Over the years, Todd has done the one-man-band thing often and intermittently, many times touring between band tours and projects. Sometimes he includes some computer-assisted selections, which I generally refer to as Karaoke (such as MP3 bossa nova accompaniment to “Wit a Twist” renditions.) Over time, the solo repertoire seemed to stagnate, and to be honest, Todd seemed less and less prepared for these shows; realistically, playing by yourself does not require rehearsal like playing with a band does.
Over the years I’ve probably seen the one-man show about 50 times. Last night I saw the best one I’ve seen since 1982. It was a smoker, and it totally restored my faith in… well, faith.
The string quartet Ethel opened the show; I was pleased to note that Mary Rowell, who I know from her fine work with the Silos, was in the group. They opened with a very modern-sounding, dramatic piece that was reminiscent of Phillip Glass; the strings creating shapes, repetitions and textures. Toward the end they moved through a section that brought me back to my youth and the film Fantasia; I half expected to see colors and shapes begin dancing across the stage. (And no, in case you are wondering, no drugs.) Next a song called “Memory,” then a piece that was an homage to Indian music; a string raga, if you will. Then some Nordic country music; a fiddle tune by the Finnish band JPP. They did a piece I think was called “Spectral,” then a shuffle that they said was from the promo spots for HBO’s Deadwood. The latter tune delved for a spell into the blues. Overall, a beautiful, elegant performance, music that sounded like it was spun from glass, that evoked classical, country, Hendrix, and world music, all with the same taut, flawless ensemble playing. Ethel is now my favorite string quartet; although to be fair, I do not have a second favorite one.
After a pause so brief the lights did not come on, a dapper Joe Jackson walks out and greets us. I have not followed his career closely enough to fake my way through a set list, so I won’t try. He played the hits—“Stepping Out,” “Different For Girls,” “Is She Really Going Out With Him” (but not “Funny Papers.”) I couldn’t help but think of Elvis Costello; both came on like punks when they first hit the scene, but over time each has been revealed to have more in common with Bacharach than Rotten. Jackson’s piano playing was commanding; his voice was full and nimble, especially as he reached for the higher registers. He played at least three off the recent Volume Four album. And when he offered a few verses of a 1913 music hall song (which he performs in an upcoming Disney film), I was struck by how good a pairing Jackson is with Todd, who might well bust out a music hall number of his own.
On the favorite, “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” on the part where Jackson sings, “Look over there,” the entire house sang the rejoinder line, “Where?” I’d have thought this happened at every stop, but maybe it was especially forceful in Manhattan; the response made him laugh so hard—twice—that he lost his place.
Jackson was charming, funny, articulate, and oh so British. He joked about starting his career in dive piano bars—and probably ending up there. It seemed like most of the crowd was there to see him; they were not disappointed, and he was rewarded his fine set with a standing ovation.
First, get a load of Todd’s set list:
Love of the Common Man Tiny Demons Black and White Afterlife Song of the Viking Hello It’s Me Hawking Bang the Uke You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away Beloved Infidel LysistrataThe encores, pretty much as they’ve been all tour:
Other Me (Joe and Ethel) Pretending to Care (Todd and Ethel; Joe at piano but I don’t think he was playing) While My Guitar Gently Weeps (all) Black Maria (all)***
Todd looks rock star cool as he ambles out—lean, lanky, in shades and a shiny, mostly gold sports jacket. He straps on an acoustic guitar and dives immediately into a powerful version of “Love of the Common Man.” Now, I’ve heard him play this, I don’t know, 60 times? But it is a quintessential song and one I never tire of; he delivered it flawlessly, with soul and passion, filling the room with his voice. It was an auspicious beginning.
Next Todd spelled out the arpeggio notes to “Tiny Demons,” a beautiful, haunting rendition, with a very acoustic, organic sound on guitar and just the tiniest hint of reverb to create the song’s haunting effect. Then he paused to address the house. “Some people come to New York,” he said, “and they want to play their most perfect show. But I think you deserve more. I think you deserve my most loopy show.” There is a momentary shudder; but not to worry, he’s a step ahead of you as he goes on. “Now, there’s a thin line between loopy and sloppy, but I don’t intend to cross it.” Then, in an obvious reference to the recent Internet controversy, he adds, “And I’m sure if I do, you’ll let me know.”
There was never any danger of crossing it. He never even got near it.
