The Magical, Versatile Mandolin

I like a variety of instrumentation in my music.  In addition to the usual guitar, bass, and drums, I’m quite fond of a variety of keyboards, enjoy orchestral arrangements added where appropriate, and on occasion, woodwinds and brass.  One of my favorite “unconventional” instruments is the mandolin.

However, the impetus for this piece is not itself the fact that I like the mandolin.  Rather, somewhere back in time I remember someone (I can’t remember exactly who) telling me the mandolin wasn’t a versatile instrument.  I balked at this assertion then, and I still do now.  Having a forum as I do here at Progarchy, I’m now going to debunk that assertion, using different pieces to demonstrate the versatility of this wonderful instrument.  While each of these songs feature the mandolin to one degree or another, by the time you have progressed from the beginning to the end of the list, you will have encountered several different musical styles that are markedly different from one another.  Despite that, I will have barely scratched the surface of the mandolin’s versatility.

So, let’s get to the list.

 Ian Anderson, Water Carrier

This song appears on Ian Anderson’s solo album ‘The Secret Language of Birds’.  As many know, Anderson’s main band, Jethro Tull, features the mandolin prominently on a number of songs (‘Fat Man’ is one of my favorites in that category).  This song features an uptempo mandolin front and center from start to finish.  Underneath though are some very prominent Middle Eastern motifs – not exactly the kind of music you initially think of when you think of the mandolin.  And yet, here it is, integrated perfectly.

 Led Zeppelin, The Battle of Evermore

This is one of two songs on Led Zeppelin IV featuring the mandolin (‘Going to California’ is the other).  Like our previous entry, this song has a somewhat mystical feel to it.  However, instead of the Middle Eastern influences, this piece is more folk-inspired.  Throw in Sandy Denny’s vocals, some Tolkein-esque lyrics, and you’ve got yourself a great song.

 Heart, Sylvan Song/Dream of the Archer

There are a number of songs by Heart that I like, but these two (or this one, depending on how you look at it) are by far my favorite.  This is basically one song divided into two parts each having its own title.  The first part is instrumental, the second part includes Ann Wilson’s incredible vocals.  This song remains somewhat within the realm of folk music as the previous entry, but has more of a “renaissance” feel to it, right down to the sounds of the forest at the beginning before the mandolin quietly makes its entry.  It’s quite different from our first two pieces on the list, and yet it’s probably not a stretch to say that it was influenced by ‘The Battle of Evermore’ … as witnessed by Heart’s performance of the same here.

 Drive-By Truckers, Bulldozers and Dirt

Now we make a big, big shift.  Geographically, we’re moving from the Pacific Northwest where Heart originated down to Northern Alabama, from where the Truckers originally hailed.  Genre-wise, some people call this band southern rock, others call it alt-country, and still others call it Americana.  Whatever you call it, it’s a great song.  Steel guitar appearing later in the song gives it a bit of a country feel, but the mandolin remains the dominant instrument.  The strong ties to its geographic region are evident throughout, as is the bright, upbeat tone.  From their album entitled ‘Pizza Deliverance’ (one of my favorite album titles of all time), this mandolin-driven song about what amounts to an overgrown kid that likes to play in the dirt is a gem.

 Black Oak Arkansas, Digging For Gold

Now we move from Alabama to Arkansas, and there isn’t much debate about whether or not Black Oak Arkansas or their music falls under the umbrella of Southern Rock.  The song begins with a chirping bird, an acoustic guitar, and a barking dog before Jim Dandy’s raspy voice makes an entry.  The mandolin enters at about the 0:51 mark and is persistent through the remainder of the song.  As a bit of unrelated trivia, lead vocalist Jim Dandy, he of the long, blonde locks and flamboyant presence was alleged to be the inspiration for the stage persona of David Lee Roth.  Watch any live video of these guys from the 70’s, and you’ll believe it.

 Led Zeppelin, Boogie with Stu

Now we’re taking another significant shift in musical style – from Southern rock to the blues.  Here Led Zeppelin brings us one of two blues songs from Physical Graffiti that utilize the mandolin, the other being Black Country Woman.  The mandolin is more persistent in the latter than in the song posted here (it doesn’t enter the picture until the 2:38 mark).  That’s beside the point though – in both cases, the mandolin – an instrument invented in Italy of all places – is being featured in blues songs, and fitting in as seamlessly as a harmonica.

