Todd Rundgren and the Liars at the Fillmore, San Francisco, 9.15.04

Review by Paul Ashby (Switch to

Interesting: seats and tables filling the main floor at the Fillmore? If they took those out, it would've been about half-full.

Of course, the thing about club seating is, unless one shows up with two or four pals, one has, uh, little control over who one is sitting with.

Or, as I like to call it, Bimbo's Law: in a 2-drink minimum environment, the most obnoxious people in the club will sit at your table.

Paul's Corollary to Bimbo's Law: The more obnoxious (or, the heavier drinker, which is often the same) of the two will sit next to Paul.

Captain Obvious strode up with his pal and asked myself and my companion if these seats were taken? I was tempted- by just looking at him- to say Yes, but against my better judgment I said nah, go ahead. Who am I to condemn some guy on looks? Relax, Paul. Keep it positive, brah. He's probably a nice guy, keeps to himself, enjoys the show.

Big mistake.

He had that vaguely blank, very eager look on his face as he pulled up a chair. That and the tone of his voice- a bit too loud-- should have warned me. I thought, no, not again, NOT a replay of that Bimbo's experience last year, where the guy next to us expounded on My Theories about Beating Bay Bridge Traffic for over an hour, and then made sure we knew EVERY Rundgren quip (and god knows they were endless that night) was F*U*N*N*Y - god, no, not again, NOT THAT- what are the odds...?

Yes, they always sit next to me.

Let's call him Captain Obvious.

Captain Obvious and his pal were schooled in the fine art of live music sound reinforcement, let there be no doubt. "Mackie blah blah blah Phase Linear blah blah blah AC30 cabinets Marshall stacks blah blah blah Tapco etc etc etc, Back-in-the-80s-of-course-you-couldn't-get-taken-seriously-without-a-backline blah blah blah, ad infinitum.

And it seemed like an eternity, but I'm sure only an hour or three was taken up by preshow speculation as to what the little white pods hanging from the wire grids on the stage might be. Lighting? Monitor speakers? Suntan lamps? Motion sensors? Gee, gosh, that Todd guy, guess he's gonna surprise us tonight, huh? (*guffaw*).

My companion, sotto voce:

"What is this, My Dinner with the Editorial Board of Popular fucking Mechanics"? God bless her.

Three beers later, Rundgren and band mercifully took the stage.

Hey, I don't want to be indelicate, right off the bat, but 5 months on the road really has made an impact- I've never seen the Todd with a paunch before. He sorta has the physique of Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk in a tasteful fat suit (remember the climax of the Change For a Quarter skit?). And I'm no grand arbiter of appropriate facial hair...but the pubic patch on the chin has GOT to go.

Okay, I'm done being 'lookist'. For now.

The Fillmore has monster subwoofers under the stage. They're expensive, and the house sound guys figure they're not getting their money's worth unless the cabinets sound like 250 synchronized Honda CVCs booming jeep-beats on 11.

Yes, it takes a lot of money and experience to make a house mix sound this shitty.

We're sitting about 3/4s of the way back on the right side of the aisle- pretty much the sweet spot at the Fillmore, or close to it- and it still sounds like crap. All bass and drums. If this was Joy Division we were seeing, I could deal.

The keyboards are lost somewhere in the chest-pounding rumble, and the background vocals might as well be phoned in from across town from Bottom of the Hill. Granted, the first set's song selection is heavy on the prog-whomp bombast, but any nuance or subtlety is completely lost on this PA. A well-paced "God Said," one of my favorite songs from the new album, could've redeemed the sound guy. On record, Rundgren mixes keyboards and backing vocals better than anyone, but here, live, the tune's dynamics are rendered into a streamlined midrange blare.

"ISP" lumbers along but never completely comes together. Todd sounds ragged and he takes some liberties with the cadence of the vocals, but finally gives up and shrieks the last couple verses, seemingly blowing out his voice. He sounds as though he's getting over a recent illness, maybe, but I'm sure there's a second or third wind in there somewhere.

