There’s a brilliant gem of an idea near concert’s end in the musical marriage of pop/rock chameleons Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson and their opening act, string quartet Ethel — but getting to that point wasn’t much of a honeymoon.
The tour, spawned from an at-the-time one-off last year in Central Park, so pleased its participants that the show’s order (Ethel; Jackson solo on piano; Rundgren solo on piano, guitar or ukulele; all three ending together) and setlists have hardly changed since the first date a little more than a month ago in Melbourne, Fla. — where an extremely flawed perf on Rundgren’s part compelled him to take to the Internet to apologize for it. Yet the same problems remain.
Both unique and eclectic recording artists, Jackson and Rundgren seemingly view revisiting early hits as an albatross to be reckoned with, as Jackson banged out the build-up intro to “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” with a good-natured shrug and a sigh, while Rundgren fumbled through the key modulation in his own resigned delivery of “Hello, It’s Me.”
But then Rundgren lately appears to be constantly fishing for the right chords to most of his own songs when performing solo. The producer of Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” and countless other discs may be a wizard in the studio and a woefully underappreciated singer-songwriter, but no paying audience should have to wince at as many flubs as Rundgren made Tuesday and on previous nights of the tour. His between-song quips may have lightened the mood, but the under-rehearsed mangling of his once inspired works was no laughing matter.
Why, then, not take advantage of the more than capable string players in Ethel for added enhancement?
The truly revelatory moments came when the two headliners combined with violins, viola and cello for a bit on their own material and a show-stopping (though rather arbitrarily chosen) rendition of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which featured both principals singing and Rundgren concentrating.
For his part, Jackson was far less culpable in any marring of the repertoire, as he introduced a few different chords to the pretty “It’s Different for Girls” merely to keep himself amused — they were not outright mistakes — and his brief gaff on the unrecorded new tune “Citizen Sane” could be excused. But even he benefited immensely from Ethel’s exquisite string arrangement for “The Other Me” from 1991’s “Laughter & Lust,” his lone song with their backing.
“Pretending to Care” — a gorgeous 20-year-old song from “A Cappella,” on which the source of every bit of music was derived from a Rundgren vocal — was also ideally suited for a touching string accompaniment. Jackson respectfully sat silent at the piano with head bowed while Rundgren truly used his vocal range as an instrument.
Plenty more could have been worked up in this vein, dating back to Rundgren’s 1970 debut, “Runt,” as both he and Jackson have quite a spectrum of songs to choose from, popular and obscure.
Jackson actually ended his set with the courteous comment “Be nice to Todd,” but given the circumstances, the aud could have been treated better as well.