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Published: 2007/09/04
by Mark Burnell

Jethro Tull : Live At Montreux 2003

Eagle Eye Media EE39153-9

I’ve long regarded Jethro Tull as both an oddity (how many other bands have a flute as their lead instrument?) and something of a dinosaur whose best days are long behind them. After viewing this excellent release of their 2003 performance at the Montreux Jazz festival, I’ve been forced to reconsider the latter opinion and would further suggest that possibly the only reason they ever made it big was Ian Anderson and that damned flute.

Anderson may be thicker of frame and thinner of hair these days, and his over enunciated, campy stage banter would be downright annoying if he wasn’t such a born front man, but he is still in fine voice, and his flute playing is even better than I remember it from the band’s heyday. Guitarist Martin Barre’s skills don’t seem to have dimmed with age, and the younger musicians they have playing with them, who are unfortunately not credited on this release, are no slouches either. If Tull can still cut the mustard musically, how do those classic songs stand the test of time? Pretty damned well, if you ask me.

After a misstep with a pair of ponderous blues numbers (Anderson’s harmonica playing really isn’t very good), they move to jazzier territory with a sprightly take on “Boiree,” a slightly-too-baroque-to-swing version of “Pavane,” and the simply exquisite “Empty Cafrdquo; during which Barre displays some serious chops on his acoustic guitar. It’s exciting to see the band fearlessly tinker with the arrangements of the older songs. There are no sacred cows here, and the performance is all the better for their adventurous attitude. “Fat Man” is stripped down and spooky with Anderson whipping out his mandolin while Barre switches to percussion as the keyboard player takes over on flute. Although the songs from the 1980s fall into the same trap that almost every major 70s act fell into— over-drenching tunes in swaths of dated keyboards, even these numbers are saved by Anderson’s flute playing.

The set is naturally constructed so that the massive hits come last, which is probably the way it should be. “Living in the Past” is a tad more bombastic than I recall, although it’s none the worse for it. “My God” rocks hard with Barre getting to cut loose and shred on the electric. “Budapest” is suitably dramatic, and “New Jig” proves that Fairport Convention weren’t the only band to bring traditional folk into the rock medium. I’d be willing to bet that the finale pairing of “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” have closed every Tull show since about 1972, and forty years later, they don’t disappoint. “Aqualung” is faithful to the original while retaining its power and intensity, and “Locomotive Breath” is simply spectacular with an extended piano vamp to start, a crunchy and muscular middle section, and some explosive soloing from Anderson.

All in all, this is a fine release with excellent sound and production values. I still can’t shake the feeling that without that damned flute Jethro Tull would have long been reduced to a sad life on the oldies circuit or worse, but as long as Anderson keeps whipping it out and playing in his unique way, they remain an exciting live act.

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