"I mean, I went to see Black Sabbath actually, just on their second- or third-to-last concert of their lives. And I thought, 'I'll probably recognize loads of the songs,' and actually I probably only knew about two! … In the case of many bands, I suppose that doesn't mean you don't enjoy the evening, it's just you might know two songs, you might know 10 songs. Chances are you won't really respond to every one of the 20, perhaps, songs they play in the evening. So I'm used to the fact that the audiences are very varied, and some are encyclopedic in their knowledge, in a way, of your repertoire, and others just kind of know you from seeing posters of you playing a flute while standing on one leg."
Given that the "Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson" concert set to take place this Tuesday in Salt Lake City was among the first of this year's Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series to sell out, it's a fair bet the crowd in attendance will more quickly recognize the opening notes of "Aqualung" than Anderson did the distinct tritone of "Black Sabbath."
Tull last played in an official incarnation in November 2011. The previous June, Anderson had informed longtime members Martin Barre and Doane Perry that he wished to take the group in a different direction, and they would do well to start searching out new opportunities.
Now, Anderson and a hand-picked backing lineup perform from the blues/rock/folk band's catalog of about 300 songs. He's quite unsympathetic and indifferent to whatever calls there may be out there for some sort of Tull reunion.
"When anybody asks me the question, what's the difference between that and what I do now, or what I was doing 40 years ago, there isn't any! It's just different people. I keep pointing out that it's somebody else's problem having to figure out who it is or what it is," Anderson said. "But at last count, there was something like 33 different members of Jethro Tull since the band began back in January of 1968. Actually, 34 if you include the single performance by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath when he sat in on a TV show with us. I counted them this morning, and it was 33 people who've been in the band Jethro Tull, making an album or doing a meaningful, long tour or whatever. That's a lot of folks, and obviously I can't reel 33 people or 32 plus me out on tour. Nor, I hasten to add, would I want to. I couldn't afford the per diems and the plane tickets!"
It's partly a matter of logistics how does a band that's had that many members over that many years put together a "classic" lineup, especially considering some are now dead, some are now in poor health and some simply gave up music a long time ago?
"People forget, these are folks who are 69, 70 years old, and if you haven't played your instrument for 30 years or 40 years, it's not really very easy to pick it up again. There's so many reasons under the sun. There's this idea that you have this magic reunion it's just never, ever possible," Anderson said. "It's like saying that your favorite football team in 1972, that somehow you could get these guys to put their jerseys and their boots and helmets on and wheel them out onto a field and it'll be just like the old days. No, it wouldn't! They wouldn't last 10 minutes, and they'd be left in a heap of bones in the middle of a football field because they're ooooooold people and they can't really do that sort of thing anymore."
Another component is that Anderson only seems to understand attachment to the music itself, and not to the individuals who participated in crafting it. Sure, someone specific may have written a song, but if someone else can play it just as well, what's the difference?
"I haven't any nostalgia about reunions. To me, Jethro Tull means two things: It means the 18th-century agriculturalist who invented the seed drill, and it means a repertoire, it means the songs of 4 ½ decades of performance. That, to me, is what it's about," he said. "You love The Beatles, maybe. You don't mean you love John, Paul, George and Ringo especially, because two of them aren't with us anymore. What you mean is you love 'Sgt. Pepper,' and you love the repertoire generally, or specifically a certain album. And that's what people really mean when they talk about it. The idea of somehow the musicians themselves being the objects of your affection … it's not a given it might apply in some cases, but probably not many."
In addition to touring, Anderson has remained busy writing and recording new music (you can expect another album out around March) as well as new versions of old music.
This spring saw the release of "Jethro Tull The String Quartets," in which a dozen of the band's classic tunes were given a classical twist.
Be it him reworking his own material, or someone else covering Jethro Tull's music, Anderson said he's constantly intrigued by "taking the elements of the music with the melody and the harmony, but presenting them within the stylistic context of a different genre."
"At the end of the day, I think a good song, or even an average song, you can turn it into something else, most times with a degree of success, in terms of crossing genres and presenting something within a new musical suit of clothes," he said.
That said, he does not approve of every such endeavor.
"For instance, I think if I took myself off to Nashville for three weeks, I could probably make an album of Jethro's greatest country hits," Anderson said. "But if I did, you would have to shoot me!"
It remains a toss-up determining which is more distasteful to him country music or attending concerts other than his own.
An avid theatergoer, Anderson confessed his vast preference for attending a showing of "The Book of Mormon" that night and experiencing its "fairly scurrilous take on the evangelical workings of the world" over being present at one of the final-ever Black Sabbath performances.
While he was happy to get to reconnect with his old friend Iommi again, he can't say the rest of the night was particularly enjoyable, considering his lack of knowledge of the songs the least of his problems.
"The behavior was a bit mindless a lot of fighting and drinking and throwing up, and generally, it felt unsafe for me being in an audience," he said. "And I was in the good seats!"
Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson
When • Tuesday; doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 7:30
Where • Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre, 2280 E. Red Butte Canyon Road, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Sold out