After 35 years leading Jethro Tull, flautist-singer Ian Anderson says being “a bit cuckoo” has helped him keep his sanity. His razor wit and Monty Python-esque sense of humor also have helped, providing comic relief for him and his fans. Perhaps that’s why this much venerated, sometimes berated, rock legend seems more interested in discussing Jethro Tull’s “Spinal Tap moments” rather than his band’s place in pop-music history or its impact on the sociocultural mores of the 1970s. (For the uninitiated, Spinal Tap is the spoof veteran British hard rock band featured in director Rob Reiner’s 1980s rockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap.”)
In a phone interview from England on the eve of a North American tour that brings Jethro Tull to Wolf Trap for an 8 o’clock show tonight, Mr. Anderson revealed himself to be something of a Tap-ologist.
“It has been said, and I heartily echo it, that all of us in the rock music world from that era don’t watch ‘Spinal Tap’ as a fictional movie,” Mr. Anderson says. “We watch it as a real-life documentary.”
Like getting lost in a maze of backstage passages on the way to a curtain call? “It happened to us backstage in Cleveland.”
Like getting locked inside “Alien” seedpods that refuse to open on cue? Two members of Tull suffered the indignity not only of being forced to come onstage dressed in white rabbit suits, but then having the zippers jam so they were unable to jump out of the costumes on cue to play with the others.
Harry Shearer, who portrays Spinal Tap bass player Derek Small and co-wrote the script, even lifted his character’s name from the program credits that came with Tull’s “Passion Play” album (he’s the movie projectionist) and had him smoke the same model pipe that Mr. Anderson sported in the ‘70s.
Unfortunately, mishaps on the road can be far more serious than jammed costume zippers. Such as the time in 1971 when Tull arrived to play a sold-out show at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheater, only to be greeted by a riot.
“I think there were about 1,100 people who tried to storm the gates. They turned over some police cars and set fire to them; helicopters went out and dropped tear-gas grenades, and of course, all this washed over into the venue.”
The police tried to prevent the band from proceeding to the show. “They said, ‘No way, English-trash rock ‘n’ rollers. You are the cause of all this carnage.’ We said, ‘Look, if we don’t go up there soon, you won’t just have 1,000 people rioting outside, you’re going to have 11,000 rioting inside.”
The police refused, so the band ran the roadblock, pursued by squad cars. “We jumped out of the car and went straight onstage. They were passing babies down through the audience, for God’s sake. I made an announcement for everyone to stay calm and forget the tear gas. I’m your Admiral Nelson or Mayor Giuliani in that situation; I can rise to the occasion and deliver directions in measured, authoritative tones to keep people calm and focused.”
The show went on, but rock concerts were banned at Red Rocks for many years after that. When Tull returned to Denver the next year, this time to play a sports arena, Mr. Anderson walked onstage wearing a gas mask.
“Did I really?” says an obviously amused Mr. Anderson when reminded of it. “This isn’t some LSD-enhanced bit of rock folklore is it?”
Assured by the interviewer that he was an actual eyewitness to the event, Mr. Anderson is pleased. “Gosh, I’d forgotten that — it is funny. But I’ll bet I sang out of tune and played like a mule.”
Mr. Anderson has just released his fourth solo album, “Rupi’s Dance,” and will be including a couple of numbers from it during tonight’s show. “It’s an intimate, acoustic collection of songs. It’s what I do when I take the day off from Jethro Tull.” The next Tull release will be a Christmas album, due out this fall, when Mr. Anderson will return to the United States and the District for a solo tour.