Concert Review: Entrancing and Surprising — Todd Rundgren Goes “Global”
A cursory scan of audience reviews on the Ticketmaster website suggests that Rundgren’s current tour was disappointing his fans on a scale probably not seen in rock music since Bob Dylan went to England in 1966.
Todd Rundgren at the Wilbur Theatre, Boston, MA, May 3.
by Jason M. Rubin
Todd Rundgren has done it again. By “it,” I mean the unexpected. Coming off tours in which he played the entirety of his albums Todd (1974) and Healing (1981) backed by a full group, and guesting with Ringo Starr’s all-star band, the prog/pop legend is on tour promoting a new album, the techno/electronic Global, with the assistance of a DJ/keyboardist, two female singer/dancers, and a MacBook Pro.
A cursory scan of audience reviews on the Ticketmaster website suggests that the current tour was disappointing his fans on a scale probably not seen in rock music since Bob Dylan went to England in 1966. Todd has been playing the entirety of the new album, along with cuts from two recent releases (which are mostly in the same rave/trance vein), with just a sprinkling of oldies – and those are adapted to the present concept.
I have to tell you, I was concerned heading into the show. One of my friends was fully prepared to bolt within the first few songs. Though he and I are both huge fans of Todd, neither of us have had any interest in what he’s been recording over the last 15 years. During that time, the “wizard/true star” has increasingly been involved in computer programming and video technology dedicated to deconstructing the pop songcraft and complex progressive soundscapes that he has been known for.
Would his Boston show be as bad as audience members who saw Todd in Northfield, Ohio, on April 26 posted on the Ticketmaster site? Those who said, “It appears Todd has neglected to consider his audience,” and “It was the worst concert that we have seen” and “He should give everyone their money back”?
Well, I can’t speak for everyone in the packed Wilbur Theatre, but it sure looked like Todd’s Boston fans were with him every step of the way (during the last number before the encore, 1994’s “Worldwide Epiphany,” he even shouted, “Are you with me?” to a thunderous response). I wasn’t sold on every tune (the insistent beats and electronic sheets of sound were not always very dissimilar from one song to the next), but the sheer conviction of Todd’s performance, and his commitment to doing it his way, definitely won me over by concert’s end.
DJ Dam-Funk opened the show by himself, singing a slow jam about Todd worthy of inclusion on WERS’s sexy nighttime “The Secret Spot” show. Then out came the star and his two sexy zumba dancers for what ended up being two solid hours jam-packed with music, dancing (the stamina of Todd and the ladies was notable, as all three were definitely burning calories on stage), and one of the most exceptional lights and video shows I have ever seen (clearly, all of Todd’s recent interests were on full display).
Todd cleverly opened the show with the opening track of the new album, “Evrybody,” which kicks off with the exhortation, “Evrybody, everybody, everybody, clap your hands.” The Boson audience fell into Todd’s spell from the start and eagerly complied. Many of his newer songs have lyrics and choruses that are very repetitive; the hoped for response is trance-inducing chanting. While most of the songs were dance tempo, there were some ballads as well; these tended to provide the opportunity for the singer/dancers to go offstage and change costumes.
Much of the music came from backing tracks stored on the computer (the glowing Apple logo on the laptop’s lid stood out even amid all the lights). Dam-Funk contributed a number of quality keyboard parts but Todd played guitar sparingly, only three or four times. He managed to include two songs from his former group, Utopia: “Secret Society” and “One World.” It wasn’t hard to see why those songs were chosen, given that the new album looks at the world and its problems. Though fans were willing to accept a lot of the new material, they were clearly thrilled to hear the more familiar tunes sprinkled in to the repertoire.
Towards the end of the set, Todd played a medley of some of his best-known hits, starting, interestingly enough, with “Can We Still Be Friends” – an apology, perhaps, for having put his fans through so long a barrage of eye- and ear-popping spectacle of a type he has never attempted before. That was followed by “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me” from his seminal 1972 release, Something/Anything. As welcome as these hits were, they were rearranged in the techno/electronica style and as such were both familiar and exotic.
The set ended with “Worldwide Epiphany,” a searing rocker featuring furious power chords by Todd on electric guitar. At its conclusion, the “band” (as it were) went offstage. In spite of the highly frenetic and physically kinetic set, they were gone no longer than a minute or two before bounding back on stage for the extraordinary encore: a medley of “International Feel” and the anthemic “Just One Victory” from 1973’s A Wizard/A True Star. Todd’s guitar solo on the latter song was as good as any I’ve heard from him in 35 years. Best of all, though, the encore numbers sounded like the originals; while the backing tracks still came from the computer, the electronica sheen was kept to a minimum.
In retrospect, it’s perhaps not all that shocking that Todd would embrace this sound. Though his most ardent fans admire his progressive proclivities, he grew up with the black influences that gave rise to the Philly Soul sound of the 1970s. Also, Steve Hillage, a progressive rock guitarist who was a former member of the band Gong (Todd produced his 1976 second solo album, L) has been leading an ambient dance band called System 7 since 1991.
In addition, the new music on Global is perhaps not all that far removed from the synth-heavy prog epics of Todd’s past, such as the 36-minute “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire” from 1975’s Initiation, or the 20-minute “Healing” from the 1981 album of the same name. The rhythms, of course, are more emphatic now but Todd’s ability to cast a trance on his fans remains as strong as ever.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 30 years, the last 15 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. He regularly contributes feature articles and CD reviews to Progression magazine and for several years wrote for The Jewish Advocate.