Heavy on the Cheese, but More, Please: Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson and Ethel
J. Gordon
5/21/2005 10:40:59 PM

It felt good to be back in the St. Louis’ old American Theater, newly renamed Roberts Orpheum, with its impeccable sound, beautiful stage and seating. Boasting an all-star summer oldies lineup, on May 7, 2005 St. Louis was treated to a co-headlining showcase of mammoth proportions: the legendary Todd Rundgren and ‘The Man’ who ruled 1980s pop, Joe Jackson.

Opening the set was the string quartet known as Ethel, who’ve been performing with Rundgren live, and have subsequently been kicking ass with their Mississippi Delta Blues and Rock string translations. It was one of those wonderfully rare occasions when the opener stole the entire show with their originality, energy, and pure, unadulterated talent. Wow. Ethel is a band to behold—and never to miss if they come through your town.

Way before Rufus Wainwright, twenty years before Ben Folds and always hipper than Billy Joel, there was Joe Jackson, the perfect piano-storyteller, singing peppy ballads and pop songs full of humor and heartache. Dressed in an elegant purple coat, Jackson wordlessly greeted St. Louis with a smile and a bow. He took a seat at his grand piano and opened with “Home Town,” followed by “Steppin’ Out”. Tall and thin with a high silver hairline, Jackson looks a little like one of David Bowie’s unearthly personas, but his stage banter pulls him right back down to the people.

“The last time I was in Cincinnati…” he said, rambling into a story of performing in a near-empty club on the river and not realizing, for the moment, that he was in St. Louis, “Oh, this happens when you’re on tour. Wake up! Can’t you remember what city you’re in? What country you’re in?” he chastised himself. Then, further making fun, he said, “Thank you, Cleveland!”

After other great hits, Jackson gave us a slower, heartfelt version of, “It’s Different For Girls,” packed with an unexpected wallop of emotion and potency. Joe Jackson puts himself into a song like almost no one and it shows all over him; expressing every excited twitch and painful pinch of nerve.

Jackson said, “This is dedicated to someone, anyone, who gets lucky tonight. Because no matter what happens, there’s always the morning after. But maybe it could work, maybe it could be a prelude to a real romance, right? Why not?” Then he turned and wagged his head, “Nah! You cynical bastards!” and broke into “Love at First Light.” Jackson spoke of his teenage years, “which were pretty much miserable, except enlivened by sex, drugs and alcohol…the things that keep me going today!” He closed his set with “Be My Number Two” and said, laughing, “Thanks so much for letting me play here, uh, Buenos Aires!” He returned to play two encores: a new song, “Citizen Sane,” and the mega-hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

The easy-going Todd Rundgren sauntered out onstage with his band less than half an hour later. Armed with his acoustic guitar and decked out in a satin chartreuse and orange dinner jacket, a guitar strap that looked like a clashing Christmas tie, John Lennon glasses and two-tone long hair, Rundgren was all about having fun, and fighting (eventually playing with) the feedback--both electronic and human.

“Hey, you can tell something’s gonna happen now!” he said into the mic, electrifying the sound on the guitar with foot pedals and distortion. While full of banter, no one was ever completely sure what Rundgren was talking about:

“There are rumors about you guys,” he said slyly to the audience. What rumors? They shouted back. “That’s a waaaaaay inside thing,” he laughed. Too much acid in the 70s, man. Then Todd Rundgren broke into “I Saw The Light,” and added a comical, psycho laugh after the line, “is it something that I said in jest?” His voice is deeper and stronger today than that boyish sweetness that buoyed along that great 1970s hit, and for fans who craved that original sound, it was a tad disappointing.

Todd Rundgren took a seat at the same piano Joe Jackson had been occupying, and warned us, “When I sit down at the piano, just look the hell out!” Then Rundgren broke into what can best be described as a Bill Murray SNL airport lounge-singer act, over-doing his own great songs, way heavy on the cheese. Sigh.

The crowd hollered out for perhaps the greatest song of his vast repertoire, “Hello, It’s Me,” and he responded, “How many times do I have to ask you, don’t go stampeding for the clitoris! That’s a song you know I’m not gonna play in the middle of the set!” And yet, he did play that tune just a couple songs later, before leaving the piano for the ukulele, center-stage.

“We move seamlessly on from the grand piano to the grand ukulele,” he joked, “which works the opposite of pianos: the smaller they are, the grander they are. Guys, wouldn’t you love to live in a world like that?”

He dove into the hilarious, “Bang the Drum all Day,” which he interspersed with the chorus from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” After taking a break, Rundgren returned with Joe Jackson and the string quartet, Ethel. Initial sound problems held up the first collective song, and Joe Jackson threatened to tell jokes to pass the time.

They performed Rundgren’s “Pretending To Care”—until then, the strongest song of Rundgren’s set, before the finale/climax of the show, a group rendition of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Jackson and Rundgren traded off lines singing, with Ethel pulling out all the stops on the strings; violas deftly handling the big guitar wails and cello beating, thumping and plucking out the percussion. Meanwhile, Rundgren skillfully handled the lead solo on his lime green Fender Strat, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They got a standing ovation, and no matter how old these guys get, no matter how much cheese is poured on with age, facts are facts: you just can’t deny great talent.


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