Gerald Bostock, the fictional 8-year-old protagonist of Jethro Tull's 1972 epic “Thick as a Brick,” is alive and — perhaps? — as well as can be expected 40 years later. Gerald's creator, British rock flutist Ian Anderson, is doing splendidly, as he proved before ardent fans in a packed Peabody Opera House on Sunday night.
Anderson is touring behind the 40th anniversary of “Thick as a Brick,” a tour begun late last year after Anderson's solo release of “Thick as a Brick 2.” The sequel imagines what might have happened to young Gerald after a scandal that befell him in Part 1. The rock opera is well-suited to the acoustics of the opera house, and praise goes to Anderson's sound engineer, Mike Downs, and the Peabody tech staff for one of the best-sounding rock shows this concertgoer has ever heard.
Every nuance of the dynamic music was exquisitely presented, showcasing the virtuoso talents of Anderson, drummer Scott Hammond, guitarist Florian Ophale, bassist David Goodier and keyboardist John O'Hara (the latter two also members of recent Jethro Tull incarnations).
Also in the lineup was Ryan O'Donnell, a British singer and actor who handled some of the vocal chores, giving Anderson's voice a rest and allowing him to re-create the flute parts as they were recorded. O'Donnell's voice is eerily similar to Anderson's, which emphasized O'Donnell's role as both the young and old Gerald and as Anderson's agreeable doppelganger — mimicking the leader's physical moves with broom and a flutelike wooden rod.
Anderson's ballet-inspired, one-legged performing posture was less evident than in past shows, perhaps a concession to his 65 years (he'll turn 66 on Aug. 10). Also missing — some would say thankfully — were the tights and codpiece of his youth, replaced by olive drab trousers. But Anderson remains a very physical performer, marrying British folk and music hall traditions with rock bombast.
And his playing, using the classical flutter-tongue technique, continues to be dazzling in its power, precision and clarity. His solos were electrifying, performed from all points on the stage as he roamed from side to side. Anderson's interplay in counterpoint and harmony with Ophale's guitar and O'Hara's keys also were delightful, as was his equally masterful performance on acoustic guitar — often juggling both instruments.
But what is “Thick as a Brick”? In the original, the boy Bostock enters an epic poem about love, war and social mores — the lyrics of the album — in a contest. The poem is read over the BBC and sparks protests that it is inappropriate, which results in a humiliated Gerald being disqualified. In Part 2, Gerald, we learn, was abused by a schoolmaster, and Anderson imagines several life paths for his alter ego: homeless veteran, gay man, money-grubbing preacher, greedy banker, loan shark, boring shopkeeper.
By the end, these Geralds have confessed their sins and are living in some state of “Kismet in Suburbia.” But given the cynical nature of Anderson's stories, happy endings are probably not to be.
Musical highlights of the show were numerous. Among them were “The Poet and the Painter,” “Childhood Heroes” and its reprise, and “Clear White Circles,” from the original “Brick”; and the “Pebbles” instrumental, “Banker Bets, Banker Wins,” “Adrift and Dumbfounded,” “Old School Song” and “A Change of Horses” from “TAAB2.”
The show is mounted with minimal but effective lighting, with no stage set save for a judiciously used video-screen backdrop. The video selections are responsible for much of the welcome humor in the show. For example, after Anderson's band and crew members, clad in working clothes, sweep up the stage and feather-dust the instruments, the lights go down and Anderson appears on screen as Dr. Max Quad, a shrink beginning treatment of an apparently adult Gerald. It's all shot from the patient's point of view.
After an intermission and before “TAAB2” begins, Anderson is back on video as a Colonel Parritt, conducting a tour of a country estate. A fiddle part is played on the backdrop by violinist Anna Phoebe as if she were home with her family and contributing her part via a Skype connection. It is one of several prerecorded bits used effectively to enhance the production, not mislead the audience.
And through it all flip-flops a deep-sea diver in full gear — down country paths and meadows, along city sidewalks — apparently searching for water (he jumps enthusiastically into a puddle), or perhaps the meaning of life. He even appears behind Phoebe as she fiddles in the doorway to her home. It's a funny bit and a knowing wink to Tull fans, a shoutout to the “Aqualung” album and its lyric “deep sea diver sounds” and the legal trouble it brought Anderson from the Aqualung company.
Even the band introductions were done via video, with an onscreen Anderson doing the honors.
After a standing ovation, Anderson and the band returned with the crowdpleasing “Aqualung” single “Locomotive Breath” — the phrase also appears in “TAAB2” — a powerful song about society out of control and full speed ahead that had the audience on its feet.
Gerald Bostock may be done now, but Ian Anderson has a long way to go.