This week found him back in familiar territory: Playing guitar with a first-class band, including every radio hit he’s ever had (all five of ‘em), and sticking largely with melodic rock and Philly-inspired soul.
By Brett Milano
Leave it to Todd Rundgren to poke fun at greatest-hits tours in the middle of a greatest-hits tour. Wednesday at the Wilbur in Boston he opened with his 1972 hit “I Saw the Light”—a power-pop gem that he’s usually reluctant to play at all—and followed that with two other perennials, “Love of the Common Man” and “Open My Eyes,” his first single with the Nazz. Just as the warm nostalgic buzz was settling in, Rundgren made his first announcement: “Welcome to the walking-dead tour. It’s dedicated to all those earnestly motivated fans who may have been in a coma for the past 45 years.”
Fact is, Rundgren hardly ever does shows like this, much to his fans’ occasional frustration. When he hit the same venue just a few months ago, he was supporting his new album Global, the second consecutive one he’s done in an electronic dance music vein—granted it’s EDM with good hooks and the occasional guitar solo, but still EDM enough to scare off old-timers. He was accompanied by dancers and a DJ, and the couple oldies he did play were worked into the new groove. Fan reaction ranged from intrigued to actively pissed-off, the EDM audience tended to ignore it altogether.
But this week found him back in familiar territory: Playing guitar with a first-class band, including every radio hit he’s ever had (all five of ‘em), and sticking largely with melodic rock and Philly-inspired soul. The band was mainly familiar faces, including bassist Kasim Sulton (who joined him in Utopia back in 1977) and Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, who worked on a bunch of Rundgren projects including XTC’s great Skylarking album. The two-hour show divided neatly into a first half of mostly-familiar, mostly-‘70s material, with the second half mining the most accessible moments of his deeper albums.
The one song that didn’t fit with the others was “Fascist Christ”—originally the single from his 1994 album No World Order. At the time it was considered the height of oddball because it incorporated rap, and because you needed interactive technology to play the disc—and especially because nobody releases singles with titles like that. The rap was intact on Wednesday, and the song came off as ahead of its time: Hard rock songs with hip-hop elements hardly sound oddball now. As for the song’s message—that political forces have hijacked religion for oppressive purposes—let’s say you don’t have to look too far to understand what he was talking about.
Even when sticking with his most mainstream material, Rundgren came off as a complex individual—able to rebel-rouse with a song like “Fascist Christ,” and still to offer convincing hippie-esque sentiments on “Love in Action” (one of a few that he took from Utopia’s catalogue). Likewise he got good and raunchy on “Number One Lowest Common Denominator”—which seems to wrap every guitar-slinging song about sex into five tidy minutes—then got romantically wide-eyed on “A Dream Goes On Forever” (two songs that originally appeared on the same album, 1973’s Todd). Fans got at least one deep track that’s never been played before (“Kiddie Boy”, a blues shuffle from Nazz days); and they could excuse the obligatory novelty hit “Bang the Drum All Day.”
Despite some reported vocal problems earlier in the tour, Rundgren sang great; particularly on a demanding soul-roots medley of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye numbers (and his own Gaye homage “Lost Horizon” which came earlier). He should try this sort of crowd-pleasing thing more often.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat. His latest book is Don’t All Thank Me At Once (125 Records), a biography of the unsung pop genius Scott Miller, who led the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family.