There's this question about who is the lesser known: Todd Rundgren or Joe Jackson. Saturday night's performance at the Rams Head Live on the Inner Harbor in Baltimore reveals the bigger mystery: How can two such talented and prolific musicians remain invisible? By evening's end, I can only conclude is has to do with enchantment.
This being my initiation to Joe live and my thirty-somethingth Todd show leaves me at a disadvantage for perspective on either of these two odd fellows. I post my impressions and leave the objective judgments to others. Overall I encourage people to partake and to welcome friends who may want to know more about TR and/or Joe. Consider yourselves fortunate to have only seated venue options from here out on the tour. They both play the hits, are musically compatible, and the added element of strings makes it new. Here comes my experience from start to finish of my encounter with the over grown elf that is Joe Jackson, and the wizard I am always compelled to engage.
Backdrop to this entirely pleasant, and borderline inspiring gig, is my riding companion, Steve. He's a new Todd friend found via last year's tribute to TR who's claim to fame, so-to-speak, is being a former Gargoyle for Bebe Buell. So the prequel to the great show is 3 or more hours of up-close and personal quips on Todd's former Playboy Centerfold girlfriend (another story). We arrive in town in ample time (finding nearby parking for only 5 bucks!) to case the joint, get a little soaked by light rain that chased the beer crowd away from the next door Power Plant Live, and witness an apparent arrest at Lucille's, an adjacent bar. Best thing so far: we see from about 25 paces this tall, lanky chap with a body guard exit a door and retrieve something from the very large tour bus parked immediately to the rear of the venue. "Is that… ?" I'm saying, and before I can finish, "No doubt" says Steve. "I didn't think he was that tall." This becomes an item for discussion throughout the evening. Is he an elf? A walking Pez dispenser? Something magical, at any rate we suspect. Now we know exactly were to be when the music stops.
After we finish admiring the talent of our bartended (and observing that we may have been the only two people in the building alive before 1980), we figure it's time to get in line. With general admission, you get in early to stake your claim. Our outlook: you can always vacate front center later if you want, but you have to be soft and pretty to wind your way up there later. We're closer to the entrance door than we thought and easily mark territory right in front of the piano on stage, remarking as we view the interior how well laid out the place is for a night club. Somebody spent a lot of money on this.
Balconies completely envelop the lower level which has at least two bars. Flat panels abound, fed by cameras placed up high. The lighting and sound system seem impressive, and the decorations are thoughtful, modern, casual. Seating is very sparse, but about a hundred or so can view from movie-theatre style rows in the back top. A third tier is reserved for big money corporate types. We fantasize that Elvis Costello (who appears here Sunday) is up there. There's a platform at the lip of center stage obviously set for the opening string act. Steve sets up camp, elbows on stage. I decide to roam.
Pre-show cruising scores contact with Mindy and Jane sporting TR30 apparel so we chat a while about who heard what about the tour. I learn with disappointment that Michele Rundgren's comedy tour wasn't what she hoped. I first met Mindy last year when she promoted for Todd's misses during the LIARS tour. Jane's going to Philly Sunday where the senior Mrs. Rundgren will be in attendance. I turn green and continue to walk about. There were a few other Joe and/or Todd t-shirt wearers, but for the most part this middle-aged even mix of men and women are dressed a level up. I feel a little out of place in jeans, but not conspicuously so.
Deb S. is there (no surprise) and I salivate at her news of great seats for Tuesday's Warner Theatre appearance (it's a school night. Rats!). Now just a half hour until show time and I'm already anticipating the agony of the feet realizing my butt's not going to find a cushion until we're back in the car. Knowing what I do now, I envy everyone who will get to see these charmers in the proper setting with comfy chairs and no constant chatter. Later in the night I remark to Deb how I wish the strange looking piano player would pipe down so I could hear the fascinating conversation of the people behind us better. She laughs, "Yeah, you can talk for free, so why pay to do it here?"
The most welcome sight (besides TR's entrance about two hours hence) is Lisa H. (formerly C.), a fan friend dating back to the days before my fall from grace. A happy smile and a warm hug confirms what I already understand: the people I see at the shows are what make the experiences most meaningful these days. If Todd plays well, or I get a goose bump or two, that's a bonus. One day I'm going to accept her invitation to a cookout.