Still on acoustic, he launches into “Black and White,” one of his most biting, psychedelic, electric songs, and one he seldom plays in this setting. But he had his effects set to create an electric, muddy sound, all fuzzed up but with the restraint one might associate with an acoustic instrument; with just voice, guitar, and effects he managed to recreate the mood and vibe of the song. This was probably his most searing guitar piece of the evening, vamping on the chords to lay down the boogie, switching to leads to scratch out the frenetic solo parts, all without missing a beat. Oh yeah, note to self: Todd Rundgren can make magic with a guitar in his hands.
Only us diehards recognize the opening chords of “Afterlife” as they wash over us. It is a fine addition to the solo canon. Todd plays a rich chorded groove underneath the lyric; the bridge is somewhat dissonant, owing to absence of other instruments and the nature of the melody line, but it is effective, creating tension that resolves in the return to the verse and chorus, and the song is a haunting, moving meditation on mortality.
Yeah, he’s a whiz on guitar, but the piano, of course, is another story, and he makes no bones about it. He begins to get chatty, finally observing that the Beacon has rigid time constraints, so “If you play your cards right, I’ll minimize my time at the piano.” Finally he faces up to his fears and sits at the keyboard, spilling his water; then moving into “Viking Song.” There was a flub on the intro, which he attributed to the water spill; but it was the only real misstep of the night, and he made it a non-issue.
Next he snuck into “Hello It’s Me,” and with some vocal improvisation managed to make this 38-year-old song sound fresh and new. That he manages to find ways to make this song interesting enough to sing with conviction is a testimony to his commitment to pleasing his fans—who he knows, for better or worse, want to hear a hit or two. He commented toward the end that he was losing his voice, and had the house singing along.
But like that, when the song was done, he sang the a capella line “Whenever I” (with “I” having maybe 9 syllables.) It was the opening to “Hawking,” and no one losing his voice puts over a song like this rendition. It is one of the most beautiful, compelling, soulful pieces in his catalog, and he just totally nails it. It wais a chilling, spectacular performance, his voice sliding into a deep register, then soaring effortlessly into falsetto. It is a stone cold highlight. If he’d played just this song I could have gone home happy.
Next up, the obligatory “Bang on the Ukulele Daily,” his uke version of 1983’s ubiquitous “Bang On the Drum.” It is fun, especially his baleful falsetto quoting of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on the break. Next he offers us a chance to sing, strumming the familiar chords to the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” With two songs left in his set, he next decides to cool down with a gorgeous take on “Beloved Infidel,” still a pleasant surprise whenever it makes an appearance. Like most of the guitar songs this night, he meshes the instrument and his voice with flawless ease, putting over the whole song with beauty and grace, the power of the composition emerging from the confident rendition. A sprightly “Lysistrata” and his set proper is done.
Todd, who is playing emcee, brings on Jackson and Ethel for the first encore, Jackson’s “Only One.” Then another highlight on a night of them, Todd and Ethel performing “Pretending to Care” (Jackson was at piano but it was unclear to me whether he was playing on this.) Todd’s vocal delivery can only be described as acrobatic; Ethel recreated the intricate vocal background on strings, swooping and sliding through the daredevil stop-and-start melody. They wring every drop of emotion out of the song; it is a spine-tingling, divine performance that had more than one fan in tears.
Todd straps on the electric guitar known as Foamy for the final two numbers. First, the entire ensemble launches into “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which has pretty much been in Todd’s repertoire since George Harrison died. Todd sings the verses, Jackson the bridge (“I don’t know why…”) Ethel creates the drama that builds through the original; Jackson is in synch with them on piano as Todd solos gracefully over the top.
For the finale, the ensemble assays Todd’s rave-up “Black Maria.” “Let’s see if we’ve improved” since the Delacorte date last summer, Todd says. I wasn’t at that one, but I’m sure they have. The instrumentation makes the song seem oddly, yet appropriately, tiny; Todd is using a quiet but muddy tone on his guitar, perfectly complimenting the sound of the strings and piano. Ethel is all over the pseudo-eastern riffs of the song; again Jackson proves his mettle as a piano slinger. Todd’s gentle soloing grows more and more pronounced, assertive, and the band falls in behind him until they roar to a climactic finish.
It is a glorious night. Ethel was superb; Jackson was too. But Todd is a revelation. I had seen so many versions of this show—but it was like I’d never seen it before. It can’t be easy to create such a powerful good feeling in someone’s heart with just voice, guitar, and a little clumsy piano. But tonight he managed, in spades.