The past has always been good to Jethro Tull. Even back in the progressive rock days of the 1970s, the band's heavy blend of rock, blues, jazz, classical and Celtic flavors made it a peculiar anachronism, more old England than classic rock.
Both timeless and hopelessly dated, challenging and pretentious, Jethro Tull has spent three decades in a strange musical dialogue with the ancients. At the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Thursday, the band continued with a medieval fixation that hasn't changed since its hits "Aqualung" and "Bungle in the Jungle" were young.
"We've been around a long time," bandleader Ian Anderson mused before a faithful crowd that appeared to be mostly over 30, if not 40.
The singer-flutist was a pleasant host at the Galaxy, joking often about the band's age and dedicating a song to Russia's embattled Boris Yeltsin.
Anderson's pointed beard is gone, along with most of his hair, leaving barely enough for a small ponytail. At 51, this native of Edinburgh, Scotland, is no longer the dashing, rail-thin minstrel he was in the '70s, but he has retained much of his youthful energy, still looking vaguely medieval in black tights and boots.
Anderson stepped theatrically across the stage like some old storyteller, mugging expressions that were wistful and melodramatic reflections of his songs. The band earned an occasional standing ovation but, predictably, no dancing.
Early in the set, Tull unleashed its best-known song, 1971's "Aqualung," one of the most overplayed tracks of FM radio. Strangely, the band's epic signature tune found focus only after muddling through a few opening bars in which longtime guitarist Martin Barre's tough riffing was nearly lost in rhythmic disarray and Anderson's less-than-forceful vocals.
Jethro Tull wasn't interested in reinterpretation, which was clear later from Barre's too-faithful re-creation of the song's crowd-pleasing solo. No surprises or moments of inspiration here. The night's repertoire was played as close to the originals as the band could muster these many decades later.
At its best, Tull has cast Anderson's lilting vocals and flute melodies across heavy, thundering rhythms. But the band rarely has been able to bring a fresh spin to the folk sounds of old England, unlike the folk-based rock of contemporaries Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson.
The two-hour concert was the first of two sold-out nights for the band at the Galaxy, followed with two sold-out shows Monday and Tuesday at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. The band's heyday--when it could sell out multiple nights at major arenas such as the Forum in Inglewood--may be behind them. Still, Tull retains a sizable following--and one willing to pay the Galaxy's $75 ticket price.
"Thank you for being so rich and letting us play a little place, just like the old days," Anderson told the audience.
Another welcome echo from the band's past came in the form of "Someday the Sun Won't Shine on You," which reflected Tull's roots in the 1960s British blues scene. Anderson played wistful harmonica, backed only by an acoustic guitar and light percussion. The singer was likewise at his least pretentious during the spare English folk of "A Life Is a Long Song."
Still, most of the night leaned heavily on epics such as "Too Young to Die" and lengthy instrumental passages, with shifts in tempo and melody, not at all aimed at easy crowd-pleasing pop. While the band was its tightest and most powerful when the guitar stuck to riffing that was crunchy and direct, that band rarely chose that no frills approach.
At one point, Anderson exited the stage, leaving his band to embark on a long-winded instrumental. It was a jam that ultimately went nowhere, with guitar chords uncomfortably close to 1980s metal and jazzy piano soloing, before simply ending without any meaningful highs or lows.
As an antidote to those plodding moments, Tull crowded many of the band's best known works at the end of the night. "These things actually got on the charts back then," Anderson noted. "It would have even been on MTV, if there had been such a thing."
Jethro Tull debuted in Blackpool, England, in 1968, named for an 18th century agronomist who invented the machine drill for sowing seed. The band's singular progressive rock fusion is as blissfully dated now as it was then.
In this context, opening act Linda Perry seemed strangely modern with her raw, explosive vocals. Backed only by a bassist and drummer (both tattooed with shaved heads), Perry strummed an acoustic guitar and wailed convincingly over the crowd chatter.
Center stage on a bar stool, Perry was a raw and genuine presence, suggesting a positive turn in her music.
During her time with the chart- friendly 4 Non Blondes, Perry's work often came off as derivative of both Janis Ian and Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano--without reaching the stormy creative heights of either. Her solo debut album last year was a disappointing reach for a slick commercial sound and nevertheless failed to return her to the airwaves.
Yet if her performance at the Galaxy is any indication, Perry has settled into something more natural and meaningful, putting her formidable vocal talents to use on material that on Thursday came off as personal, powerful and real.