Tull nostalgia tour falls short at Vina Robles


PASO ROBLES — Jethro Tull is the kind of rock band with very little grey area: you either love them or you don't. Sunday night, Tull frontman/songwriter/ flutist Ian Anderson brought his 50th-anniversary tour to Vina Robles but except for the hardcore diehards who shelled out $60 plus for tickets, most concertgoers probably walked away disappointed.
 
The evening began well enough with the nearly sold-out crowd buzzing, eager for Ian and the boys to deliver their classic AOR hits. The prancing minstrel was engaging as always, flute in hand accompanied by a huge video screen behind the stage that ran several short but cool testimonials from former band members and rock icons like Joe Elliott, Tony Iommi and even Slash. However, the show quickly stalled with the lack of early hits like 'Teacher' and Living in the Past' and a 20-minute intermission following a short first set.
 
I know, I'm old too.
 
The popular 'Cross-Eyed Mary' from the Aqualung album ended it but the sound mix and arrangement failed to convey the power and melody of this catchy, 3-minute ditty. Anderson's unique voice and storytelling seemed lost in translation. And Thank God the ubiquitous drum solo came early and lasted only a few moments. A revered rock band with countless records can afford to dispense with something that, like puka shells, went out of style long before 1980.
 
Herein lies the dilemma of nostalgia — it can work for or against you. If you decide to embrace and design your entire tour around it, you better go all in. So while their second set included more familiar songs, a heavy rocker like 'Steel Monkey' was left out in favor of the more classical sounding 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells'. I get that Tull helped invent the prog rock genre but rock is still a big part of it. Guess I can forgive Anderson for omitting the cheesy 'Bungle in the Jungle' but I guarantee his second highest charting song would have elicited cheers and howls from the polite crowd.
 
Like Yes and Genesis, the grandiosity and pretentiousness of these prog rock groups such as Tull helped spark the punk rock movement in the mid-1970s. But there's no denying their rightful place in the diverse pantheon of rock and roll.
 
Still, on this tour, I think Tull really misses the guitar stylings of their longtime right-hand man Martin Barre, who left the band in 2012 after 43 years. Barre brought a hard rock element, deftly contrasting Anderson's Celtic musings and flute playing. The flute feels more like a shtick now, sort of like the knuckleball in baseball. Use it if you want to but it doesn't really fit and never seems to catch on.
 
Also, what started out this show as a history of Jethro Tull narrative quickly got sidetracked, skipping an entire decade before ending with the two biggies from Aqualung, their fourth album in 1971. Better sequencing and song selection were needed to tell their story and keep everyone engaged. Unfortunately, Tull seems to be a great studio band whose talent and energy doesn't translate to live performances so well.
 
There's no doubt Anderson is a talented, creative musical tour de force whose band has influenced countless musicians. Aside from kingpins Led Zep, there were no more popular groups in my 1975 Junior High School than Tull and the Doobies. If Hall & Oates and Dire Straits get in the Rock Hall, Tull deserves induction for sure.
 
But the worst rock concert, and this was far from that, still beats working. My bro date Camas and I decided to hoof it out before the encore to avoid the always lengthy but much improved with a second exit trek leaving the amphitheater.
 
The star of the scene in the North County continues to be the now venerable venue among the oak trees and vineyards. It perfectly blends intimacy and spaciousness in a pristine outdoor setting that's unparalleled. There are really no bad days or nights at Vina Robles but headliners need to bring their 'A' game to match the high bar that's been set.

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