I decide to take the first portion of the entertainment from the left balcony as the lights go down and Ethel take their positions. There's not much I have to say for it except they are obviously accomplished, very enthusiastic players; especially the blonde woman whose hair flails about as if she is being throttled. This is not your father's chamber music! It occurs to me that they should do something from Cosmic Fire, at least in part. But this is no complaint. After 5 or 6 numbers they take their leave to the very appreciative applause and shouts from the animated sold-out crowd. Got to be over a thousand people in the place, I figure. They watch with me as the platform Ehtel used is pushed to stage right (or is it left? Farther away from me anyway.)
Fleeting moments later the first of the two lanky gentlemen we have all come to see unceremoniously enters just below me and takes a seat at the piano. On the trip up I recognized more songs of his Best Of CD than I realized is knew. There is no speck of disappointment either from the lack of songs I desired to hear or from potential unfamiliarity of those new to my ears. Most impressive to me is this musician's control of the keyboard, vocals, and ability to carry off his usually highly orchestrated tunes in this simple "unplugged" and individual format. STEPPING OUT is absolutely captivating from my vantage point as I see his hands maintain the driving bass rhythm and higher accompaniment while simultaneously singing without flaw. Even with the low audio which could have been much better directed toward the upper level, I'm truly impressed with this man. His stylish long-tailed top coat was the perfect attire as he traversed his ample library of sound and included a stunning rendition of Lennon's GIRL. (More Fab Four later!)
At one point, he's playing only bass notes and singing a tune. Still, he commands attention and entertains. His banter between pieces is limited, stopping only once or twice between playing to announce an as-yet unrecorded new song, or make a slight apology for having to translate material without back up. "It could be worse," he says before he plays another well known tune, "It could be just the drummer up here."
Best moment of his part (and second best for the night) was his closing encore, IS SHE REALLY GOING OUT WITH HIM. The audience, which demanded his return, is well prepared to respond, "Where?" on cue, and does so with such acclaim that Joe is nearly knocked off his bench. He manages somehow to keep playing in time, but misses the next lyric while he composes himself. I'm clapping and smiling wide. Next comes the part where he repeats the interloping piano part and the crowd is inspired to put our hands together. Joe praises how well we are keeping time and proceeds to f#ck with us by purposefully by doing these staccato, intermittent, off-beat chops. But the crowd is staying with it and he works so hard at trying to make us miss that he has to stop due to his uncontrollable laughter. "Rule number one," he says holding up a finger. Then he says something witty I can't understand, but everyone laughs as he finishes with the rousing chorus one more time. The cheers are loud and long. That was worth the price of admission, and I haven't even seen our hero yet.
[End of Part One]
An Elf & a Wizard/True Stars: Part II of II
We pick up the action at the Rams Head Live at the intermission between sets. Joe Jackson has hit it out of the park. Now all I need is for Mr. Rundgren to not screw up and I’m out on a high. After observing from above for the first half and seeing fans like the afore-mentioned Lisa enjoying the show on the ground level, I decide to change locations. Touring the venue I come to appreciate how large it is, and how well packed! There is virtually no means to determine which are Todd fans and which are Joe fans, at least for the moment. The bars are ample, one result of which becomes evident a few songs into Todd’s set. Yellow-shirted SECURITY people guard the steps to the precious third deck. None of the silhouettes up there look remotely like Mr. Costello.
No sign of other people I’m trying to locate, like Eric L, or other Baltimore fans I know, either. I wonder if any ghosts will appear to no avail. There is walking room only near the very back. I settle in on a step next to the sound board. Hey, if the techs can’t hear what’s playing well, who can? I have a perfect view of the full, sparse set over the heads of those up front.
Down go the lights, and with no fan fare the main attraction (as far as I am concerned) saunters out, picks up the familiar black Takamine and wails out LYSISTRATA. The now characteristic “lean-back and belt out” covers the high notes satisfactorily. The sound is much improved from this POV. However, the chatter is not spared. Failing any desire to hear about the band belonging to the group next to me (and wondering why this is the time or place to having a discussion at all), I move forward and down to the back of the main floor crowd. Sound is still good and TR is tuning in well with I DON’T WANT TO TIE YOU DOWN. I’m amazed at the processing of the acoustic into electric for BLACK & WHITE. Some joker behind me begins the first of what seems like an eternity of cat calls for reasons completely unbeknownst to everyone.
