Ian Anderson 14@ The Sage Gateshead, May 16 2014

The release last month of Homo Erraticus caused something of stir, with a headline in The Independent proclaiming ‘8,400 years of history in a 50-minute album: this year’s surprise hit’. Really nothing should surprise us when it comes to prog legend Ian Anderson, certainly not a concept album in three acts featuring 13 songs – sorry, ‘chapters’ – telling the history of Britain. It’s as close to the spirit of 70s prog rock as you’re likey to find in the 21st Century. 

The one downside of the success of this latest Anderson solo project has been the demise of Jethro Tull – a fact more-or-less confirmed by Anderson in the album’s sleevenotes. For those of us who believe something magic happened when Anderson and long-time Tull sidekick, the wonderful, criminally underrated, blues-rock guitarist Martin Barre, collaborate, there’s more than a degree of sadness that this has come to pass.

However, it’s the billing of ‘Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson’ that has virtually filled all three levels of the Sage’s Hall 1 come the gig’s early start time of 7.30pm.

The first part of the show features Homo Erraticus performed in its entirety. It’s pressaged by a film of a bed-ridden Anderson in a continental sanatorium, attended by his bandmates dressed as doctors and nurses, with the patient bemoaning the aging process and the need to eat muesli. Then the spry, 66 year-old frontman bounded onto the stage to launch into Doggerland, with John O’Hara’s swirling keyboards, Anderson’s trademark flute, and Florian Ophale’s Les Paul all to the fore.

Throughout the hour long set the tapestry formed by Anderson’s lyrics weaves Brittishness, whimsy, satire and gentle social commentary, themes he’s been exploring since the early 70s. The highlight was Puer Ferox Adventus (Wld Child Coming) – a seven-minute epic telling how Pagan Britain gave way to Christianity, which references Lindisfarne (the Holy Island, not the band) in the lyrics. However, the near continuous nature of the song suite meant there was no space for applause from the attentive audience as Ryan O’Donnell, who partly shared Anderson’s vocal duties, immediately launched into a poem (doubtless penned by Anderson’s alter ego Gerald Bostock) linking to the next song – shame.

Considering the complexity of Homo Erraticus and fact that is such a recent release, one might have excused the Sage audience for affording it a reserved response. In fact the entertaining performance was received warmly by those in attendence, although that particular reception was to be put into the shade after the interval.

We were promised some classic Tull and that’s exactly what we got, with Anderson rolling back the years for a musical jaunt through Tull’s history starting with Living In The Past, naturally.

Most pleasingly this second set featured several vintage songs that had not been played on stage for some time, most noticeably Sweet Dream and Critique Oblique, the latter being a rarely heard except from A Passion Play. Sweet Dream, a song written at behest of Tull’s management who wanted a hit single, was accompanied by its original, chucklesome film promo featuring a youthful and hirsute Anderson being chased by a vampire, also played by the frontman, interspersed with vintage back and white horror and sc-fi film clips. One can imagine young Tull fans Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson taking notes for future reference when the promo originally aired.

The advantage of having Ryan O’Donnell on stage for this older material is that it allows Ian to sing in a lower register while the young actor/singer tackles the higher notes. Anderson is never going to sound like he did in 1970 but his voice, though limited, was the strongest I’ve heard it for some time. The Sage’s renowned acoustics and a good sound mix may have also helped in this regard.

This second set also allowed Anderson to induldge in his renowned banter between songs, along with plenty of flute playing whilst standing on one leg. It wouldn’t be a Tull/Anderson gig without both. As the night wore on it was obvious he was having a ball, doubtless buoyed by the increasingly loud cheers and bouts of applause that greeted the end of every song.

German guitarist Ophale is probably the only man who would give Barre some stiff competition in a Martun Barre soundalike contest. By the time Aqualung rolled around he was begining to look, as well as sound, like a young Martin Barre. I wonder if his middle name is ‘Lancelot’?

No prizes for guessing that a stirring version of Locomotive Breath was saved for the encore. Jethro Tull my be no more but Ian Anderson rocks on.

Martyn P Jackson