 30 years in between was evident, not just in Anderson’s appearance, but in his voicing of that last line.  Somehow, I think we all know a little bit more what it is like to be thick as a brick.

The encore was a little short for my taste.  I would have preferred if Anderson came out and brought the house down with another 4 or 5 songs.  In retrospect though, it’s best that he didn’t.  This wasn’t so much a rock concert as it was wonderfully staged performance of two linked, but distinct pieces of music, much like an orchestral performance.  Instead it was a reminder really, that Anderson is a rock performer, and he can still wear that hat, but tonight wasn’t the time.  The choice of Locomotive Breath was perfect; a really strong song, with a refrain about not being to slow down, not being able to stop the progress of one’s lifetime.  Watching both halves of Thick as a Brick, over the course of these thirty years, there is in fact, “no way to slow down.”

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