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No dull Jethro Tull

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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.

Guitarist Martin Barre, who joined Tull in 1969 in time for its career-best "Stand Up" album, also has a new solo album. Called "Stage Left," it's an instrumental work of virtuoso guitar playing that sounds more like Joe Satriani than Tull.

Mr. Anderson nearly quit the business after doing irreparable damage to his vocal chords on a long 1984 tour. "I've struggled (as a singer) ever since I first stood before a microphone. I became a singer only because the other guys in the band were even worse than I was. I still have the ability to articulate simple melodies and some emotion through what I sing, but I'm not a singer in a classic rock 'n' roll mold," he says.

One reason Tull can still sell out 6,000-seat venues when many other acts of its era are plying their trade before 200 people in clubs is that Mr. Anderson pays just as much attention to the business side of the industry. Everything from personally overseeing Tull's current CD reissue program to going all out to deal with the press and radio.

"Some of my peers are not so good at recognizing there is stuff you have to do if you are going to be part of the team. It's not just about walking onstage, playing for an hour and a half, then walking back to your hotel with a couple of bimbos," he says.

Classic rock radio is well-known for its perverse refusal to play anything new by classic rock bands. So Mr. Anderson visits each classic rock station along the way to perform a couple of tracks from his newest album.

"When we're done, I'll give the DJ a copy of the CD, and as I go out the door, they are probably tossing it in the bin. But at least we get a couple of plays."

On this trip to the District, Mr. Anderson says he plans to drop by the XM satellite radio studio to play live. He hopes the XM concept works and salutes the backers for pouring countless millions of dollars into an effort to bring new vitality to radio. "If it fails, it's still been a very brave try, and I say good to them for building their Starship Enterprise radio space station."

Along with many of the other classic British rock bands, Jethro Tull has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But Mr. Anderson says it doesn't concern him, other than the consternation it causes the band's fans.

"The hall is in Cleveland, Ohio -- heartland America -- and so it should be about American heroes. Jethro Tull is not an American hero -- we're not even really a rock 'n 'roll hero. We're kind of out there on the periphery of rock music." He supports the idea of a British or European rock hall of fame.

The band isn't gun-shy about playing before unorthodox crowds. This tour includes a stop at Sturgis, S.D., to play for a biker rally that Mr. Anderson says annually draws 10,000 to 20,000 hell-raising Harley lovers.

Tull will be coming on right after Steppenwolf, so Mr. Anderson -- in full Monty Python mode -- says he's contemplating resurrecting one of his old "Minstrel in the Gallery"-era costumes of tights and a codpiece and going onstage with his mandolin to perform a medieval, acoustic version of "Born to Be Wild."

"We'll see if the bikers have a sense of humor."

If not? Just remember, Ian, measured, authoritative tones.

WHAT: Jethro Tull

WHERE: Wolf Trap

WHEN: Tonight at 8

TICKETS: In-house $34, lawn $22

PHONE: Tickets can be purchased by calling 703/218-6500 or visiting www.wolftrap.org.

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