Todd and the Liars at the State Theatre, Portland ME

Review by Dan Styklunas (Switch to

Making the 2 hour trip to Portland after having seen the show in Boston the night before, I began to wonder if, at age 45, I was getting too old for this. Thankfully my intentions were vindicated by a show that was nearly flawless in execution, featuring Todd with his "A" voice, in a small theater that showcased the sound as it was meant to be heard.

The evening started with dinner at Norm's Bar & Grille down the street, after which we meandered by a vintage vinyl shop called Enterprise Records. The store was closed, but my brother John noticed some funky covers in the window that caught our attention. The shop owner wandered up and invited us in, saying that he had arranged to meet someone there after hours. Why not? We had an hour to kill before showtime.

Soon he tells us that it's one of the sidemen in the band playing next door at the State. Hmmm... "It's the guitar player, isn't it?" I said. He didn't know... but it turns out it was indeed Jesse Gress, who had arranged to come by after soundcheck. By then we had already been impressed by the quality of the records... in particular the soul section with LPs I had never seen by the Chambers Brothers, James Brown, and others. Tell me, what DID ever happen to the soul brother?

Soon Jesse comes in, and what does he ask for? One of my favorite obscure genres, the amateur song-poem collections that came out in the 60's and 70's, and still do today. Have you ever seen the ads in the back of magazines offering "Songs-Poems wanted, to be set to music?" It's a low grade scam, where studios record anything and everything for a fee. You can read more about them and listen to samples here:

The shop owner, like most people, had no idea what he was on about. So I try to interpret, and immediately we start discussing some of the old gems, which I won't go into here. It was great to realize that we had something else connecting us besides the Todd tour... this was a guy that I would love to just hang out with and yak about bizarre music. I asked him if it was all his fault that they opened up that tour about 8-9 years ago with a tape of Shooby Taylor, the twisted organist who would scat-sing over his own modified karaoke. "Yeah, that was me." Later I showed him what I was buying - an old Esquivel LP from 1958 with a great space-age cover: "Other Worlds, Other Sounds." "That's a great record," he says. "Ten bucks? I paid thirty for that... and the mono and stereo versions are actually different performances." I didn't stop smiling the rest of the night.

Record shopping is not something I do a lot of anymore, in these days of CDs and eBay. I'm going to have to go and set up my old turntable again. Jesse found a bunch of obscure old soundtrack records, I forget which ones. The guy is a walking encyclopedia of popular - and unpopular - recorded music. We wandered the store, pointing out obscure references, and he was well familiar with so much of it... this is a guy with a truly boundless love of music, and it shows in the books he's written and in what he plays night after night.

All right already, the show... what a show it was. Having front row seats was a good start. But after being close the night before, with irregular sound, I was concerned I may be too close. Next thing I know, Todd is standing center stage posing as the grim reaper (see picture), and the sound - hey, I can hear everything! If the Truth is not here, I don't know where else to look. For the first time in years I get to hear Todd sing complete songs without skipping a note, or mumbling a line, or screaming where he didn't have to. He had it, and reveled in it, full of passion and nuance.

The band reveled as well... relaxed but intense, just joyful. The deep but compressed punch of Kasim's bass, the killer drum sounds, and the overall mix full but not too loud, had my brother and me shaking our heads all night. I won't go into the entire set list here, but here are some random thoughts and highlights.

Bob Dylan once sang "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace." On this night it was the opposite, with Todd dressed as the grim reaper under a churchy arch - the ultimate Liar - for "Truth." For the 2nd set, the number one soul brother had on his best 50,000,000-Elvis-Fans-Can't-Be-Wrong luminous gold suit. See my posted pictures for details.

Nice to see some young people in the crowd, particularly a young girl, probably around 12, in 2nd row center with her dad. She really seemed into it, if overwhelmed at times. In Boston the night before, at least one family got turned away because of strict 18-and-over policies. If you are bringing and young ones with you to future shows, be sure to check with the venue before showing up for disappointment.

On "Born to Synthesize," when they get to the part where Todd and Jesse trade phrases, instead of a little 4-bar thing, Todd immediately rips an extended melodic improv. Jesse pauses, smiles, and says quietly, "You're amazing." Then he responds with an answer that echoes without merely copying him... he was up to it. Realizing they were unlikely to top each other (the night before they built up this bit), Todd takes a swift turn into the guardrail with a hokey "A-ruta-bay-eyay-ga, ruta-bay-eyay-ga, ruta-bay-eyay-ga, ruta-beyeeeeee." It was like admiring a beautiful house of cards, and somebody just sneezes all over it. But they started at such a high level there was nowhere else to go, apparently.

"Sweet" had me missing Laura Nyro. The shuffle and sentiment has her name all over it... surely she would be covering it if she was still with us, and with any luck Todd would produce it and sing backgrounds.

Pet peeve time... I've already said how great this night was - nearly perfect. So why is it that two nights in a row Todd can't hit the first note of the final solo for "Just One Victory?" I mean, of the thousands of notes he played all night, if I had to single out one to nail, it's that one. Still, he waits until late in the first bar, fumbling around for the note... I don't get it. But all is soon forgiven in the great climax of a wonderful night.

Another thing I would like to see - Kasim and Jesse leaving their pod stages a little more often instead of once per night, when Todd is offstage. I love the stage set, but... no, no, no, a little more humanity please. Do the "Loosen Up" indeed. But they are a band... a rock and roll band, as he's now saying in later shows. Mr. Prince makes sure of that, and he can stay right where he is thank you. Jesse and John transform the power trio an orchestra, the band going from no keys to three and back again. I do love the way the mini keyboards fold up and down for Kasim and Jesse - so economical, makes it look so easy - as long as it works, and it did both nights. A good Todd show requires a lot of variation for different arrangements and styles.

I have few complaints with the set selection. Some people don't dig the soul revue groove thing... if not, leave your expectations at the door. Todd is serious on this tour, which is a good thing - he's singing better and rocking harder. Some may have a problem with the heaviness, but it's what he does, and he does it well. There's not much goofy shtick, though he does loosen up in the 2nd set. I hope that someone recorded this one... if you're out there, please let me know. It was definitely top 5 all time for me. I left satisfied, but of course I could have used one more "Wheel" or "WWE." There's always more. This tour is so good, I'm going to have to go Albany next month. See you on the road...

Other reviews for Todd Rundgren and the Liars 2004
5/05/2004 - State Theatre (Portland, ME) - Portland, ME

Other reviews for overall Todd Rundgren and the Liars 2004

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