That Time Joe Jackson and Todd Rundgren Toured With A String Quartet

The two pop genuises revisit a concert of special significance

Joe Jackson and Todd Rundgren’s 2005 concert with string quartet Ethel at the State Theater in Red Bank, NJ, is available now on Cleopatra Records (Art: Ron Hart)

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Package tours are, of course, nothing new. Ever since rock and roll first gained its foothold on the consumer psyche, promoters have taken to bundling acts that have common appeal in order to boost the box office receipts and find advantage and opportunity for performers that might not have done quite so well individually.

Touring packages were especially common in the mid ‘60s, often conceived under the a auspices of a popular deejay like Murray the K in order to benefit from the credibility of a particular personality while ensuring that the up-and-coming acts will reap some much needed exposure in the process.

The practice has continued in recent times, although for the most part the bill is limited to two or three artists, each with a fair amount of individual pull. James Taylor and Carole King were a natural match. Likewise, the current tour being touted with Taylor and Jackson Browne makes similar sense, given their shared soft rock style.

In 2005, a somewhat less obvious combination was conceived, a tour that paired Joe Jackson with Todd Rundgren supported by a string quartet oddly named Ethel. The artists didn’t have any clear previous connection other than the fact that both were gifted songwriters who had managed to carve out an individual niche with imaginative and melodic music that gained them a dedicated fan following. Yet, as this writer can attest, the match worked well, and at the concert I caught in South Florida, it resulted in a magical evening flush with classic songs that were often treated in new and imaginative ways. With the addition of Ethel — an intriguing bunch that veered their classical stylings towards new possibilities for contemporary rock and jazz — the bond between Rundgren and Jackson found a natural fit, with each musician utilizing them outside their solo offerings to create inventive new arrangements for their classic compositions.


VIDEO: Joe Jackson, Todd Rundgren and Ethel perform “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the State Theater in Red Bank, NJ 2005

Now some 16 years later, the experience is belatedly revisited via a double CD/DVD package that captures the performers live at the State Theater in Brunswick New Jersey on April 29, 2005. Jackson and Rundgren are in fine form, despite the decided difference in presentation. Jackson presents a good overview of sedate song stylings as represented by “Hometown,” “It’s Different for Girls,” “Be My Number Two,” and a delicate take of the Beatles’ “Girl,” and while one might have hoped for a few more of the nocturnal melodies represented by the album Night and Day, undoubtably the highlight of his prodigious career) although the inclusion of ”Steppin’ Out” and the essential “Is She Really Going Out With Me” certainly makes his catalog quota seem well-stocked. When Jackson sings the classic line in the latter, “Look over there!” and the audience answers with an enthusiastic “Where?,” he seems surprised, and even finds himself forced to pause for a momentary chuckle. 

For his part, Rundgren goes a bit deeper by mining some obscurities (“I Don’t Want To Tie You Down,” Lysistrana,” “Tiny Demons” and “Free Male and 21”) along with the expected “hits” (“Love of the Common Man,” “Bang the Drum All Day” and, natch “Hello It’s Me”). As is often his penchant in performance, he sometimes leans towards self-mockery by twisting his vocal inflections or shrieking as if making himself out to be a madman.  

As a result, novices might shun the lack of a more consistent familiarity factor. An encore of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” featuring the two principals backed by Ethel brings things front and center and ensures a common bond, while the final number, Rundgren’s “Black Maria,” also finds all three entities soaring in sync. It’s an excellent end to a performance filled with twists and turns that eventually find a secure center.

As mentioned above, there’s no hint here of a true “greatest hits” as might otherwise have been expected. Nevertheless, the listener is treated to a set of songs that show Rundgren and Jackson in a distinctly different setting, one that colors the music in a decidedly new and different way. And if only for that reason alone, it’s well worth acquisition. 



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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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