Hundreds of years ago, a man named Jethro Tull was born in Berkshire, England, growing up to reform agriculture with the invention of the seed drill and the horse-drawn hoe. On Wednesday, October 19, Ian Anderson, leader of the late ’60s band that took the name of that English agriculturalist and quickly became one of the most respected progressive rock acts of all time, will come to the Arlington Theatre with band in tow to present Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera, a spectacular greatest-hits set that reimagines the band’s catalog through the character of the historical Tull with a narrative performance involving contemporary themes of climate change, overpopulation, and new technologies.
Anderson said he doesn’t necessarily find the man Jethro Tull to be especially compelling and indeed hardly knew who Tull was when the band’s agent decided upon the name in 1968. It wasn’t until recently, in 2014, that Anderson felt inspired to read up on Tull and his professional achievements. “It was an interesting surprise to find that Jethro Tull’s life just embodied lots of little elements that suggested to me an immediate relationship with songs I had written over the years, most of which were of the very well-known in the Jethro Tull repertoire,” Anderson said in a recent interview with The Santa Barbara Independent. The idea of a narrative performance, with songs slightly amended and rearranged to address pressing modern themes, came to Anderson over the course of a two-hour car journey through the rolling hills of Northern Italy.
This is no history lesson, though — fans can expect a rocking performance of the legendary band’s songs, with topical detail coming secondarily. “I’m there to entertain, not educate; issues of climate change, population growth, immigration, feeding a hungry planet — I’m bringing these topics into an entertainment form, and maybe will get people scratching their heads and thinking a bit, or thinking about the groceries they buy,” he said. Sure, the subjects are rather dark, but Anderson and his band have never been ones to stray from the serious stuff: Look to songs such as “Aqualung,” which addressed homelessness “and our ability — or inability — to deal with the moral circumstances when confronting people who are much worse off than we are,” he said, and “Locomotive Breath,” with its notions of the consequences of runaway population growth.
Nor is this political proselytizing; it is music as an imaginative mirror, a refraction of reality through which the real can be seen. Certainly, Jethro Tull the band’s reputation has been built around the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the lyrics — the resistance to the usual pop-format subjects of “I love you, you love me, or you no longer love me because you’ve buggered off with the neighbor,” Anderson said. “Our job is to paint pictures for people and let them figure it out; we offer them a different viewpoint, a different spectacle, perhaps in a way they didn’t view it before,” he continued. “We’re not supposed to be politicians, activists, and agitators; there are those who do, and they often end up with an egg on their face, like Mr. Sting with his rainforest and Bono with his do-gooding and vast wealth hidden in tax-avoidance schemes across the world.”
Offstage, Anderson is still feeding his “endless passion for learning,” whether it be studying the religious demographics of the countries the band visits or reading “rather more philosophical stuff … about the more mysterious and imaginative side of who we as a species are,” he said. The fast and vast knowledge trove of the Internet has replaced the “dusty, dreary library” of his youth, and he is very grateful for the bottomless amounts of information available.
So if you, too, enjoy your music with a side of philosophy and social commentary, this Rock Opera will be the one for you: Your feet will be happy from tapping and your brain happy for the food-thought.
Jethro Tull plays Wednesday, October 19, 8 p.m., at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). For more information, call (805) 963-4408 or visit thearlingtontheatre.com.