Brick Layers: Ian Anderson Cements a Pair of Great-Sounding TAABs at the Beacon Theatre
BY MIKE METTLER
“No way to slow down.” Though it’s a line from the night’s lone encore (more on that later), it also aptly describes Ian Anderson’s energetic 128-minute set at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on October 10. As billed, Anderson and his ace six-piece band ran through Thick as a Brick 1 & 2 in a pair of stellar sets with a refreshing sense of verve and vitality. Long cited as a pioneer of progressive rock thanks to his 4-decades-plus of fronting Jethro Tull, Anderson and his whirling-dervish cavalcade of TAAB1&2 cronies inspired me to coin a new hybrid term for what he (and they) do onstage: jig-gressive rock.
Most important for these audiophile ears, the sonics were stellar all night long. Since its 2009 renovation and restoration, the Beacon Theatre has been a bastion for great sound, and front-of-house engineer Michael Downs took full advantage of what the room had to offer. And my vantage point for it all was quite fantastic: Orchestra Right Center, Row F, Seat 18, which translated to about 10 rows from the front and essentially in line with Scott Hammond’s drum kit at stage left, and with a clear sightline whenever Anderson ensconced himself behind his center-stage/mid-band mic stand most of the night. Well, make that some of the night — Anderson moved quite fluidly across the stage when taking his many flute solos, often concurrently showing how a 66-year-old has retained mastery of his patented one-legged pirouette, putting men half his age to shame in the process.
After a filmed intro (major audio-geek kudos to Ian for portraying a doctor named “Maximilian Quad“), Anderson opened the show in front of a mic stand placed on our side at stage left, strumming his 3/4-size parlour guitar and singing the well-known intro line, “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” As the do-ragged, vest-clad Anderson moved center stage, I was concerned that I’d be faced with a percussion-centric mix because of my seat. Those worries were allayed quickly, as John O’Hara’s left-side (i.e., stage-right) Roland and Hammond keyboards were instantly, and properly, balanced with the impact of the aforementioned right-side (stage-left) Hammond’s drumming. Florian Opahle’s cutting Les Paul guitar lines added all the right textures, and David Goodier’s Fender and Fodera bass lines held down the low-end fort without any notable over-rumbling. The night’s most enjoyable revelations belonged to stage-savvy co-ceremony-master Ryan O’Donnell, who often traded lead vocals and/or flute lines with Anderson and added the right sense of theatricality to the proceedings, whether donning a trenchcoat and bowler or wheeling out a stool to perch on and read an issue of Prog magazine with Anderson on the cover.
A clever use of Anderson’s cell phone through the P.A. and a preordained Skype call-in enabled violinist Anna Phoebe to join the mix 20 minutes into it (in the segment I believe is also known by the name “Edit 4″). The best use of live channel separation came close to the end of Brick 1, around 52 minutes into the show as soundman Downs hard-panned a duel of sorts between keyboardist O’Hara and drummer Hammond. The rest of the band, now entrenched between the two dueling musicians, swayed from one side to the other, their collective lean dependent on which hard-pan was in effect (left: lean toward O’Hara; right: lean toward Hammond). Quite a nice effect, once repeated before the final “We’ll have Superman or president/let Robin save the day” segment led the audience to the denouement to join Anderson in unison to speak-sing the set’s final word, “Brick.”
After a 28-minute break, the band broke vigorously into TAAB2, with Anderson again opening things at the mic at stage left with his parlour guitar. The band gelled quite naturally on songs like “Gerald the Chorister” (“Give till it hurts!” both Anderson and O’Donnell intoned, the latter during a brief, witty video segment) and the vigorous closer, “What-Ifs, Maybes, Might-Have-Beens.” Throughout the second set, both flute and organ fills and flute and guitar lines dexterously wove around and played off each other; sometimes doubling, sometimes leading. That’s the mark of keen intuitive interplay — and sharp live mixing. And the audience chimed in quite boisterously to mouth the set’s final two words along with Anderson (both onstage and via his posh-gent onscreen persona): “Brick 2.”
The earlier mentioned singular encore, a 9-minute gallop through the Aqualung classic “Locomotive Breath,” kept the audience on its feet all the way through. Anderson and Opahle came together near center stage and played off of each other masterfully in sync to the very end, completing one damn fine Bricktastic night. No way to slow down indeed.
Ian Anderson and his band of merry TAAB2 men are on tour in North America through the end of October, and then they hit the planks again in Europe through early 2014. See the tour dates here.