(Nick Harrison / Lowell Sun)

Ian Anderson is a natural-born storyteller, but spend five decades as the flute-playing, occasionally cod-piece-wearing frontman of Jethro Tull, and yeah, you'll have some stories to tell.

Anderson, who called from his office in England recently to talk about his upcoming shows, is continuing the celebration of Jethro Tull's 50th anniversary, which kicked off last year — 50 years after the band's first gigs at Marquee Club in London — and continue this year to celebrate 50 years since Tull made its live debut in the United States.

"We did three U.S. tours in 1969," Anderson says. "Early spring, I think July, and then again later in the year."

"As a child growing up in the U.K. shortly after the end of World War II, we were brought up on a diet of all things American," he says.

"American comics, American TV programs, if you were lucky enough to have a television in those days back in the U.K.

"And so we grew up with a steady diet, I suppose, of appreciation and envy of this incredibly brash and culturally exciting world."


Advertisement

The tour billed as Ian Anderson's 50 Years of Jethro Tull — he's been the sole original member since Martin Barre left in 2012 — heads to Europe, then returns for a gig at Mohegan Sun in mid-September.

Since Anderson, 71, is so good at spinning a tale, we decided to get out of the way and let him talk about everything from why Jethro Tull decided to pass on playing Woodstock to how Anderson ended up a rock-and-roll flautist in the first place — Eric Clapton is responsible for it, he says.

But we'll start with their very first U.S. shows when Tull opened for another British band.

1) Opening for Led Zeppelin: "We were in that invidious position of going on before one of the world's most loved and appreciated bands, musically speaking. So it was a tough opening act to do, but I think generally speaking we did OK.

"The first couple of times we had 35 minutes to try and show that we were not complete idiots, and we obviously managed to do OK since we were invited to do it again and again."

2) Taking a Page from Jimmy: "The Zeppelins, they were a good act to open for because you really had to learn, and you could learn from them a lot of useful tricks about stage presentation and dynamics.

"Generally speaking on a good night they were the best band in the world," says Anderson. "There was always something fresh to learn from watching them, except for me watching Robert Plant because he was in a class of his own. I couldn't learn anything from him because I couldn't dream of doing that kind of performance, either the macho bare-chested kind of strutting or the incredible operatic range of his voice. I learned perhaps more from the way Jimmy Page presented himself, his little bit of theatrical stuff, bowing his guitar with a violin bow, for example."

3) Playing Newport Jazz '69: "The jazz festival was a fairly staid affair, and not really a great venue for Jethro Tull. It had a night that was dedicated more to blues, well, non-folky, more electric music, but I'm not sure for most of the audience we were a welcome component of the lineup or not. But I do remember (jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan) Roland Kirk coming backstage and saying hello to because he'd heard I'd recorded music by him on our first album. It meant a lot to me that he sought me out."

4) Skipping Woodstock: "I said, 'What's the sort of shape of this festival, what kind of people are going to be there?' (Our manager) said, 'I think it's going to all be naked hippies taking drugs.' So I said, 'Well, I think actually I can be washing my hair that day,' because back then I used to have quite a lot of it so it was a plausible excuse.' I didn't feel it was the right thing for Jethro Tull so early in our career to be fixed with that label of being a hippie band."

5) Coming to America: "The American boy (at Anderson's primary school) used to give me his American comics once he read them, so I grew up knowing about all the things that were on the back page, all the sort of postal ads that you could off and get anything from a plastic Elvis ukulele to a 'Wynn' bicycle.

"And BB guns, which fascinated me. Of course, we'd seen lots of cowboy movies — that rather Midwestern kind of more rural America was the America that I thought was what it was until in my mid-teenage years when I was listening to jazz and blues. Then it was the upper Midwest — the Chicago thing became my sort of vague awareness of American, and through jazz musicians a little bit of New York."

6) Messing with Texas: "The thing that impacted on me most of all about the USA was you couldn't just talk about 'the USA' in the way that you might talk about Germany or Switzerland or Spain. Because America's like five or six different countries in terms of social and cultural differences, as well as in terms of topography and the physical geography of that big chunk of a continent," says Anderson.

7) Learning from Eric Clapton: "Like many of my peers I was a teenager who fantasized about being a guitar player, and perhaps a singer. And so my first two or three years were doing that.

"But then a bad thing happened. I bought an album by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, featuring a new guitar player by the name of Eric Clapton, and I thought, 'I think I better find something else to play.' And so in the summer of 1967, I traded in my Fender Strat guitar."

8) Selling a special guitar: "Being a 1960s vintage Strat, apart from being owned by me it was also previously owned by Lemmy Kilmister — then from Rev Black and the Rocking Vicars — but of course more famous for Motörhead. He'd owned it before me, it's a vintage Strat, so this guitar for sure would have to be worth £30,000, £40,000 today," says Anderson. "But I traded it in for a £30 Shure Unidyne III microphone, which I rather coveted, it looked rather sexy. And for the balance — What do I want? — I saw this shiny flute hanging on the wall (for £30 pounds). So for £60 I got myself a real made-in-Chicago microphone and a student flute I couldn't play."

9) Figuring out the flute: "I had a go at it; I couldn't get a note out of it. About four months later, December of '67, I thought I'd give another try, see if I could get a noise out of it, and all of a sudden a note popped out of it: 'Ooh, that's how you do it!' And then I got another note. Soon I had five notes. And I had the pentatonic blues scale, and I could play solos and riffs," says Anderson.

10) Going on 50 years: "It stood us in good stead over the years, and over the years I've come to really enjoy the flute much more than when I started. I can do a lot of stuff that I couldn't do before, but I can still do the stuff I did in the first week that I was playing it. That way of playing never leaves you. I can do that in my sleep, which sometimes I do. It keeps me awake at night."

Contact Peter Larsen at plarsen@scng.com or @PeterLarsenBSF on Twitter.