 Arjen Anthony Luccassen, When I’m A Hundred Sixty Four

We started this list with one of the giants of the classical period of progressive rock, now we’ll end it with one of the giants of prog’s current renaissance.  Luccassen here gives us a nice little romp that includes the mandolin and acoustic guitar with some strong Celtic influences adding extra flavor.  This is a great song, possibly my favorite off of this album, ‘Lost in the New Real’, which is chock full of great songs.   And speaking of great songs, Luccassen pays homage to another song on this list by doing an excellent remake of ‘The Battle of Evermore’, which you can listen to here if you are so inclined.

So let’s recap the list a little bit here.  We started with music that had some strong Middle Eastern influences, moved to a couple of different folk songs, then took a journey down South with some Americana/Alt-Country/Southern rock, moved onto some blues, and finally to some full-blown progressive rock.  Quite a variety, and as I said predicted above, I’ve barely scratched the surface of different musical styles into which the mandolin can be easily integrated.  So does anyone still want to tell me that the mandolin is not a versatile instrument?  I didn’t think so … 🙂

Fox News Interviews Ian Anderson

I came across this interesting interview of Ian Anderson by Fox News. In it he talks about deciding to play the flute instead of the guitar, Thick as a Brick, Thick as a Brick 2, his current tour, and his next album. Enjoy.

Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die


For my first foray into Progarchy, I would like to talk about the prog god of the year, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, who thankfully is not too old to rock and roll and is definitely too young to die. More specifically, I would like to talk about Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick 1 & 2 tour, which I saw at Ravinia, in Highland Park, Illinois, in July of this year. This concert was simply amazing. From the first notes of Thick as a Brick to the final bow, Ian Anderson and co. never cease to amaze. They do not bill themselves as Jethro Tull because Martin Barre is currently not a part of the band. Instead, Florian Opahle fills in as a more than capable guitarist. In fact, every musician in the band is excellent. The lineup is Ian Anderson on flute, acoustic guitar, and vocals, David Goodier on bass, John O’Hara on keyboards and accordion (yes! accordion), Florian Opahle on guitar, Scott Hammond on drums, and Ryan O’Donnell on vocals and stage antics. The latter is an excellent move on Ian Anderson’s part, as O’Donnell can reach the high notes that Anderson can no longer reach. He also has a remarkably similar voice to Ian Anderson of the ’70s, but never fear, for Ian Anderson still does the majority of the singing.

For the concert itself, the band plays Thick as a Brick 1 & 2 in their entirety, as well as Locomotive Breath as an encore. Ian Anderson’s ability to play the flute is unequaled, and he has only gotten better with age. Ian Anderson’s voice has changed considerably over the years, but he still sounds good. Thick as a Brick 2, however, sounds better in concert than it does on the album. I can only attribute that to the fact that the band has been touring for over a year, and knows the music to a tee. Ian Anderson’s flute playing draws the viewer into the concert and captivates their full attention. Thematically, Thick as a Brick 2 makes the listener ponder what life might have been like if they had made different decisions in life, all through relaying several possible career choices for our beloved Gerald Bostock. The final song of the concert, Locomotive Breath, brings the audience to its feet in a finale worthy of Jethro Tull. Throughout the concert, Ian Anderson proves that the music of Jethro Tull really does stand the test of time and that he will never be too old to rock and roll.

For tour dates, click here:

To read about Ian Anderson’s 2013 award, click here:

This Was Blodwyn Pig

There are gateway albums, records that lead to others, elaborations that must be followed until time or economics interrupts.  I could name dozens of them that functioned like this for me over the years.  Aided and abetted in the Web-less years by the Rolling Stone Record Guides (mainstream rock/punk/singer-songwriter), the Trouser Press Record Guides (alternative and indie), and Pete Frame’s monumental Rock Family Trees,

Rock Family Tree for Tull, Blodwyn Pig,  et al.

