Jethro Tull’s double live album is almost too perfect. Bursting Out can’t be faulted on any of the usual live-record stumbling blocks: the performances exemplify Tull’s technical mastery and omnipresent energy, the track selection runs the stylistic gamut and provides a quick academic history of everything the group’s ever been about. It’s hard to see how the LP could be improved — yet there’s a nagging feeling that something’s horribly wrong.
Technical notes: Bursting Out wasn’t painstakingly assembled from the most acceptable takes over the course of a tour. The album is a compilation of three shows in Europe — which makes no difference since I’ve never heard an off-night by Tull, onstage or on bootlegs. I’ve also never known the band to do a set longer than this record. Then too, the new LP neatly illustrates the peripheral entertainments of the act, especially Ian Anderson’s vaudevillian ribaldry: “David Palmer? Oh, he’s gone for a piss.” (Like all great showmen, Anderson knows the true value of good taste before a mass audience.) One traditional Tull gambit is the extended instrumental solo, which by now has become a set piece for flute — very witty, very showbiz.
Of Jethro Tull’s fourteen previous records (including three compilations of singles, hits and outtakes), only three aren’t represented here. There are five title tracks. These guys even reach back nine years to Stand Up for a hoary old blues, “A New Day Yesterday.” Other characteristic Tull sounds include folksy strumming (“Jack in the Green”), precise orchestration (“Thick as a Brick”), crunching guitar fireworks (Martin Barre’s interlude in “Minstrel in the Gallery”) and such ancient beer-blast standbys as “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath.” One could quibble about the choice of material — I really wanted to hear “Sea Lion” and “Back Door Angels” without the cloying studio sweetener, for instance — but it’s a program notable for its balance.
So what’s wrong with it? In a word, familiarity. The Jethro Tull concept of progressive professionalism precludes a lot of spontaneity. Worse, the way Tull usually organizes the material so that it resembles what the crowd wants to hear has made the group compartmentalize itself — highly insular studio/chamber ensemble versus kick-ass rock & roll band — and the middle ground between such prepared positions is usually where the action is. This rift threatens to widen: Anderson’s declared that he’ll henceforth save the folksy strumming of Songs from the Wood for his own projects, and keep Tull rocking. How much need one sacrifice for perfection?