@ The Sage Gateshead, September 19 2011

It’s a measure of Ian Anderson’s under-the-radar popularity that the Jethro Tull frontman’s gig at the Sage had sold out months before the venue’s brochure advertising the event had even been printed.

While Anderson could have easily sold out environs of the cavernous Hall 1, he was content to play in the intimate surroundings of Hall 2, which was an ideal choice for an evening of acoustic music and song. 
The spritely and impish Anderson, sporting a bandana and a black waistcoat over a white T-shirt, didn’t take long to establish his trademark motif – the first bout of flute playing whilst standing on one leg occurred during the opening number, the instrumental Boris Dancing. A couple of songs from Tull’s seminal Aqualung album followed in the shape of the whimsical Mother Goose and the less whimsical Up To Me.

This tour has a decidedly stripped down feel, featuring the main man himself plus young, baby-faced German guitarist Florian Ophale on acoustic guitar, complementing Anderson’s own acoustic guitar work, and John O’Hara on keyboards, including piano acordian.

Added rhythm is provided by Anderson occassionally playing a tambourine with his foot and by John O’Hara, similarly operating a hi-hat with his foot, and now and again bashing a cymbal or a lone bongo.

Between songs Anderson the raconteur took centre stage, regaling the audience with this trademark witty banter. On noticing that punters were seated behind the stage on the upper levels of the venue, he stated that the last time he encountered such an arrangement was at Shea Stadium where a ‘container of warm piss’ cascaded from the upper level onto the stage. Thankfully there was no repeat of such behaviour last night!

Anderson’s vocals are never going to sound as they did in his 1970s heyday, but the acoustic nature of the show means he doesn’t have to extend his voice to the levels he has to do when on a full Jethro Tull tour, so this format is ideally tailored for him. Of course Tull have always had an extensive acoustic repertoire that augments their distinctive classic rock sound anyway – confirmed by presence of the likes of Wond’ring Again in the set.

After Ophale showcased some impressive flamenco playing, the first set concluded with a burst of Bach – ‘the merlot of classical composers’ according to Anderson, in that his name his easy to pronounce – in the shape of Bouree, where Anderson’s stunning flute playing took centre stage.

The second set included a bizarre sight of O’hara on ‘breathaliser’, as Anderson put it – in reality a tiny hand-held keyboard powered by blowing into a tube, which added texture to Up The Pool, Anderson’s love letter to his former home town of Blackpool.

The bizarreness continued as Anderson narrated the surreal tale The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, complete with faux northern accent, before the music got back in full swing with the splendid Poet And The Painter section from Tull’s Thick As A Brick.

Highlight of the set was a subperb version of Budapest, with Ophale strapping on a Les Paul for the second half of the song and sounding as if he would have beaten Tull’s own Martin Barre into second place in a Martin Barre soundalike contest.

Proceedings were brought to a close by Aqualung and Locomotive Breath, featuring new song structures and arrangements for these acoustic reinterpretations, which breathed new life into two perennial fan favourites.

Needless to say Anderson’s flute playing and showmanship during these numbers was outstanding, with the distinctive flutter-tounging, singing and humming flute style that he originated, well to the fore, combined with a impressive display of high kicking, skipping and bounding around the stage that belied his advancing years.

It’s this sort of musical reinvention of familiar material, allied to his charismatic stage presence, that always makes Anderson worth catching live.

Martyn Jackson