I would often spare no effort in tracking down an LP or CD I was interested in, IF the gateway record that connected me to it spoke to me in tongues, the way such records should.  So Syd Barrett’s Madcap Laughs would eventually lead me to the Television Personalities’ Chocolat Art and the Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight, Julian Cope’s Peggy Suicide and his contribution to a Roky Erickson tribute would lead me to the Thirteen Floor Elevators and on to Thin White Rope, and Rainbow led me back to Deep Purple and forward to Dio.  If I were to name one album, though, that really blew the doors off, it would be a greatest hits compilation, and not a great one at that:  M.U., The Best of Jethro Tull.  While Jethro Tull is often lauded for its prog side, which is substantial, M.U.was my introduction to Tull’s sympathy for folk music, opening for me the British folk revival by making me care to know about the use of traditional folk song forms in modern music.  By leading me to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, with whom Tull had some connection, particularly later in the 1970s, Jethro Tull created trails for me to follow that are seemingly endless and that I’m still following thirty years later.  That’s not the end of it.  Jethro Tull also took me on the short, worthwhile journey to Blodwyn Pig.

But first there was “Aqualung.”

Two significant things happened to me in 1982.  My family moved back to Texas, after a 10-year absence.  I was 15 and completely lost, having spent the decade and my impressionable childhood growing increasingly fond of my Rocky Mountain home of Salt Lake City.  As important, I also discovered Jethro Tull, via the now (less so then) classic rock perennial “Aqualung.”  To my young ears it sounded like nothing else on the radio — it still doesn’t, come to think of it — and I spent probably a couple of months trying to figure out who the band was that could conjure such riffs, dynamics, and lyrical weirdness.  At that time the song was a little over a decade old, which is not much more than one rock generation (consider that we’re over two decades removed from Nirvana’s Nevermind, and that lends some perspective).  And it was well-known enough, of course, that FM djs didn’t feel compelled to announce it.  So who was this band, and how could I find out? Pre-internet this was a challenge, you know? Particularly in a new town, with no friends, no car, and a sister whose idea of rock was the Flying Lizards’ remake of “Money.”  I may have finally resorted to going into one of Ft. Worth’s vast record stores — Peaches or Sound Warehouse — and singing the first line to one of the clerks.  I can’t remember how, but I got ahold of M.U. The Best of Jethro Tull, and spun it endlessly (although it still sits on my record shelf and is quite playable — viva La Vinyl!).  In fairly short order I bought Tull’s first four LPs, and to this day I think them the single strongest, consistently interesting run of albums produced by any of the “classic rock” bands (I’m arguing this in my head — maybe Zeppelin matched it — also, while I like their fifth album, Thick as a Brick, it saw Tull make a major departure into its second phase).  The fourth record, Aqualung, is the capstone of the band’s first phase, an unintentional concept album that hangs together because of the wholeness of its sound and approach.  For my taste, this is the perfectly produced rock record, big but not slick.  Its feel is its concept, there is a rustic electricity to it, a Hendrixian Elizabethanism, with the down-and-out character of Aqualung rattling his last locomotive breath.

Glenn Cornick, Ian Anderson, Clive Bunker, and Mick Abrahams in Jethro Tull’s This Was lineup.

The same could be said, to a lesser degree, of each of the previous three albums, which were bluesier, jazzier, and indebted as much to the initial influence of guitarist and singer Mick Abrahams as to flautist/guitarist and singer Ian Anderson.  While Anderson became Tull’s guiding spirit and remains so to this day, Abrahams only hung around for This Was, an engagingly odd, loose take on the British blues boom defined in large part by Abrahams’ “Move on Alone” and his take on “Cat’s Squirrel.”  That his replacement, the wonderful Martin Barre, took the next two records to shrug off Abrahams’ influence on the band and find his sound, while still producing great music, is a testament to both Abrahams and the strength of Tull as a band during its 1968-1971 period.

Why Abrahams left has always been chalked up to a disagreement with Anderson over the direction of the band, but this direction didn’t change significantly on Tull’s Stand Up or Benefit, at least to my ears (as others point out, folk themes and progressive structures were increasingly adopted, but slowly).  Abrahams, I think, saw his chance to be sole band leader following the success of This Was, and took it.  He formed Blodwyn Pig, and produced 1969’s Ahead Rings Out and 1970’s Getting To This, both minor classics that are the equal of Tull’s first two albums.  In the catalog of sadly overlooked records, they are also prime examples of what happens to albums by musicians who leave their hugely successful bands after one record, thinking they were the prime movers.  Whatever was in Ian Anderson’s tea, he gave Tull the hits that eluded a solo Abrahams, despite Blodwyn Pig’s moderate success in England and America.  But Blodwyn Pig and Abrahams cannot be denied what they achieved apart from Tull.

