BY MARIANA GARRICK
In April of 2005, Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson united on stage for a series of joint shows with New York-based string quartet Ethel. Each artist performed 11-song solo sets along with duet encores. Recorded at New Jersey’s State Theater, the entire concert showcases their raw talent and just how well the two mix when performing sophisticated art rock.
Released as a two-CD set with accompanying DVD, State Theater New Jersey 2005 provides a look into the unique performance from the musical geniuses. The album starts off with the instrumental sounds of Ethel. Ethel’s classical but energetic sound created an exciting opening for Jackson, who starts his set on the sixth track with “Hometown.” With only the sounds of his sweet piano, the English musician begins with a lonely rendition of his 1986 hit as compared to the upbeat tempo of the original. The song is followed by “Steppin’ Out,” his Top 10 hit from 1982. Without the signature 1980’s synthesizer that made the song a hit, it was still a great modern rendition of just one of the many songs that put Jackson on the map.
“It’s Different for Girls” continues with the piano and melancholy melody that remind listeners how brutally honest and heartbreaking his songs can be. Jackson then has fun with the audience during “Is She Really Going out with Him.” Concert-goers clap to the rhythm and make him laugh by shouting, “Where?” after he sings each “Look over there” verse. The live performance somewhat turns into a choir with the audience singing along to his hit from 1979 while he tries to playfully throw off the concert-goers by speeding up the piano and slowing it down at certain times.
Rundgren’s set begins right after Jackson’s performance. The American singer begins on acoustic guitar for “Love of the Common Man,” and continues through “Tiny Demons.” “Compassion” begins with the piano and continues until “Bang the Drum All Day.” The anti-work anthem features a ukulele for a Hawaiian laid-back style instead of the original funky party beat. The recent inductee into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame also incorporates a few classics in the middle of the song. From Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ 1962 classic “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and Solomon Linda’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the Philadelphia native has fun and puts a new spin on his 1983 track.
“Hello, It’s Me” earns the singer a round of hearty applause from the opening lines. The crowd then joins in while Rundgren stops to enjoy the audience singing along to one of his best-known songs. Switching to the electric guitar for “Black and White,” the live track sounding similar to the original. Throughout his set, the artist switches between instruments, going back to the acoustic guitar for “Afterlife” and “The Wheel.”
After Rundgren’s solo set, Ethel returned to assist Jackson on “The Other Me” and remained to join Rundgren for “Pretending to Care.” Approaching the end of the evening, all three artists shared the stage to deliver a beautiful and powerful rendition of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Ethel’s incorporation of strings adding the perfect emotional depth to the 1968 classic. They remained on stage to close out with a performance of Rundgren’s “Black Maria.” The rocking tune ending with instrumental solos from Jackson and Rundgren to a large round of applause from the audience.
The accompanying DVD in the three disc package is also fine keepsake for fans of each artist, or those who attended the shows, providing a colorful document of the entire two hour and forty minute set. The sight of Rundgren performing his iconic “Bang The Drum All Day” on his ukulele is a unique one, as is the pairing of Jackson and Rundgren sharing the stage with Ethel (and plenty of broken violin strings) for the encore of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
16 years later, the release of State Theater New Jersey 2005 serves as a welcome treat for long-time fans who were unable to attend the 45-city U.S. and European tour. The genius -and unlikely- combination of Ethel, Jackson and Rundgren’s original songs and covers brought about a unique concert well-deserving of being recorded and released as a memorable set. The mixture of performers showcased Ethel’s orchestral ability, and displayed how the two headliners will always have the talent and skill to entertain both old school and newer fans.