After a few well-performed and sung piano songs (including DREAM which is quite nice), the drunk in back laments “Not that again. Where’s the band. Stop! Stop”. I and the people in proximity look daggers. A song later the trouble maker resorts to “Where’s Joe?” and “You suck”. I’m starting to scope out those yellow shirts to request a bodily removal when an angel disguised as a short, stocky fellow of Mexican descent turns and speaks up. “Why don’t you shut the f#ck up, @sshole. You don’t hear anyone else coming on. I didn’t pay to come here to listen to you.” A girl next to me adds, “You can leave if you don’t like it.” Between that and the crowd pleasing YOU’VE GOT TO HIDE YOUR LOVE AWAY, when I looked again the pimple in the audience was gone and we are free to appreciate the rest of the night. My only distraction now the obviously loving-it brunette swaying and bouncing and cavorting with her boyfriend directly in front of me. I guess my legs can handle standing up for the duration.
Todd hits everything right for the balance of his solo time. To my surprise, I’m actually feeling it pretty well despite having witnessed it all before (except for AFTERLIFE). His commentary is not lengthy, but as always biting and humorous. He dedicated one song to the new Pope and observed how our society transitions so instantaneously from the Peterson trial to the Papal proceedings. Unaffected performance-wise, it would seem, by the chatter noise, he did a smarmy, nasal-intoned Billy Joel impression, “Sing me a song you’re the piano man. The microphone smells like a beer… Oh wait. It’s MY beer”. I guess he can hear it too. He finishes the set with ONE WORLD. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
There will be no settling the onlookers without more. Comes the best part, of which I wish there was much, much more: everybody on stage. PRETENDING TO CARE hits me in the heart, especially as I recall the circumstance of my first exposure to the song. I got it on tape a year before A CAPPELLA was officially released. I promptly had my life altered in the most undesirable way by the person who gave it to me whom I thought I loved and could trust. She’s one of the ghosts I thought I might cross paths with this very day. The only ghost I encounter is my own reflection as I realize it has been precisely 20 years since all that sh!t went down. I declare to myself that it is more than time to let it go once and for all. (Little did I know what awaited me just a few ticks of the clock ahead.)
Ethel-powered TR & Joe kick out with WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS and BLACK MARIA. That yellow-haired cello nymph has that instrument so tight and is stroking it so hard I can’t believe she’s not having a musical orgasm. The others are giving all they have into the parts which are normally guitar leads. I suspect had TR’s green ax been mixed right and they tooled it so he would have struck a single note, the front row would have likely combusted. It was slightly like having a tofu-burger: looks like meat, tastes mostly like meat, but it ain’t meat! That said, the trio of songs still capped the night quite well, and left me longing to hear more of that combination.
The music is most definitely alive despite its age, and the folding in of three Beatles songs with the advantage of string accompaniment pushes this experience up in the ranks of enjoyment and uniqueness. I hook back up with Steve, and, after introducing him to Lisa, we chat about Liv and Bebe. One last hug and we head to the bus to await audience with the man.
It’s cold out back and I regret my decision to not carry a jacket, but our wait is relatively short and TR does not disappoint. Joe comes out first and walks through the applause of the small group of hangers-on smiling and waiving. It is the last we see of the larger-than-life elf. Todd comes through moments later promising to return as he disappears into the bus. In a blink, he’s back and autographs a thing or two while answering some questions before Steve gets a pic signed for his son. Despite cautioning me not to mention the Gargoyles, he cannot resist the urge to point out his former affiliation. “I once told you I was in Bebe’s band and you said, ‘blech’.” Todd (knowing full well what he meant) repsonds, “Bebe King?” “No, Bebe Buel,” says Steve. “No wonder I went [makes a face],” quips TR (d@mn that slow camera shutter!). “Better to not have been in the music business at all.” OUCH! Steve takes it in stride.
Now it’s my turn and I step up. He instantly comments on my shirt and I give him the one I brought for him. Without hesitation he prompts for a picture, grabbing me by the shoulder and holding it up. Steve pops a good one and then I identify myself more plainly reminding him the Redux design. The light bulb goes off and he says “Now I have a Bill Bricker original.” Pardon my joyous grin! He continues to sign other things for people as he delivers the news, “You know, Merf is starting up the Nexus again.” I don’t know if I’m more shocked at the news or that the mention of the “N” word has not melted my brain. “Are you just saying that to see if I wince?” I laugh. “No, it’s all in the works, she has this whole proposal and everything.” “More power to her” is all I can think to say. (Later I think of a hundred other suitable retorts.) Still, it pleases me that he knows me at all, and the truth is, without the Nexus, I would never had had the chance to submit art for the Utopia tour. Moving on feels pretty good.
Having accomplished our missions, we leave TR to the remaining small crowd and head home happy. I can only imagine the show getting better as they continue around the globe. No one who attends should have anything to regret. In fact, I’m quite convinced that anyone who does will have been in the presence of some magical beings.