AMONG the carol services at St Nicholas Cathedral this week is something which might seem incongruous – an appearance by Ian Anderson, wild flautist of Jethro Tull.
Often the City Hall has throbbed to Tull’s high-volume folk-rock. But this is a cathedral. Will the stained glass take the strain?
In Newcastle to assure the Dean and Chapter that everything will be fine is the Rev George Pitcher, who also has a slight air of incongruity.
He talks with the easy charm – and occasional profanity – of the Fleet Street hack that he was. He apologises for not sporting the dog collar of the Anglican priest that he is.
One-time award-winning industrial editor of The Observer and high- profile PR man, he was ordained into the Church of England, became curate of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, the journalists’ church, and for much of 2010 was in charge of public affairs – spin doctor, some called it – for the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He still keeps his journalistic hand in, blogging, tweeting and occasionally stirring up a hornets’ nest. And here he is at the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas extolling the virtues of a celebrated rocker who doesn’t openly profess to a belief in God. Of himself, George says: “I’m an Anglican priest and a freelance journalist, but I’ve followed Jethro Tull since my school days.
“I try to avoid using the ‘f’ word, fan, because I hate it. As a good Anglican, I don’t really do fanaticism but I’ve enjoyed Ian Anderson’s music over the decades.”
One Christmas, he says, he got Greg Lake – of supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer – to come to St Bride’s and perform his evergreen 1975 hit, I Believe in Father Christmas.
“There’s a melodic break and I got Ian to come and play that on the flute. It was gobsmacking. Greg Lake and Ian Anderson!
“I said to Ian afterwards that it’d be lovely if Jethro Tull did a fundraiser. They came the following Christmas, and we then did two or three years at St Bride’s. It became a routine.”
The relationship between rocker and priest is intriguing, even if the priest has supped with Fleet Street’s finest and the rocker, as George says, “does not play to the rock ‘n’ roll image”. While not a church-going Christian, George sees qualities in the Jethro Tull frontman which suggest he is not beyond redemption.
“He’s not terribly keen on us organised Christians, but I’d say he’s a man of great spirituality.
“He’ll read from St Luke’s (gospel), we’ll have a blessing and a prayer. It’ll be ‘Ian Anderson plays the Christmas Jethro Tull’ but with some sacramental stuff in there.
“Ian doesn’t want cathedrals to be just venues, although they are venues in a way. He’s said it would be wrong to make these rock ‘n’ roll gigs so there will be Christmassy stuff.”
North East favourites Kathryn Tickell and Bob Fox will guest star, but everyone knows 90% of Jethro Tull is Ian Anderson, and he’ll be the event’s powerful presence.
George says the first St Bride’s gig brought a lot of people into church for the first time in years, including a pair of bikers. One was heard to mutter to the other: “Looks like a church.” To which the other replied: “That’s because it is a church, you idiot.”
Buoyed by its success, Ian went on to perform in Exeter and Canterbury cathedrals; then, last year, Coventry, Salisbury and Manchester. Newcastle and St Bride’s are to benefit this year.
“There isn’t a cathedral that doesn’t have an organ or a roof that needs repairing, and Ian underwrites the whole thing,” says George. “He picks up the tab and doesn’t make a penny out of it.” George, who reconnoitres each venue and persuades Church of England colleagues that a rocker’s what they want for Christmas, jokes: “I don’t know if Ian feels he’s got some ground to make up.
“Maybe he’s reached an age where he realises he’s not immortal. But at this time of year, having toured the States and Europe, he sees this is an opportunity to give a little back.”
For Jethro Tull fans, evidence of Anderson’s spirituality is there to see in the band’s breakthrough album, Aqualung, which came out in 1971 with tracks called Hymn 43 and My God. All the proceeds of Friday’s 7.30pm gig will go to the cathedral’s fabric and ministry. Tickets are £25 from The Sage Gateshead: 0191 443 4661 or www.thesagegateshead.org