There are a lot of ways a rock band could celebrate its 20th anniversary on stage, especially if that group has heard cries of "dinosaur," and "over the hill"--not to mention "pretentious" and "overblown"--during many of those years.
Wisely, Jethro Tull chose the light, self-mocking approach Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
Opening with "Cross-Eyed Mary," leader Ian Anderson played the first flute parts while being pushed on stage in a wheelchair. And hanging behind the quintet was a banner that read "Oh no, not another 20 years of Jethro Tull."
Later, introducing 1976's "Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die," songwriter Anderson mentioned that when the song was released, critics considered the tune autobiographical. Nowadays, he slyly acknowledged, maybe it is .
And, at the end of the set proper, after a blistering version of "Aqualung," Anderson returned to the wheelchair, lead guitarist Martin Barre was carried off in a stretcher and bassist Dave Pegg hobbled off on crutches.
If Jethro Tull reflected a nifty sense of humor and perspective, the band also demonstrated that there's still plenty of rock 'n' roll life left in the old boys yet.
For one thing, backstage before the show, the president of Tull's record company presented the band members a gold record (signifying sales of more than 500,000 copies) for "Crest of a Knave," the group's latest release and its most successful in years.
And on stage, Tull presented the audience a sharp, spirited two-hour set, trimmed of the bombastic solos that have marred many tours, including the "Knave" shows in Los Angeles last December.
The concert achieved a neat balance of new and old. There were a handful of selections from "Knave" (though what Anderson sees in "Budapest"--a long, rather boring piece--is hard to see) and "Part of the Machine," a new single from the forthcoming retrospective, "Jethro Tull Compilation: Twentieth Anniversary."
So while Anderson & Co. obviously weren't just living in the past Friday, there was a generous helping of older material. Of course, the band played such concert mainstays as "Aqualung," "Locomotive Breath" and a slab of "Thick as a Brick."
But Tull pulled out a number of rarely performed gems, from the playful, loping "Nothing Is Easy," to the tender acoustic snippet "Slipstream," to the chugging blues tune "A New Day Yesterday."
If these and other songs superbly showcased the versatility and virtuosity of the band (Anderson, Barre, Pegg, drummer Doane Perry and new keyboardist Martin Alcock), another classy classic, "Fat Man," was a revelation.
Setting up at the lip of the stage, the band's instrumental lineup was a bit unusual, even for them: Though Pegg continued on bass, Perry played bongos, Alcock and Anderson strummed mandolins and Barre played flute, they segued into an instrumental, during which Barre changed to acoustic guitar and Anderson changed to flute, then switched back to close out the piece with a reprise of "Fat Man."
But make no mistake: for all the players' range and chops, a Jethro Tull concert is still Ian Anderson's show.
Though not prone to the wildly animated antics that characterized his performances during the group's heyday (when Melody Maker magazine dubbed Tull "one of the world's top five live attractions"), Anderson remains a highly captivating front man, bounding across the stage, bugging his eyes, gesturing wildly to punctuate the music, twirling his flute or perching up on one leg to play it in his trademark stance.
All in all, not a bad way for an over-the-hill dinosaur to celebrate its 20th anniversary.