[ATTENDED: May 21, 2016] An Evening with Todd Rundgren
How did I not know this?
Indeed it turns out I didn’t know much about Rundgren. I knew he was in the band Utopia and that they played weird prog rock. And I also thought he was kind of a control freak. But I didn’t realize he had those huge hits (which might explain how he makes so many weird albums–and he has a lot of weird albums).
I don’t even know what made me get a ticket of this show. I had recently been hearing a bit about him. I had looked him up on line or some reason (that’s how I knew he wrote those songs) and I recognized the photo to the right, an iconic photo from Something/Anything (which was used as the backdrop for the show). When I saw that he was playing at McCarter, I decided it was time to check him out. Now, I was going to see a show the night before and normally I don’t like to do two nights in a row, but since this show was so close by (and I knew I’d be home by eleven) I decided to go. And I had a great time.
The blurb for this show started: “The classic rocker Todd Rundgren may be 67, but he shows no signs of slowing down.” And that’s very true.
I managed to score a seat in Row J, which was so close to the man I could see him sweat (ew). The only problem was the very tall man sitting in front of me (I should have asked him to switch seats with his tiny wife).
While I was waiting for the show to start, a woman sat down next to me with her husband and some friends. She was super friendly (and a bit drunk) and we started talking. She asked how big a fan I was of Todd. And I had to admit that this was my first show. She told me that she first saw Todd when she was 16 (or 19 who can remember) and has seen him every tour since then (she’s in her 50s). She said he tours constantly and she will see him twice a year sometimes.
Normally I’m not much of a talker during a show, but I enjoyed having her next to me to occasionally guide me through what I was hearing. Unlike the louts at the end of the row who were talking really loudly and making jokes throughout the show (and getting up to go to the bar every couple of songs). They were big fans I could tell (they knew every song), but such disrespect I’ve never seen.
The lady (whose name I never got) told me that Todd makes a new playlist for each show and decides what he’s going to play an hour before he goes on. That was pretty cool. She told me a few other things that were interesting about him (he has a house that he built in Hawaii but he never goes there because he is always touring). And that, amazingly, she’d never actually met him after all these years.
And then the lights dimmed and the band came out. Followed by Todd. And the crowd went berserk! It was especially amusing because it was practically like a Tom Jones show, with women throwing themselves at him (my seatmate remained remarkably composed). These women (mostly) stood and applauded after each song, waved their arms and were so utterly into it, I was amazed.
Rundgren began the show with “I Saw the Light” another song I recognized but didn’t know was by him. He sang quite well (although he didn’t quite sound the way he does on record). And he wailed on his guitar (my neighbor informed me that his guitar is named Foamy). Todd marched to both sides of the stage to play solos (and you should have seen the number of cameras and phones that were held up to record his movements–mine included!).
And then he proceeded to play pretty much nonstop for the next two hours and change. After a couple of songs he told us what my neighbor did–that he has a bout 50 songs that he thinks about playing during any given show and then an hour beforehand he decides on the setlist. So each show is unique and that this would be the only show that has these song sin this particular order.
The rest of his band was really tight. On drums was Prairie Prince who has been The Tubes’ drummer forever. John Ferenzik (who is from Jersey) played keyboards. I mention he is from jersey because Todd pointed that out. He had some fun with his Jersey accent (He’s from just outside of Philly) and said he didn’t blame us for Chris Christie. (Todd was funny throughout the night with many comments like that). Kasim Sulton has played bass with just about everyone (including Rundgren’s Utopia back in the 70s). He had an album out at the merch table but I didn’t get it.
Jesse Gress on guitar. Gress was an amazing guitarist in his own right. I was surprised at how many times Todd took off his guitar and allowed Gress to do the solos (either he’s not a control freak or he needed a rest or he just trusted his band). So for about half of the songs, Todd put down his guitar and just sang (and did lots of hand motions that were pretty close to conducting the band).
When they launched into “Open My Eyes,” I was really surprised by how much that riff rocked. I was even further surprised to learn that this was from his first band Nazz, and was from 1968!
The overall sound of the show was kind of jazzy and/or rocking (no prog in sight). The backing vocals on “Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel) were really good–high-pitched and right on the money. The crowd all sang along for “Sweet” “Sing and shout it tell the world about it.”
Todd did all kinds of interesting stage motions as well as the conducting. So, for “Hammer in My Heart” he pounded at the stage along with the beat (see a short video here).
