The last time Rundgren graced Taft Theater, he was smashing glass guitars, paying musical homage to an ancient sun god and doing acrobatic flips dangling 20 feet in the air from a replica of a pyramid in an electrified production that was as much theater as it was music. Contrast that with this tour’s Spartan stage set with a Baldwin concert grand, framed by two acoustic guitars and no electric guitar, save for an encore set, where Rundgren broke out his Fender axe for some understated rhythm licks on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Ethel, who’s appeared on Jackson’s Night and Day II 2000 album and has collaborated with other rock artists such as Sheryl Crow and Roger Daltry, opened and laid the decidedly acoustic foundation for the evening with instrumental songs that were part educational and mostly delightful for the small Taft crowd. Nicely complementing both Jackson and Rundgren, Ethel provided rich harmonious fills and featured solo licks, including the climax on “Gently Weeps,” when Rundgren gave way to Ethel’s two violinists Todd Reynolds and Mary Rowell to hammer out back-to-back solos in place of the obligatory guitar riffs.
Joe Jackson played a mixture of old and new songs, including favorites off his Laughter and Lust, his latest album Joe Jackson Volume 4, a 2003 release, and gave a sneak preview of one not yet recorded. He demonstrated his range of piano talent; adroitly shifting from piano bar pop stylings, to sing-along crowd favorite Is She Really Going Out with Him and Girl, another Beatles cover that had the audience joining in.
Conserving on electricity, Rundgren alternated between his two acoustic guitars and Jackon’s piano during his set. He did not brandish his electric guitar until the encore act, which also featured the soulful dirge “Pretending to Care” that seemed to encapsulate the essence of the string experience. Against a background of string harmonies from Ethel and Jackson motionless at the piano, casting a reverent silhouette, Rundgren’s “Pretending to Care” graciously set up the “Gently Weeps” final encore. On that, Todd uncustomarily stepped from the limelight, using his strong rhythm licks to pace the ensemble.
Further homage was paid to the Beatles in Todd’s faithful, audience-rousing version of “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.” As he himself put it recently on a radio call-in show, in his formative years, he was too busy listening to the Beatles to pay much attention to the Rolling Stones.
While Rundgren left some of the old Todd faithful wanting, (if not weeping) for him to perform a hot lick, Rundgren proved that, he is humble enough to share the stage with a time-tested great like Joe Jackson and a symphonic mainstay such as the string quartet. And the impresario that is Todd Rundgren expertly merged their styles with his into a refreshing evening of elemental music.