"With a Twist" New Haven 2-15-98

by Greg Hamby

If you have had the misfortune of having looked at the Billboard Top 20 CD's or singles anytime in recent history, I feel certain that you have most likely come to the same conclusion that I have reluctantly accepted. Either I am getting too old to be hip, or popular music has sunken into a slum unlike it has seen in 20 years. Maybe both.

The Billboard Top 20 contains a list of names that I don't recognize, or cannnot pronounce. And if I do recognize the name, nine chances out of ten, I probably despise the artist, or more accurately their music. This present malaise is precisely what makes Todd's "With a Twist" CD and tour so timely and refreshing.

At a time when my CD changer is filled with music that was either recorded 15 plus years ago, or sounds as if it were, "With a Twist" is a breath of fresh tropical air that reminds us all that there are at least one or two artists out there who are still able to remain innovative and vital.

The sign of quality art, and a quality artist is the ability to continually grow and mature. One of the things that has earned Todd the deserved respect that he has gained over the years has been his ability to continually reinvent himself and his music, while never compromising the song.

Todd has been in turn "The Runt," a sugary sweet pop singer. "A Wizard, a True Star," the consummate one man band, studio wiz. He has also shown himself to be a spectacular orchestrator as we heard on the wonderful "Nearly Human" and "Second Wind" releases. Making the next transformation obvious, The Artist Formerly Known as Todd Rundgren became TR-I and interactive music was born.

And now there is the ultimate lounge lizard, Todd "With a Twist." "With a Twist" shows with startling clarity the unity of this diverse work that has made Todd who he is for all these years. He is a terrific songwriter who knows the value of a catchy melody, and a talented musician, who even when playing the blues has never been tied down to a simple 12 bar formula.

The "With a Twist" show is amazing in the power of it's simplicity, irony, and sincerity. Like Todd, the show itself is a kind of paradox, a series of apparent contradictions that add up to a unified whole that inspires, challenges and entertains.

This show was a welcome return following Todd's last visit to Toad's Place, a night which was marked by lyrical memory lapses, a band that seemed under rehearsed, and a guitar tech that was apparently operating in a different time zone. That evening of two summers ago was summed up by the moment when Todd dropped a pick which was politely handed back to him by a guy on the front row. Todd's reaction? "I remember when people used to fight over these things."

Such was not to be the case on this night. After some nervous moments at the outset when Todd's "overly warmed up voice" resembled Lauren Bacall after a carton of Luckies, the "With a Twist" show simply moved from strength to strength.

As has been reported by many others on this page, the band is to be congratulated off the top. It certainly takes a special group of players to pull this show off. Just watching Jesse Gress' fingers spider web over the fretboard on "Caravan," not to mention his killer soloing on "Born to Synthesize" (with a pair of hot pink panties on this hand) reminded the listener that this was one hot band. I just hope that he thought to wash his hands afterward. The arrangements were full and the background vocs, (driven by Kasim Sultan) were nearly flawless.

There were peaks of energy with powerhouse tunes like, "Can't Stop Running." There was ironic humor when the "Zen Archer" delivered a bananna shaped maraca through the heart of the ever popular tortured artist formerly known as...

Then there was that persisent Bossa Nova rhythm that obviously caught some of the uninitiated off guard. But once the surprise had passed one could almost sense the audiences' surprise when it continued to work. Who would ever have imagined that "The Individualist" could become a lounge song, or that "Expresso" would be an effective singalong? Great old favorites like "Real Man" and "Eastern Intrigue" are unexpectedly at home in this bossa nova arrangement. There were other surprises as well, such as the inclusion great little present in the form of "Lucky Guy." Add to this the ultimate surprise of a jaw dropping jazz arrangement of "Born to Synthisize" and the picture is completed, and the answer to the question of Todd's genius is answered.

After seeing this show and experiencing these songs that have been so familiar for so many years, it becomes apparent that through all the changes, transmogrifications, and side tracks of the past thirty years, Todd's success is all down to the music. After seeing this show, one can walk away imagining that these songs would retain their quality no matter what the arrangement. "Can We Still Be Friends," as a bossa nova, as originally recorded, or as the latest release from Ferrante and Teicher will always be a great song.

Perhaps the evening was best summed up by two guys taking a "Pit stop" after the show. One, who had obviously taken full advantage of the bar shouted out, "Man am I ever glad that I fuckin' blew off work!" To which the guy next to me quietly replied, "There's probably no better place to be on the planet tonight."

Here's to many more opportunities to visit the tropical paradise of the Tikki Lounge "With a Twist." Cheers!

Greg Hamby