THE COUNT BASIE THEATRE, NEW JERSEY
Friday April 23, 2004
JOE’S PUB, NEW YORK
Saturday April 24, 2004
WESTHAMPTON BEACH PERFORMING ARTS CENTRE, NEW YORK
Sunday April 25, 2004
Until captain beefheart decides to perform at Butlins, or Squarepusher entertains the troops in the Gulf, there will be few mismatches as spectacular as the one between artist and audience on Todd Rundgren’s current tour of the States to promote his acclaimed new album, Liars. Typically, Rundgren, the most recklessly uncompromising musician ever to have pop hits, makes no concessions towards the crowd of New Jersey wiseguys and their wives on Friday night or the manicured yentas in the Hamptons on Sunday. They have come in their hundreds?in fact, he’s playing to around 1500 people a night, not bad for someone whose last Top 30 chart entry was in 1978?to see the winsome balladeer whose “Hello It’s Me” provided their soundtrack to High School romance. His reputation as the missing link between Hendrix and Aphex, the acid-fried computer/guitar geek with the luminous highlights responsible for impenetrable, hour-long conceptualised electro-thons might precede him in the UK, but in the States he’s known as a Billy Joel-style piano man, only with weird hair.
Which is why the US audience gets such a shock. For a start, the backing band?The Liars?are standing inside their own individual space-rock music pods. And they’re dressed outlandishly as peddlers of religious truth. Drummer Prairie Prince is a stylised Pope. On bass is ex-Utopia pretty boy Kasim Sulton as the Baptist cowboy. Guitarist Jesse Gress is a Chinese medicine man. And on keyboards is John Ferenzik the Bedouin monk. When Rundgren bounds on stage like Marilyn Manson’s eccentric uncle and whips off his hooded cloak to reveal his streaky skunk mane and black sarong, and The Liars launch into two blasts of industrial metal invective called “Fascist Christ” and “I Hate My Frickin ISP”, you could say the crowd are a tad surprised. He could, of course, have done a Brian Wilson and flaunted one of the best back catalogues in the business, followed by A Wizard, A True Star (aka The Smile That Saw An Official Release) in its entirety. That he doesn’t is either admirable or self-destructively contrary. You get some sense of how frustrating it must have been to see Todd blow his chance at superstardom when he performed “Hello It’s Me” on Midnight Special in December ’73 made up like a preying mantis.
Neither credibility nor eleventh-hour bids to rescue his career commercially, however, are particularly high on Todd’s list of priorities. The ambition, as ever, is to perplex. This he achieves with a show of two halves, the first of which is pure sonic assault with Rundgren as deranged shaman, the second of which sees him return as a Vegas showman surrounded by The Liars, now in pimp suits of various garish hues, like some lounge act from Venus. This latter half opens with a supperclub rendition of “Born To Synthesize”, with Todd as Vic Damone crooning “the red polygon’s only desire/Is to get to the blue triangle” and other such metaphysical vagaries. It also includes what Rundgren dismisses backstage as “pandering”, ie, Songs That People Want To Hear, notably “Just One Victory”, three decades from the moment of maximum impact?the version he sang in Central Park, 1973, to 20,000 acolytes there for his 25th birthday?yet still devastatingly poignant.
In between these twin attacks on the US heartland is Saturday night’s amazing performance in a New York club of Up Against It, a musical that Rundgren penned in the late ’80s based on the screenplay of a projected third Beatles movie by Joe Orton, with most of the original cast plus a cameo from Joe Jackson. Think Gilbert & Sullivan, with a side order of Sondheim. A bespectacled Rundgren, America’s liberal arts conscience personified, narrates with the mordant wit that gets him invited regularly onto The Late Show With David Letterman. It’s for charity, and the seats are 100 bucks apiece, so he prefaces the complex vocal callisthenics with a bit more solo pandering: “Song Of The Viking”, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, “Too Far Gone” and “I Saw The Light”. “That’s it,” he says after Tony Blackburn’s former Record Of The Week. “I’m all out of cheese.” You’ve got to applaud such a multi-talented individual so determined to defy expectations after all these years.