Cover of Ahead Rings Out, in all its, um, glory.

Ahead Rings Out begins with the jump’n’jive of “It’s Only Love,” a horn-inflected piece of dance blues straight out of B.B. King.  Right away it is apparent that, while he stamped Jethro Tull’s first record with his playing and singing, in Blodwyn Pig Abrahams is going for a fuller sound, and up against the other comparable British blues rock guitarists/vocalists/bandleaders of the period — Eric Clapton, Peter Green, et al. — Abrahams holds his own.  Reed man Jack Lancaster, meanwhile, creates his own horn section (he’s pictured on the inside cover playing soprano and tenor simultaneously), which he elaborates on more elegantly in the slow blues “Dear Jill,” again featuring thoughtful, tasteful soloing by Abrahams and a heavy bottom from bassist Andy Pyle.  “Walk on the Water” could be off of Tull’s Stand Up, and continues the rock and brass.  Jack Lancaster’s work gives Ahead Rings Out its signature, and to my ears creates, in some fashion, the template for Gong’s admirable Radio Gnome trilogy, minus the ambient stoner bits (“What’s left after the ambient stoner bits?” you could justifiably ask).  That Abrahams could create Blodwyn Pig and open up space for Lancaster, where Ian Anderson’s flute would have played this role in Tull, is a testament to Abrahams’ care for the sanctity of the song — whatever ego drove him from Tull is not driving this record.  It isn’t just the Mick Abrahams’ show.

“See My Way” is the album’s center, its Bolero break a nod to other blues rock albums of the period, for what self-respecting band didn’t riff on that chestnut at the time? The balance of the record is a sampler of British country blues and jazz of the period, strongly reminiscent of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, with pastoral acoustic slide pieces like “Change Song” paired with riff rockers like “Summer Day.”  Again, though, Lancaster’s layered sax work sets the album apart, driving, charging, soloing.  It’s a voice that was often lost in rock bands evolving out of the British jazz/blues scene, and it’s agile use here is in welcome contrast to strictly guitar-centric albums of the period.

Blodwyn Pig: Jack Lancaster (sax), Mick Abrahams, Ron Berg (drums), and Andy Pyle (bass)

It becomes clear on Getting to This, which is a respectable second effort, that while the sound has gotten heavier, Abrahams has perhaps run out of ideas.  The album opens strong, with “Drive Me,” and throughout offers the same guitar-and-horn driven rock that made Ahead Rings Out so satisfying.  But…the soaring, Tull-ish “Variations on Nainos” is spoiled in its final moments by a joke-ishly gargled vocal — I appreciate a sense of humor, but why bring it to such a gem of a song —   “See My Way” is inexplicably included again, and Abrahams revisits his signature take on “Cat’s Squirrel” with “The Squirreling Must Go On,” which is expertly wrought and totally unnecessary.  Nonetheless, I think Getting to This can be considered of a piece with Ahead Rings Out, and even if Abrahams betrays an over-fondness for the template he hammered out with Tull on This Was, there is no denying the strength of the blueprint.

Abrahams has soldiered on through the years, recording off and on, reviving Blodwyn Pig here and there, and even re-recording the entirety of Tull’s This Was.  Living in the Past indeed.  Yet it’s hard to argue with such spirit, and, having the opportunity to see Abrahams play in a London pub in 1991, I can say that it appeared the man was having a good time.  He also enjoys what seems to be an amiable relationship with his old bandmates in Jethro Tull, a group he defined before moving on alone.

On the band’s website, he is profiled with a warm, respectful humor: “Mick was born in Luton, England, on the 7th April, 1943, which was a very long time ago. There was a war still going on at the time, which may explain why Mick can be a cantankerous old git and a right, proper and loyal gent at one and the same time…. Mick is now very, very old — even older than Martin Barre — and likely to out-live all of them.”