There was but one rock-star poster in a bedroom otherwise dominated by sports paraphernalia. It showcased Ian Anderson, leader of the rustically progressive band Jethro Tull, looking like Rasputin or Rumpelstiltskin or some other hairy, wild-eyed R character with flute poised for boureeing and codpiece poised for whatever it is that a codpiece is supposed to do. Calling Anderson the patron saint of the room's occupant and his circle of close friends would not have been an overstatement. A typical Saturday night for us consisted of drinking too many creatively purchased beers and belting out Tull songs.
Last week, I interviewed that poster guy from my teenage years. I was nervous. It's not every day that someone steps out of a poster and places a trans-Atlantic call to you. That this phenomenon took 25 years to occur didn't make it any easier. Nor did my long-held belief that Anderson is not one to suffer fools gladly, a notion that took seed in 1976 when I saw him dress down some first-row idiot who threw a sparkler onstage during a Jethro Tull concert at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena.
The phone rang, pleasantries were exchanged, and the first thing that registered was how the voice of Ian Anderson, a gentleman now in his 57th year on the planet and his 40th year as a professional musician, remains dark-roast rich and strong. (It's the very same first thing that registered when I heard his charmer of a new album, Rupi's Dance.)
Durham's Carolina Theatre is an early stop on Anderson's latest Rubbing Elbows tour, an intimate event that is roughly half concert, half talk show, with Anderson temporarily stepping away from his role as Jethro Tull's leader. Musically speaking, a Rubbing Elbows show offers a mixture of old acoustic Jethro Tull songs, material from Anderson's solo records--heavy, I'm guessing, on the aforementioned Rupi's Dance--and a selection or two from the upcoming Jethro Tull Christmas album. That part of the show is near standard; what changes from night to night is the rest of the festivities. Anecdotes are shared, questions are taken from the audience and a singer-songwriter type from the host area gets to play a couple of tunes backed by Anderson and his Rubbing Elbows band. "Different personalities, different guests, different questions, different topics. It's never the same," explains Anderson. "So that keeps it sparkling and intellectually and mentally quite intense. Jethro Tull performances are more physically intense. This is more mentally intense." By the end of the night, Anderson is ready to, as he puts it, "abandon myself to the dubious charms of late-breaking news on CNN."
Past Rubbing Elbows tours in the U.S. confirmed what Anderson suspected: the talk show-style format is tailor-made for an American audience. "Americans have been brought up on a tradition of talk shows, from Joey Bishop and Johnny Carson through to Letterman and Leno and beyond," says Anderson. Not so for his countryman. "In British television, our talk shows are either very, very laid-back or, in a couple of cases, jabbering, manic, really silly. I mean, silly way, way beyond Conan O'Brien...I think what works with David Letterman and Jay Leno, in particular, is that they can touch upon serious subjects. They can round them off with a little humor, a little irreverence, but nonetheless it's a way of dealing with issues." Anderson has tried this more-personal approach only once in Great Britain, with less than stellar results. "They (the British crowd) seemed intimidated and a little nervous. It made them uneasy, the fact that I was on a stage projecting myself at them in a way that wasn't strictly musical," he recalls.
Anderson has plenty of issues and interests to project at a willing crowd. During our conversation, he veered off to discuss world travel (Jethro Tull is scheduled to play concerts in India and Dubai early in the New Year) and the Queen's English (he feels that, currently, Americans are speaking it better than Brits). He does his best to get the word out about Deep Vein Thrombosis, a condition with which Anderson became much too familiar several years ago after enduring a mid-tour blood clot in his leg. And among his wide-reaching hobbies are growing hot chili peppers, studying and struggling to conserve the 26 species of small wildcats of the world, and collecting and using vintage Leica and other cameras.
That last interest ties in nicely with "Photo Shop," a jaunty number from Rupi's Dance. Braced by an invigorating shower of flute, piccolo, mandolin and accordion, Anderson speculates on the voyeuristic possibilities made available to a film developer: "A family wedding, a sushi bar/Sand in the Seychelles, karaoke star."
Anderson remains an intriguing mix of the modern and the ancient. Moving beyond the deep blues base of their early releases, Jethro Tull became one of the first bands to be labeled art-rock or progressive-rock, thanks to their complex arrangements and the concept-album satire of Thick as a Brick. A 1999 release sported the techno-savvy title J-Tull dot com. Yet with much talk of minstrels and the appearance of a lute on records such as 1977's Druid-friendly Songs from the Wood, listeners are often tempted to party like it's 1499 and label the sound alt-medieval.
"I like to hang on to certain elements of tradition in my music, and sometimes in my lyrics and my use of language," Anderson offers when asked about this blend of the old and the new. "Part of what makes me tick is combining, essentially, quite formal and proven elements of tradition. I like to have that somewhere as a sort of bedrock, a fundamental part of what I'm writing. But I don't want to get locked into anything---well, probably as illustrated by the title of the album and the song 'Living in the Past.' I don't like nostalgia, and I don't like the cocoon of being wrapped up in traditional music, whether it's classical or folk music or anything else."
It's tempting to question the nostalgia trip that opens this preview, but visiting the past isn't living in it. And an up-close-and-personal evening with Ian Anderson promises the perfect combination of then and now.
Ian Anderson plays the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Tuesday, Nov. 18.