Friday, July 23, 2010

The Bard of Rock, the Minstrel of Roll

I've been having an argument via e-mail with a couple of friends over who, among modern rock musicians, can be compared to the bards and minstrels of old. They have their favorites, but to me the title has belonged to one man, and one man only, since the late 1960's. That man is Ian Anderson, founder of Jethro Tull, composer, singer, musician . . . genius.

Perhaps it would be best to first establish precisely what I'm talking about. The term 'bard' meant "a professional poet, employed by a patron, such as a monarch or nobleman, to commemorate the patron's ancestors and to praise the patron's own activities". Minstrels were, in a sense, descendants of the bards. Wikipedia defines the term as follows:

A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories about distant places or about real or imaginary historical events. Though minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. Frequently they were retained by royalty and high society. As the courts became more sophisticated, minstrels were eventually replaced at court by the troubadours, and many became wandering minstrels, performing in the streets and became well liked until the middle of the Renaissance, despite a decline beginning in the late 15th century. Minstrelsy fed into later traditions of traveling entertainers, which continued to be moderately strong into the early 20th century, and which has some continuity down to today's buskers or street musicians.

So, in terms of the rock 'n roll era, I'm trying to find musicians who embody those earlier traditions and play (and sing) music that accomplishes the same purpose. Most modern music doesn't even come close, of course.

I've sent several links to my friends to justify my selection of Ian Anderson. The difficulty with someone like him, of course, is to make a limited selection amongst the enormous number of songs and pieces he's composed. For every one I select, there are at least half-a-dozen that could do just as well. I'll put up a dozen or so here, stretching through his forty-year-plus career, to demonstrate why I think he stands alone as the 'bard' or 'minstrel' of the rock era. I've tried to select some less-well-known pieces, and wherever possible to find concert recordings rather than studio or made-for-TV clips.

First, here's 'Wond'ring Aloud' from the album Aqualung in 1971.

In 1973 Jethro Tull tried to record a new album in France, which they abandoned unfinished (eventually releasing the surviving songs as 'the Chateau d'Isaster tapes' on the double album Nightcap in 1993). Among the songs was this very tongue-in-cheek look by Anderson at animals and their feeding habits.

From the 1976 album Too Old To Rock 'n Roll: Too Young To Die! came this gem: 'From A Dead Beat To An Old Greaser'. This is a live version, released on the album A Little Light Music in 1992.

The late 1970's saw Jethro Tull produce a trio of folk rock albums: Songs From The Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch. All three remain among my favorites. Here's the title song from the first album, the original music video version.

From the same album, here's 'Pibroch (Cap In Hand)', a haunting song of love and loss.

From Stormwatch, here's 'Flying Dutchman'.

After a period of electronic experimentation, Jethro Tull and Anderson returned to their rock roots with the 1987 album Crest Of A Knave. This went on to win a Grammy award in 1989 for 'Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental', the only one ever awarded in that category - and a very controversial award it was too! From that album, here's 'Budapest', in a live performance given at the Lugano Festival of Jazz on the Piazza della Riforma on 9th July 2005.

In 1988 the group released 20 Years Of Jethro Tull, a compilation album celebrating two decades of music. From that album, here's 'Part Of The Machine'. This is a live performance, recorded that year as part of the album tour.

1991 saw the group's 18th studio album, Catfish Rising. It's one of my favorites. This song from that album, 'Doctor To My Disease', always makes me smile (and frequently chuckle) with its rather unique and tongue-in-cheek look at relationships.

1995 saw the album Roots to Branches, a more thoughtful look at life, the universe and everything, incorporating Arabic and Far Eastern influences. From that album, here's 'Beside Myself', recorded live in Brazil in November 2000.

In November 2008, Jethro Tull were to have performed a live concert in Mumbai, India, with Anoushka Shankar and her musicians. Tragically, the concert had to be canceled due to terrorist attacks in that city. The concert was subsequently re-scheduled as a fundraiser for victims of the attacks. A Billion Hands Concert was staged on December 5th, 2008. Ian Anderson composed several pieces specially for the performance, incorporating both Western rock and folk influences and Eastern rhythms and themes. Here's a video clip of one of those pieces from that concert, with Anderson and Shankar leading their combined groups in 'Celtic Cradle'.

There. I've linked to eleven of Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson's pieces, and as I said earlier, I could have linked to many, many more. I hope these selections illustrate my point: that there's only one 'Bard' or 'Minstrel' of the rock age, and that's Ian Anderson (unless and until he dies, or hands over the title to someone else whom he feels deserves it).

In closing, how can we possibly leave Ian Anderson without watching one of his famous solo interludes on the flute? This one was recorded in Tampa, Florida, in 1976, and demonstrates the young Anderson's flamboyant showmanship as well as his musical ability.

And if we highlight Anderson's personal contribution, we can't go without a tip of the hat to the quintessential Jethro Tull song, 'Aqualung', which will forever be associated with them. Here's a live performance, details unknown.

I think these pieces adequately demonstrate the unique bardic and minstrel influence and effect in Ian Anderson's compositions and Jethro Tull's performances. With that, I rest my case!



Old NFO said...

I have to admit I've never really looked at it in that light, but your argument IS a good one... I do think some of the C&W people like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn could also be considered.

Peter said...

Agreed, but they're not rock musicians - they're country. Different genre, different approach entirely. As far as rock 'n roll goes (particularly heavy rock and progressive rock), I think Anderson stands alone.

Noons said...

Indeed. 100% agreed. To this day, Aqualung remains an album I listen to regularly on the ipod, together with all I can scrounge around from JT. I still reckon Locomotive Breath is the most quintessential heavy rock sound ever made.
I'm also very parcial to Emerson Lake&Palmer, although their style is more epic rock than anything.

LabRat said...

...Not much of a death metal fan, are you?

Try Opeth if you are in an experimental mood. Or Sonata Arctica. But epic, storytelling songs and albums of myth, legend, and history are a pretty strong theme in metal, if you can understand the lyrics...

Jim said...

I have to agree. Actually when I read the headline I immediately thought "Tull". I was actually amused that it was actually who you were talking about

Anonymous said...

Have you heard James McMurtry, try "We Can't Make it Here" talk about hitting the nail on the head. "Just Us Kids", if you are over 40 the song will have meaning.
Deacon Blue

Johnny Glendale said...

The wife and The Lad were on errands Saturday, so's I got to crank "Stand Up" while doing chores - a real treat.
Apocryphal or not, in an interview Mr. Anderson said that, when starting his band, he saw Clapton play and couldn't sleep the rest of the night. The next morning, realizing he could never top that, went to a pawn shop and traded his guitar for a flute. Thank you, Mr. Clapton.