The Fox Theatre embedded within Foxwoods is indeed worthy, with great sight lines, comfortable seating, and good sound, at least where I sat at the 5th row right-center aisle. The doors opened at 8 to about 200 or so ready diehards, and the theatre soon filled up completely. Mostly Todd fans, but Joe fans were clearly in abundance as well.
Ethel kicked off in high gear, and grabbed everyone’s attention with the first song, with wonderfully rhythmic marcato lines. At once it was apparent this was no ordinary string quartet, and I think we’ll be hearing about them for some time. It occurred to me that perhaps they could be the missing link needed to inject some new life into modern orchestral music… traditional strings played with verve and passion. They took a step back with the second number, an original based on Eastern Indian music that was a more challenging, lilting drone. My friend Jon commented “That’s four minutes of my life I’ll never get back,” and I’m sure he wasn’t alone.
Cellist Dorothy Lawson was my favorite, though they all performed like all-stars. They stood up after every number, surely a forbidden practice in strict classical environments. But while they broke some of the smaller unstated rules of classical performance – like showing emotion, intensity, and pride – the music never suffered as a result. The audience was polite and appreciative, with few distractions compared to what I’ve read about previous shows.
JJ went on soon after, to a big welcome, making it apparent Joe’s fans had made the trip as well. His opener Home Town is evocative no matter where you’re from. “We never leave the past behind,” he sang, “We just accumulate.”
One thing Joe has in common with Todd is they both have a lot of female fans. I introduced myself to a few before the show, who were appalled that Joe was not headlining. When I identified myself as a Todd fan they looked at me as if I was the enemy or something. I just attributed it to pre-show excitement.
Joe’s set went along just fine, but to be honest, we didn’t make the 2 hour drive through the fog to see JJ. Nice to see MikeB in the crowd near the front, and we both wondered whether we might see some of the scattershot sloppiness that marred some of the other stops on this tour.
All of the wondering was over soon enough, as Todd came with his A-game, professional and spot-on. No broken strings, no lost chords, no midsong laughter… but there were plenty of laughs between songs. Todd wrote in his own self-review of the Melbourne show that “Some people just don't find me amusing, and sometimes I am just not funny.” While “some people” were surely in attendance, this was not one of those times. Stabs at Barry Manilow (“This is the house that Manilow built”) turned into a running joke, with multiple references throughout the set. The best was Todd belting out “Looks like we MAAAADE ITTTTTT!!!!!!” with the final punch coming on the final leg kick of Lysistrata to close the main part of the set, with Todd landing on an “Oooooooohhh MANDY!!!!”
The big disappointment for me was the brevity of the set. Todd didn’t go on until 10:52 by my watch, and only played for 45 minutes before the four encores. MikeB listed the set accurately, and there was no Hawking, no Demons, no Wheel, no Infidel, no Compassion. Maybe this is why one reviewer wrote that only Pretending to Care showed real emotion. It was the songs chosen more than the performance. Add in these five songs and you would see the broken heartstrings on the floor. It does make you wonder why the more emotive songs need to be discarded from a short set.
Todd’s voice was a little raspy up high, but not once did he stretch beyond his limit, and he hit all the notes he needed. Common Man and Cliché were great openers, and were not mailed in but delivered the same day. I Saw the Light was welcome and fresh, and it’s much better seeing this rearranged as a bossa nova for solo acoustic, as compared with TR singing along to a karaoke backing track shaking his banana. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
The piano set went fine, starting with the Viking shtick, complete with overdrawn breaths, frantically rowing the song ashore with a triple-time ending, hammering the chords with abandon. I’m guessing that one was about as lost on JJ fans unfamiliar with TR’s catalog as the droning number Ethel played for their second song. But if all they knew was Something/Anything they were likely happy, as all three (count ‘em! 3!) piano songs were from the 1972 LP. Hello It’s Me was solid, with the sassy Isley Brothers “Don’t change, don’t change, don’t change, bayyybayyy” providing dynamic breath.
On to Bang the Ukulele, which many TR bloggers seem to count on as their new bathroom break. Not for me, and it brought a strange thought… TR is probably the finest ukulele player I have ever witnessed. (Rather like saying Ethel is my favorite modern string quartet; just not much competition.) How the hell does he get those fat fingers to fit those tiny frets?
Afterlife was one I had high hopes for, being the lone song played from LIARS. But it came off as very rushed. Maybe he knew he was short on time, but my guess is he still is not yet comfortable playing it live. He does so much rhythmic anticipation throughout the song, singing foreground and backing lines, and it just seemed to get away from him, lacking the lilting wonderment of the recording. But it is still a welcome highlight for me.
Pretending to Care is clearly the song to come for, as the strings fit perfectly, hinting that Todd likely imitated a string section with his sampled vocals for the acapella original. They could have played it three times in a row and no one would have complained except the stage manager. WMGGW was awesome, with the Ethel members standing for their longer solos, and TR and JJ nailing the vocals. Black Maria ended the night in an unusual way. It was strange hearing this song drummerless, as it really is a drum-heavy song, but the strings give the song new life. This left me more curious than satisfied, wondering about the possibilities that may have been had these six fine musicians been able to tackle more of the backlog of Rundgren’s and Jackson’s collective works.
On the way out I run into the two JJ fan’s I met prior to the show. “Hey, thanks for staying to the end,” I said. “What’d you think?” “Joe was great,” one offered. “But I thought Rundgren bit.” I had to ask. But she was not representative of all of Jackson’s fans. Quite a few who were clearly there for Joe really enjoyed themselves as the night wore on.
On the way home we listened to the great bootleg of a Todd solo show from 1982, a BBC recording in London. In some ways it was almost identical to the show we had just witnessed. Many of the same songs (7 of the 11 in the night’s primary set were done on the ‘82 tour), all delivered with the familiar chorusey acoustic and grand piano. 23 years later these songs demonstrate their true timelessness. Todd may not be the one who writes the songs that make the whole world sing, but he continues to keep his pioneering Viking boat afloat.