In January of 1972, the Society for Literary Advancement and Gestation awarded the top prize of its Literary Competition for British children aged 7 through 16 to Gerald Bostock, an 8-year-old literary prodigy from St. Cleve. Known as “Little Milton” due to his precocious nature and advanced intelligence, the young lad from the Moordale Primary School won the countrywide competition with an epic poem entitled Thick As A Brick. His triumph would be short lived.
After reading the poem on the Young Arts program on BBC 2, the SLAG disqualified Little Milton following hundreds of protests and threats over the poem’s content. After four of England’s leading child psychologists deemed Bostock to be seriously unbalanced, declaring Thick As A Brick to be a product of “an extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and Country,” they recommended him for psychiatric treatment without delay. Reading Little Milton’s epic work in a magazine, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was inspired to write “forty five minutes of pop music to go with it” and the resulting album was described as “at worst entertaining and at least aesthetically palatable” by the St. Cleve Chronicle.
Setting aside the fact that Jethro Tull did release Thick As A Brick, a 45 minute progressive rock opus that spanned both sides of the then-omnipresent vinyl LP format, none of the above actually happened.
The classic rock era was a fertile time for bands to indulge their philosophic and at times messianic impulses with the rock album becoming a medium for delivering weighty messages in the guise of a new literary form. In the name of art, Peter Gabriel and Genesis told the tale of Rael the Imperial Aerosol Kid traversing grotesque labyrinths in search of his brother John in The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Pete Townshend and The Who followed up their tale of a deaf, dumb and blind kid that played a mean pinball with an exploration of multiple personality disorders in Quadrophenia and Roger Waters and Pink Floyd took symbolism to its limits with the story of a shut-down rock star in The Wall.
When it came to grandiose conceptual works, Jethro Tull had as beautiful a mind, adventurous a spirit and bilious an ego as any of their peers. Where Thick As A Brick built its theme around the constructed backstory of Little Milton, the albums that sandwiched TaaB did not separate the message from the music. On Aqualung, Anderson came forth with a biting, satirical condemnation of organized religion while Martin Barre unleashed a slew of enduring guitar riffs. On A Passion Play, released a year after the well-received Thick As A Brick, Tull ambitiously explored the afterlife with a bewildering morality play that confused even the most loyal Tull fans. A Passion Play may not have completely derailed the concept album era but it didn’t do it any favors either. In 1972 though, a concept album could meet with wild success and Thick As A Brick topped the Billboard Pop Albums chart for two weeks.
Unintentionally, the fictional saga of Gerald Bostock became a metaphor for Jethro Tull’s career, presaging the public’s disregard of the band due to their refusal to comport with preconceived notions of conventional rock. One of the original British blues-rock bands, Jethro Tull songs are staples of classic rock radio and the image of Ian Anderson playing his flute perched on one leg is one of the genre’s most iconic silhouettes. Over the course of a career that spans more than four decades, Tull has incorporated elements of classical, medieval and folk music into the rock oeuvre and are still the sole band to successfully integrate the flute into the world of rock and roll. Their besting of Metallica for the inaugural Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance (if Hidden Track had footnotes, a lengthy would be dropped here) and the fact that they provided the context for the jazz flute scene from Anchorman are mere afterthoughts. Nonetheless, much like Little Milton, Jethro Tull is repeatedly “disqualified” from discussions of the greatest rock bands of all time. Artists that have accomplished so much less than Jethro Tull are enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while Ian Anderson and Martin Barre are given nary a thought. (Rush fans reading this are either nodding knowingly or thinking “Stop whining, you hosers”).
Forty years after the release of Thick As A Brick, Ian Anderson has returned to Little Milton’s tale with Thick As A Brick 2: Whatever Happened To Gerald Bostock? Rather than craft another social critique of epic proportion, Anderson draws Bostock into the narrative and meditates upon the various ways his life could have unfolded over the course of an extended song cycle. In doing so, Anderson revives many of the riffs, melodies and signature sounds from the original TaaB in a variety of subtle manners. With the exception of the reprise of the original album’s ending stanza, Anderson updates his source material without resorting to slavish repetition.
Knowing ears will perk up right from TaaB2’s start with the introductory guitar notes of From A Pebble Thrown which establishes an immediate cerebral link to a bygone era before easing in to the modern day. In the same way that an overture introduces the musical themes to follow, familiar melodies float through Thick As A Brick 2 only in slightly modified forms. Florian Opahle transforms many of Anderson’s flute trills and John Evan’s keyboard runs from the original into guitar riffs that nestle within the underpinning of many of TaaB2’s songs. They are there for learned ears to discern without becoming a crutch for lazy songcraft.
