String quartet ETHEL and rocker Rundgren collaborate


Published: Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 3:12 p.m.

Since 1998, the New York string quartet ETHEL has built a reputation for eclectic performances of self-described "adventurous" music by contemporary composers. But seven years ago, the group's adventure took what might be described as a most-excellent turn when it found itself opening a performance for the equally eclectic and adventurous Todd Rundgren — a collaboration that captivated both parties and gets a new incarnation Wednesday when ETHEL and special guest Rundgren begin an 11-date tour at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

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The New York string quartet ETHEL starts an 11-date tour, and unveils a new collaboration with Todd Rundgren on Wednesday at the Phillips Center. (Photo courtesy of ETHEL)

Facts

ETHEL with Todd Rundgren

What: String quartet and famed singer/songwriter perform the new production “Tell Me Something Good”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 315 Hull Road
Tickets: $15-$30, $10 students
Info: 392-2787, www.performingarts.ufl.edu

Back in 2005, Rundgren was performing an outdoor show in New York City with Joe Jackson and looking for an opening act, remembers ETHEL violist Ralph Farris.

"Joe actually knew us, so he gave his thumbs up, and Todd said, ‘OK, sure, let's try it,' " Farris said in a recent phone interview. "And we did the show at the Delacorte Theater [in New York's Central Park], and it was a tremendous success. We had a blast.

"And directly after that, we got a call saying ‘Hey, we'd like to go on tour with you guys, what do you think?' "

The quartet backed Jackson and Rundgren on the 2005 tour that followed and also performed "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with them on an appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Rundgren — the '70s hitmaker par excellence ("Hello It's Me," "I Saw The Light"), progressive rock-band proponent (Utopia) and golden-thumbed record producer (Meatloaf's "Bat out of Hell," Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band") — and ETHEL kept in touch, getting together on other occasions over the years that followed.

"He's just been a very good friend to us through the years," Farris says. "And to continue this collaboration is really exciting for us and for him."

For the new tour that starts Wednesday, ETHEL, which also includes cellist Dorothy Lawson and violinists Kip Jones and Tema Watstein, approached Rundgren with an idea that made perfect sense given Rundgren's place in '70s pop-music history, to say nothing of his knack for making things happen regardless of the decade.

"We designed a '70s-themed program, and specifically we said ‘Well, Todd speaks to the '70s; actually, Todd has been at the forefront of basically every innovation in music — period — since he started his work. He is the innovator, always.

"In the '70s, he was just making musical history left and right. But he works just as well in the '70s as he does in the '80s and '90s, and so we thought it would be great to invite him to join us as a special guest."

The new tour, which is called "Tell Me Something Good," won't necessarily include the namesake 1974 song (recorded by Rufus and Chaka Khan, and written by Stevie Wonder), but it will include separate sets by both the string quartet and Rundgren — who will perform some of his best-known hits from the era — and a climactic set in which Rundgren will sing and play piano and guitar with the quartet.

"When he joins us on the stage, we sort of become his band, the backing band," Farris says, pointing to some songs that Rundgren is known for. "We'll definitely do ‘Black Maria,' we'll probably do ‘Soul Brother,' we're going to do ‘Flamingo' and ‘Zen Archer.' "

The new collaboration also will feature new material, and will no doubt foster some memorable renditions of songs both new and old, he says.

"It's a very special relationship that we have, and we're just really moved by who Todd is with us," Farris says. "He does not have to take the time to be with us. He doesn't have to like our music. He's in it because he's really demonstrated that he cares for it. And we care right back. We're all huge fans, and he's been a great colleague.

"It's a really, really special thing. He's an excellent guy."

Contact Entertainment Editor Bill Dean at 374-5039 or bill.dean@gvillesun.com.

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