Ian Anderson: Poet with Guitar and Flute

On November 13, 2009, I was pleased to attend a lively performance by Ian Anderson, the British musician and songwriter who has been known as the leader of Jethro Tull since 1968. The singular performer, who achieved extensive renown as a wild-eyed purveyor of heavy rock'n'roll during the 1970s and has lately taken to touring under his own name, appeared at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, where he was hardily backed by a collection of musicians on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and viola, along with members of the Oregon Symphony.

Although Ian Anderson is now sixty-two years old, he continues to be an active figure on stage. His long hair and his ragged beard may have departed, and the fanciful attire of his younger days may have given way to a sober wardrobe of unimaginative clothing, but his fiery spirit was much in evidence during his appearance in Portland. In spite of his years, he remains an extremely compelling performer, still able to enhance his music with a range of showy gestures, and still fond of playing his flute while standing on one leg. He also has lost none of his wicked humor, as evidenced by his sly comments in between songs.

He performed several pieces that have been featured on his own albums, such as "Griminelli's Lament" from Rupi's Dance, but it was the familiar songs of Jethro Tull that truly excited the audience. In the first half of the concert, "Life is a Long Song," "Mother Goose," and "Bouree" all benefited from the orchestral setting. In the second half, "Thick As a Brick," which took up both sides of an LP when first recorded, was delivered in a less lengthy form. "My God," a song that sneers at the hypocrisy of religion, was suitably bitter, and "Aqualung," probably the most famous song ever recorded by Jethro Tull, was given an extended rendering, with heavy riffs provided by the electric guitar of Florian Opahle. The final song, "Locomotive Breath," had the audience vigorously clapping to the beat as the drums pounded, bringing the evening to a rip-roaring conclusion.

Ian Anderson's performance in Portland offered living proof that good music only gets better with age. After four decades of strutting in varied spotlights, continually plying his distinctive trade on stages throughout the world, he is now an assured expert at what he does, and it shows. His talent and his showmanship mark him as a true entertainer, but the timeless qualities of his compositions prove him to be something more: a poet with a guitar and a flute.