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‘Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera’ succeeds as lively music theater

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull performed in a 2011 concert.
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull performed in a 2011 concert. The Associated Press

“Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” lived up to its billing.

The two-hour extravaganza, presented Monday night at the Uptown Theater, included songs from the legendary British progressive rock band. The music told a loosely defined narrative based on the life of Tull, an 18th century agriculturalist, but reimagined it as if he were alive today.

Ian Anderson, the band’s founder and the opera’s creator, explained the concept to The Jerusalem Post in October: “Rather than tell the story in some sort of historical pastiche, I thought it would be more fun to use many elements of his life and talk about today and tomorrow by repositioning Mr. Tull as a biochemist working in the field of genetic modification and doing research in crop production and animal cloning.”

The story line was elusive at best, a loose, strident commentary about modern agriculture, but the show thrived on its energy and the enthusiasm of Anderson, 68, who remains a sprightly live performer. His voice has diminished significantly in strength and range, but he navigated that shortcoming adequately through most of the show.

He got lots of vocal assistance from singers/actors whose filmed performances were portrayed, along with other visuals, on the large backdrop behind him and the band.

The set list was a mix of Tull favorites, including “Wind Up,” “Aqualung,” “Living in the Past,” “Songs From the Wood,” which closed the first set, and “Locomotive Breath,” which closed the second, plus original songs Anderson wrote for the opera.

None of those new songs was as memorable or indelible as the older material, though the stormy “Fruits of Frankenfield” was a welcome departure. But any tedium that might have set in during the new songs was alleviated by the stage presentation, from the colorful filmed vignettes and fast-paced graphic presentation to the physical antics of Anderson and his four-man band. It included two latter-day Tull members — David Goodier on bass and John O’Hara on keyboards — and Florian Opahle, who aroused several loud ovations for his leads and other flourishes on the guitar.

Anderson, too, received plenty of applause for his tireless performance, especially on the flute. The voice may subside with age, but the flute abides.

After the demonstrative performance of “Locomotive Breath,” a signature Tull song, he and the band returned for the encore, another “Opera” original, “Requiem and Fugue,” which was appended by a shortened version of “Bourée,” a J.S. Bach-inspired instrumental that appeared on Tull’s “Stand Up” album in 1969. It was an ideal digestif to a show that provided plenty to consume, aurally and visually.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

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