Thick As A Brick 2 marks Anderson’s return to the signature flute folk/rock that he alone practices. Furthermore, by refocusing his sights on some of his favorite whipping posts like bankers (Upper Sixth Loan Shark/Banker Bets, Banker Wins) and the clergy (Power and Spirit/Give Till It Hurts), TaaB2 also contains some of Anderson’s most inspired wordplay in years. His sense of whimsy also remains firmly in the realm where tongue meets cheek as he has also resurrected the fictional St. Cleve Chronicle, which of course, has evolved into an on-line publication.
Anderson has never left his Tull legacy behind; his solo tours, whether they be acoustic, orchestral or electric always draw deep from his overflowing Tull song book. For as much as Thick As A Brick 2 reconnects with the original album, it also reestablishes contact with Tull’s other albums of yore. The references to locomotive breath and passion plays are not inadvertent or without significance to the narrative. The martial acoustic pulse that beats throughout the album echoes the Minstrel In The Gallery/Songs From The Wood period as much as it does the original Thick As A Brick and TaaB2’s Wootten Bassett Town has the foggy erudite foreign feel of Budapest and Farm On The Freeway from Crest Of The Knave.
With John O’Hara and David Goodier doing double duty as members of Jethro Tull and Anderson’s solo band, Thick As A Brick 2 is Doane Perry and Martin Barre short from being the best Jethro Tull album in two decades. Its nostalgic glee makes up for any of its shortcomings, which would include the shoehorning of the marvelous A Change Of Horses – which would be the best Tull song in years if it hadn’t been part of Anderson’s solo repertoire for quite some time – into a song cycle to which it bears little relevance. It’s been years since Anderson has offered such a bounty of fresh material to his fiercely loyal fans. Anderson may not have answered the question of what happened to Gerald Bostock after all these years. It’s enough that he bothered to try.
For a healthy portion of the month of March, The Allman Brothers Band occupied the Beacon Theater for their annual residency. The dedication of this year’s residency to the 40th anniversary of the release of Eat A Peach may have produced some long overdue moments like the inclusion of a Gregg Allman-sung Blue Sky into an early set list but it was hardly the most notable aspect of the 2012 residency. In fact, as time passes, it will probably register as an overlooked footnote. Rather, the most noteworthy event of the ten shows occurred late in the second set on the penultimate Saturday night show when Gregg Allman walked off stage right before a cover of Franklin’s Tower with guests John Popper and Rob Barraco and did not return for the rest of the residency. No one may have been as surprised as Rob Barraco, who returned to the stage and filled in on In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed and Southbound. As you all know by now, the final show of the residency went on without an Allman being on stage for the first time in more than two decades. It will be interesting to see if that is a harbinger of things to come.
While the Allmans always have a reverence for tradition, they aren’t shackled to form over substance. For the 2012 residency, the second set of each show saw the Allmans play acoustic in a variety of iterations and combinations that had Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes at its heart. The acoustic portions saw the ABB cover Neil Young’s The Needle And The Damage Done, Jackson Browne’s These Days and assorted blues standards. The acoustic sets focus on Trucks and Haynes was further emblematic of the gradual passing of the ABB torch to the two guitarists, who have long been the centerpiece of any Allmans performance. Moreso than in any other year, the guests that appeared at the Beacon in 2012 – e.g. Grace Potter, Ruthie Foster, Ron Johnson, Susan Tedeschi (Trucks’ wife), Eric Krasno – seemed to have closer ties to Haynes and Trucks than to the overall Allmans’ legacy. As for Bernie Williams? Yeah, I have no answer for that one either.
Since we brought up Ms. Potter, on June 12th, she and the Nocturnals will be releasing The Lion The Beast The Beat, the follow-up to their breakthrough self-titled 2010 release. Before their latest hits stores both on and offline, GPN will be doing their part to bolster the offline portion of the record business with the April 21st Record Store Day release of Live From The Legendary Sun Studio. Potter & The Nocturnals were the first artists to be brought in for The Sun Studio Sessions, which airs nationwide on PBS, and their 2008 performance went a long way in establishing the fledgling show as a showcase for emerging talent. The Sun Studio release will be comprised of seven original songs recorded over two separate sessions and will be available on vinyl as well as CD. For those who may not be inclined to travel to stadiums this summer to catch their opening set on the Kenny Chesney/Tim McGraw tour, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals will be on VH1 Storytellers this summer. I assure you, there are few things more entertaining than offering Potter an open mike and no guidelines.
In addition to the abundance of GPN material to come forth this year, Benny Yurco and Scott Tournet, the guitar duo that are too often overlooked as the backbone of the Nocturnals, have respective solo projects in the works. Yurco’s This Is A Future was produced with Seth Kaufman of Floating Action in as traditional a form as possible: first takes to analog tape with no computer manipulation. Contempt Of Court, the first single that truly is a heavenly slice of 60s psychedelic soul, is already available on iTunes. Tournet’s solo project will likely be ready sometime later this year with Austin Beade, formerly of Alberta Cross, and assorted Vermont-based friends assisting Tournet in bringing it to fruition. If your only exposure to Tournet and Yurco comes from the video for Paris, prepare to have your mind expanded.