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Ian Anderson - The Swan Theatre, High Wycombe (UK) - 29th April 2012

Even before the music begins you know the theatre setting is apt for Ian Anderson’s ‘Thick As A Brick’. The crew are dressed as caretakers as they set up the stage, and there’s a Monty Python meets Two Ronnies vibe to it. Anderson is already having fun with us, and the music hasn’t even begun. An ambitious set of ‘Thick As A Brick’, followed by the new, well received forty year gap sequel ‘Thick As A Brick 2’ (shortened to the more 21st Century attention deficit title ‘TAAB2’). A lot of the crowd were impressionable teens when ‘Thick As A Brick’ first came out, and the first set does have a certain feel of nostalgia as a few people around me in the darkness of the theatre mouth the words. However, it’s not all nostalgia as Anderson has moved with the times, embracing technology. Pretending to answer a mobile call, Anderson invites the caller, fiddle player Anna Phoebe, to join us on Skype in five minutes. Phoebe appears on the screen behind the set, playing along to the music while intermittently stopping to nurse her baby who’s with her. Other short videos play in the background to compliment the songs.

Looking healthy and lean in jeans and waistcoat with a black bandana, Anderson looks like a pirate whose life on the high seas has been good to him. His band includes Tull members David Goodier and John O’Hara, and the top drawer new blood Florian Opahle, Scott Hammond and Ryan O’Donnell. Looking like a young Daniel Craig with a curly mop of hair, O’ Donnell shares the vocals with Anderson. He has a very West End stage presence (not surprisingly, he was in the stage production of ‘Quadrophenia’) which wouldn’t work with other rock bands, but the theatricality fits in with Anderson’s approach.

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How many rock shows have you been to when the music stops and there’s a short skit about prostate cancer? Not many I’m guessing but that’s exactly what you get here as Anderson implores the male members of the audience over fifty (which Anderson reckons is over sixty percent after surveying the crowd) to visit their GP for the dreaded rubber glove check up. The band do justice to the original record, but they really loosen up after the break on the new material.

The chatter during the break is positive, but some are less sure of what to expect next. As the audience have only had a few weeks to get acquainted with the new material, there are less lofty expectations for the second set. As a result, on the night, the second half performance outdoes the first half. It’s a band effort and with the shorter songs and catchy hooks it’s easily accessible. The set whizz-bangs with wonderful inventive ideas from Anderson. A strident solo from Opahle on ‘Banker Bets, Banker Wins’ is a particular highlight and its rockiness counterpoints the poetry of ‘Might-Have-Beens’ and the gentle comedy of some of the lyrics. There are also more serious contemporary themes of corporate bankers and war. Throw in homelessness, homosexuality, corner shops and model railways and you have something quintessentially English and quintessentially Tull.

A frogman, who appears in the corner of the videos that play during the evening in the background, finally reaches the sea as the music reaches it crescendo. The chords of the original ‘Thick As A Brick’ are reprised to finish. At the end of the closing line “You don’t know what it’s like to be Thick As A Brick”, Anderson adds a jokey “2”. The trademark folky prog (“mustn’t call it pop” says Anderson in one of the YouTube clips as the character Archibald Parrit), modern gimmickry and old school theatrics end with a large inflatable ball bouncing over the heads of the crowd, while Louis Armstrong’s ‘It’s A Wonderful World’ plays out over the tannoy. The evening ends as surreally as it began. Catch Anderson and his band if you can, and don’t be left, to quote the man himself, with a case of “What Ifs, Maybes and Might Have Beens.”

Duncan Jamieson

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