The Jethro Tull Rock Opera: Rock, but no Opera


Michael Lin

Publicizing itself as a “rock opera,” Jethro Tull brought its iconic flute-playing-in-a-rock-band back to Arlington Theatre downtown last Wednesday. Well-known in the 1980s and 90s for its exceptional style of rock ‘n roll, Jethro Tull still manages to attract a large crowd 30 years later.

The crowd, full of middle-aged and more mature adults, was completely brought to life again with the passionate performance, led by Ian Anderson’s flute alongside the band, consisting of electric guitars, jazz drums, bass, and electric piano. The show was mainly a broken-down series of songs which were, from the audiences’ crazed reactions, probably the best hits of Jethro Tull.

Flute in a rock band can sound abnormal, but in Jethro Tull, the flute animates the team and binds them together. It resonates in the rhythm, melody, and mood of each piece. With each distinct breath one could hear not just the note, but the singer’s voice imbued in every vibe. The passionate moves of each instrument’s player flowing with the physicality of Anderson as he danced around the stage, conversing with his fellow band members with breaths and tunes, is itself a unique and satisfying visual spectacle.

However, besides the instrumental element, the show names itself an “opera,” a theater piece to which it did no justice. Conflicts, resolutions, even basic forms of storytelling were lacking from this so-called theater piece. If one had to guess, the two virtual guest vocalists that were projected in a green screen behind the band were supposedly the characters that conveyed the story arc.

It does them no benefit to tell a story of any kind, however, if the only words out of their mouths are lyrics of Jethro Tull songs. The stage setup was that of a band, with nothing theater-like. The quality of the costuming were the equivalent of a slightly over-funded high school drama club.

There is always a gap of expectations between listening to a recording and going to a concert, which was fairly strong in this particular performance. The strength of all the instruments live and present are incomparable to a meek recording.

It left one’s blood thumping and bones quaking. However, the live voice that carried so much power in the recordings and sounded like the main singer (to be fair, there is a major time difference) was only capable of three notes. One could easily mistake the singer to be reading the lyrics instead of singing them.

For someone who knows the ins and outs of Jethro Tull, this event must have been a festival of nostalgia and living again the burning passion that is hard to ignite without Jethro Tull’s spirited music. For someone who stepped into the theater looking for an evening of narrative, there was none. It also doesn’t help that about half of the show was heated instrumental solos.

Jethro Tull’s attempt is no doubt an atypical way to throw a concert, which it carried out remarkably. Other than that, the experimental elements can feel like an over-glorified version of a drawn-out live music video.