Jethro Tull: Aqualung Live

(Note: All album links in this post go to Amazon UK. )
I’ve got several albums in the review queue, but I’m going to do this one first, for two reasons:
1. My referrals indicate that there are a lot of people interested in reading about new Jethro Tull releases, possibly because the band’s official website dropped the ball on Ian Anderson Plays the Orchestral Jethro Tull. This album is still being announced as a future release even though I could buy it in July. It’s a future release in the US but not in Europe.
2. This new live album is a limited edition in Europe, so for the benefit of the people searching for info on Orchestral Jethro Tull I want to mention it in case it sells out before they’ve heard of it. Fans in the US will be able to get it as a freebie if they buy tickets for concerts taking place this Fall.

Aqualung Live is a live recreation of Jethro Tull’s best-known album Aqualung, recorded as part of XM Radio‘s "Then Again" series. Royalties from the European release go to various charities for the homeless.

Let’s talk about the original a bit first. Aqualung is the album that filled Ian Anderson’s money bin: a staple of American Classic Rock radio to this day. At concerts, songs from Aqualung generate a buzz in the audience that none of the band’s other material does. It’s also the album where the band’s split personality came to the fore: About 2/3 of the album is menacing, angry hard rock, while another third consists of delicate, acoustic pieces performed nearly solo by Anderson. The US picked up on the hard rock aspect of the record, whereas continental Europe was more taken by the acoustic pieces and began to see the group more as a singer/songwriter thing with folky influences and intricate arrangements.
One thing that spoils the original record for me is that it’s one of their poorer recordings in terms of sound quality. As Anderson himself said, "We were booked into a new studio that incorporated all the latest ideas in recording technology; Unfortunately, most of those ideas were wrong." Even in the remastered edition, the album sounds somehow dead. On the radio, especially on the transistor radios of the 1970s, the difference may not have been to noticeable compared to the recordings of other bands of the time, but on CD (or vinyl), in the living room, it’s pretty clear that something isn’t there. The difficulties the band had also made some of the recorded performances more wooden than they would otherwise have been. As a result, I’ve always found the material more convincing in concert and on live recordings than on the original studio versions.

And now, 35 years later, we have something that allows us to compare the whole original album, track by track, to new recordings by a band that has played much of the material several thousand times and still isn’t tired of it. A band that, this time around, knows the tunes inside out, and can work live in a trouble-free environment and with a few supporters to watch them. How cool is that?

Having played the new record three times, I can say it’s pretty cool. There are some negatives. Anderson’s voice has degenerated to a wheeze. Martin Barre’s electric guitar playing has become very restrained, as if he doesn’t enjoy it as much as playing an acoustic. I don’t think I’ll ever really get into bassist Jonathan Noyce’s approach to the instrument; what he calls "stealth bass playing" translates to my ears as "lacking in articulation and presence".
But Jonathan Noyce, not David Pegg, is the bass player for Jethro Tull, and I’m at peace with that. And there is so much that compensates for this Aqualung Live‘s problems. Song by song, even with Anderson’s vocal problems, the interpretations sound lively, focused. The acoustic guitar playing and the drums just shine, as does Andrew Giddings keen-eared reconstruction of the original keyboard parts. I’ve never been a fan of Giddings’s either – I never liked what he had to add to the arrangements of the newer material. But on a project like this, he plays to his strengths. Piano, organ, played like it was on the record, only better.
Some songs are rearranged somewhat, especially Hymn 43 which is given a more up-beat, folky sound. Mother Goose has the interpolation known as "That Bit With The Bongos" stuck in. Interestingly, by the time the final few songs come around, Ian Anderson’s singing is much improved, although there may have been some overdubs and/or taped snippets used there.
One probably needs to be a pretty die-hard fan to be interested in this sort of thing in the first place (although I can’t help but wonder what else has been released in the "Then Again" series Update: The list so far doesn’t do much for me). But now that I’ve got the record, I think I’ll play it a lot. And I really need to put on the original version of Up To Me when I get home.