It was interesting to see which songs my neighbor got into–she likes the more mellow songs, for sure. For “Born to Synthesize” they played the song like a jazz lite song, slow and croony–she told me the original sounded nothing like that (true, the original is basically a capella). They took that song as an opportunity to play a solo for each person. First Gress played a wild solo (he is quite flashy), then Ferenzik did a slightly shorter keyboard solo. Then Sulton did a really short bass solo (I expected more actually) and Prince’s drum solo was amusingly short (just a bar or two). When Todd came back to the front of the stage he said “those were some weird solos.” He was off to the side of the stage during the solos and I thought it was really cool that the front man more or less left the stage to allow the other players to shine (he did this a few times).
The show covered so much of his career it was really amazing. He played songs from 14 of his solo albums, 3 Utopia albums, and 1 Nazz album. The Nazz song from 1968 was the oldest and the newest was “Blind” a song from his 2015 album Global. Rundrgen is not afraid to offend either. “Blind” has the lyric: “you say God will take care of everything–seems like he hasn’t done shit so far.” But that’s nothing compared to the song “Fascist Christ.” My neighbor told me that the song was banned on MTV. I thought the song totally rocked and was surprised to hear that the original comes from his 1983 album No World Order which was heavily influenced by electronica and rap (on record the song is more of a rap).
After the raging “Fascist Christ” he switched back to a sweet poppy song “Can We Still Be Friends” which my neighbor was thrilled by. But I really liked when they played “Rock Love,” a Utopia track. She told me that she’s never heard him play that before (that is pretty cool if in 30 years she’s never heard the song until now).
For “Number One Lowest Common Denominator” he tried to hit some high notes and didn’t quite pull it off. I really don’t know how good his voice has been live. He managed to hit a lot of notes but some without too much power. However, he also manged to do a lot of things very loudly and powerfully.
A few songs later a roadie brought out a pair of drums on a stand. My neighbor said you know what this is right? I didn’t realize what it was (for some reason I had thought that he did “Bang a Gong” not “Bang the Drum All Day”). I never really liked the song (neither did my neighbor) but it was a lot of fun live.
At one point near the end of the show he said he was going to ask what Foamy had to say. He picked up the guitar and played about half of the song before he broke a string. The roadie came out with another guitar and my neighbor said she had never seen him play a guitar other than foamy–so many firsts for her!
Having now been so confounded by just what songs Rundgren had written, I was even more puzzled when he sang a medley: “I’m So Proud,” “Ooh Baby Baby” and “I Want You.” The first part of the medley appears on one of his albums, but he didn’t write them (I was pretty sure he didn’t write “Ooh Baby Baby,” but who knew at that point).
I rather enjoyed the very simple opening riff of “Drive” (that was another song that some of the high notes were a bit hard for him to reach although overall he handled it very well).
There was one more Utopia song (as it turns out none of the really weird prog songs that last 10 minutes were played this night). And after a couple more songs he ended the main set with the funky “Love Science” (fun backing vocals on this song too).
I genuinely didn’t know if he’d play “Hello It’s Me.” But he came out for the encore and that’s what he played and the crowd went bananas again. People left their seats and crowded the aisles all trying to get up close to the stage. Todd sang the first few verses and then pretty much had the crowd sing the rest of the song. He high-fived and fist bumped and shook hands with the people crowding the stage during the song. That song segued into the night’s final song, ” A Dream Goes on Forever.” He seemed to have a lot of fun with this song, singing the words and then seeming to talk nonsense and then mouth nonsense inaudibly as he walked along shaking hands with everyone who wanted to and then slowly waving and walking off stage while the band kept playing.
For a show that I didn’t have any expectations for, I really enjoyed it. And while I probably wouldn’t go to see him again, I can totally understand why people see him all the time. If I had been a fan over the years, I would absolutely want to see every show he does since they are all so different.
And, I had managed to park right across the street from the theater and was home by 11!
There are hundreds of shows and compilations of Todd online, but I was particularly taken with this compilation of his appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman (50 minutes in total!)
I Saw the Light
Love of the Common Man
Open My Eyes (Nazz song)
Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel
Hammer in My Heart (Utopia song)
Born to Synthesize
Can We Still Be Friends
Rock Love (Utopia song)
Number 1 Lowest Common Denominator
Bang the Drum All Day
I’m So Proud (The Impressions cover)
Ooo Baby Baby (The Miracles cover)
I Want You (Marvin Gaye cover)
Secret Society (Utopia song)
Hello It’s Me
A Dream Goes on Forever