Todd Rundgren has just released his first album for ten years, the superb Liars, which I assume is the reason for re-releasing a "deluxe" set of three DVDs. The sad thing is that with one exception, they are a complete let-down after the brilliance and amazing diversity of the album.
Live In San Francisco does what it says on the tin. It's a gig from 2000 at Maritime Hall, which appears to be a fairly intimate venue, and it's a perfectly good rock concert. Rundgren provides guitar and vocals, Kasim Sulton bass guitar and vocals and Trey Sabatelli drums, and that line-up gives you the clue that this is not going to be an experimental evening.
Rundgren is in full ageing hippy mode (nothing wrong with that of course): sleeveless vest, unkempt hair, little oval shades - a pale version of Ozzy Osbourne, really - and playing some mean guitar to match. The whole gig is really a homage to guitar rock (with discussions on the particular instruments played), and on a couple of tracks (Black And White in particular) the homage to Hendrix is obvious.
This being Rundgren there are some good lyrics, and you have to admire anyone who can name a song I Hate My Frickin ISP - "I'll never get back the time that I waste...". I'll second that, but it's not a great song all the same. Yer Fast (And I Like It) is a highlight though, the inventiveness coming through in lyrics just ahead of the beat. Clever stuff that rocks along nicely.
The medley of Mystified and Broke Down And Busted is terrific - Rod Stewart / Stones / Hendrix with added Marvin Gaye for soul. If you like Rundgren in pure rock format this one's for you.
If on the other hand you prefer the soul version, Live In Japan provides it in spades. This is from 10 years earlier and is altogether smoother. Rundgren has black hair (still unkempt) and a black embroidered matador suit (not altogether successful sans jacket - you need a very skinny figure to carry that off). There's a multitude of backing artists as well, all wearing camp vari-coloured satin shirts and ties, with big hair and unlikely moustaches. And the trio of backing vocalists, not in their first youth, has been poured into some very tight dresses.
All this looks odd but sounds pretty good: sax, trumpet, lots of keyboards, percussion, drums, guitar and bass - not to mention the vocalists, who in fact are excellent - make up a very rich mixture. Trouble is it's all very samey - classic R & B, from opener Real Man through to closer I Love My Life. One exception - an acoustic guitar and vocal solo for Love Of The Common Man - is a welcome change, and Want Of A Nail does up the funk element slightly. But this seems like a very "safe" performance from someone known for versatility and experimentation.
Finally, with the third DVD, we get to something more interesting. The 2nd Wind Live Recording Sessions are a strange experiment (and one needs to hear the resulting album before passing comment). The idea was to record a studio album, but with a live audience. An audience that therefore had to be trained not to applaud until given a signal, or indeed make any other noise. The irritating thing for the viewer is that we get a lot of chat about this technique, and some comments on each song, but then only a snippet of the songs themselves.
However the second item on this disc almost makes it all worthwhile. Six computer-generated videos make up The Desktop Collection, and they're all corkers. Change Myself is completely surreal, with fruit, rolled umbrellas and all sorts of other stuff going wild. Theology is just plain gorgeous. It's an instrumental, the music swirling and building as images morph from a smooth rock placed as an object of worship, through fabulously intricate Islamic tile designs to the splendour of a gothic cathedral - and finally to a futuristic spaceship.
Fascist Christ is heavy rap-influenced stuff with some freaky images (the crucifix flexing into a swastika is going some) but it's certainly compelling; Property uses a disembodied skeletal hand to conduct us on a tour of distorted images of Rundgren performing. Our Friend The Brain is 10 minutes of pure fun, from the '50s retro intro (is that Rundgren playing the TV professor?), through the exploding electronica, the spoof cooking demo, and... so much more. You'll just have to watch it.
These videos are a joy, and confirm that Rundgren has the inventiveness and talent that characterises Liars. Not sure I'd want the whole boxed set just for six videos though. Luckily you can also buy each DVD separately.