Problems early in the set are compounded by Jesse's intermittent hum issues: bad cord? stompbox gone south? Karma catching up with him for wearing that atrocious hat? And low-end house feedback keeps rearing its substantial head whenever Kasim goes to his bottom fifth string (which is often). During While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Jesse's guitar seems to cut out completely. Rundgren is alternately laughing and shaking his head while trying to hold the tune together. Most of the band (especially Kaz) are fiddling with their in-ear monitors and semaphoring the monitor dude stage right constantly. The feel at the beginning of the set suffers correspondingly.

The good side of all this is that Captain Obvious next to me is drowned out in the chaos. His play-by-play is lost on us. Yay.

Following a truly primal-scream rendition of "Liar"-- what's left of Rundgren's voice must surely be hanging somewhere in the rafters-- the band leaves the stage and Todd goes solo. During a could've-been-lovely version of "Beloved Infidel," the lady at the table next to us-- let's call her Miss. Blues Hammer 1986-- decides to Catch Up with her tablemate. After a couple minutes of chatter, my companion, god bless her once more, leans over and politely asks them to shut the fuck up. Well, I'm sure she put it more diplomatically. Perhaps I'm just projecting. They relent.

The band comes back on for the lounge sleaze portion of the set. I'm kinda stunned when Rundgren makes his very orange entrance, hair slicked back. He looks REALLY unhealthy now. Okay, again, years old, five months on the road...I'd feel a bit green myself. The guy's a trooper, no doubt. But the shades could be considered a public service. Take them off, and he looks like Professor Irwin Corey. Later in the set, while vamping to an extended (I'm being kind, here) "Born To Synthesize", he admits to having "a bit of an infection" and claims he's still working to strike a balance among "antibiotics, antihistamines...and the morphine patch."

This portion of the show-- fraught with many musician-centric injokes-- is at considerably lower volume, and gives Captain Obvious many opportunities to showcase his well-rehearsed guffaw (mixed with incisive play-by-play, natch). I'm tempted to rechristen him The Human Laugh Track, or maybe Bob Costas Meets Carrot Top. But I distract myself by imagining my hands around his neck, and soon all is well. I also withstand the temptation to rename "Born To Synthesize" "The Song That Wouldn't End."

Todd rewards us with a passable rendering of "Love Science", which he claims the band rarely performs. Considering the absence of three hot chick background singers and a horn section, it's not bad, but he sees fit to apologize after: "now you see why we don't do it that much." This song and "The Want of a Nail," incidentally, sends Miss Blues Hammer into a hair-whipping, hip-slinging, raise-the-roof frenzy, clearing the immediate space around her, Ghost-World style. I barely escape with my rapidly-warming chardonnay intact.

A pleasantly stream-of-consciousness intro rap to "Hello It's Me" brings the evening (almost) to a close, and after, we make our exit to get the car out of Kabuki-Garage hock. Yes, we missed "Just One Victory" (I assume). I'll play it for my companion when we get home. I also mentally commit to watching the Liars DVD-A and forcing her to read the lyrics to "Soul Brother", surely one of the best pop-culture satires of the past year (or three).

It wasn't the best of shows or the worst of shows. They've been on the road on and off since April and they're more than a little punchy. I had a bad day at work and brought it with me to the show, dammit. Shame on me. It happens. No harm, no foul (although you'd never want to be stuck next to Obvious in a standing-room-only bar, believe you me). It was good to see the new songs live. I could've gone for "Stood Up" or "The Wondering," but I'm not complaining.

Me, complaining?


Apple (free): 1
Lukewarm Chardonnay @ 5.75 a cup: 1
Chilled Chardonnay (much later) @ $5.75 a cup: 1
12 oz. Bottled water @ $3.25: 1
Kabuki Garage: $7.50
Self-conscious guffaws (priceless): lost count
BGP/SFX/Clear Channel: $60.00 (the uncontested winner and still Champion)

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9/15/2004 - Fillmore - San Francisco, CA

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