Even though he just turned 70, Todd Rundgren remains as irreverent as ever. So it made sense that he’d play a whimsical version of “I Won’t Grow Up” during his recent stop in Columbus.
Always unpredictable, Rundgren is even more so when he tours as Unpredictable. On these occasions, he and his long-time band–guitarist Jesse Gress; former Tubes drummer Prairie Prince; Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton; and keyboardist Greg Hawkes of the Cars – work off a list of several dozen original and cover songs and play the ones that strike Rundgren’s fancy on that particular evening. And on this night, the result was a wildly diverse, two-hour set of songs that bounced around musical history like a wayward pinball.
Rundgren’s voice has deepened and coarsened over the years but it’s still a unique instrument and the singer has adjusted, making use of his still-ample power and the vibrato that sets him apart from virtually every other male rock vocalist. Having Sulton’s seemingly ageless voice–a staple of Rundgren’s live show for four decades–in the mix also helps.
Looking like he’d just busted jail in a black-and-white, long-sleeved shirt, Rundgren perched himself on a bar stool and led the band while sipping on a martini and a glass of water. Sometimes playing guitar and sometimes not, he spanned his own career with early songs such as “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” and “I Don’t Want to Tie You Down;” Utopia tracks like “Lysistrata” and “There Goes My Inspiration;” and “Let’s Do This” from 2017’s White Knight. Fan favorites such as “Love of the Common Man,” “Cliché,” “Black and White,” featuring Gress playing super-human fills, and the all-too-rare “Too Far Gone” also made well-received appearances.
But on Unpredictable evenings, it’s the covers that allow the band to show off its ability to play almost everything. And on Wednesday night in a well-sold Express Live!, the quintet did just that, recovering quickly after a wobbly opening hit on Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” and proving old songs often become relevant decades after the fact by playing a version of the Classic IV’s 1968 hit “Stormy,” which Rundgren promised to add new lyrics to.
They played swinging jazz on the oldie “Are You Havin’ Any Fun;” country and western on Johnny Cash’s “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and Little Feat’s “Don’t Bogart That Joint;” new-wave rock ‘n’ roll on the Cars’ “Good Times Roll;” and electrified folk on Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” which found a jovial Rundgren making the internationally recognized sign for screwing with his hands and, afterward, ruminating on what the song is really about.
Despite the diverse well the band dips into for shows like this, the musicians tend to play the songs close to their original arrangements – even on really weird choices like Lorne Greene’s spoken-word novelty “Endless Prairie,” the Big Bopper’s Native American novelty “Running Bear,” which was followed by a snippet of “Chantilly Lace,” and oddities from the ’80s such as “The Walls Came Down” by the Call and the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).”
Top-notch musicianship and interpretation made these songs go over well for a crowd that otherwise wouldn’t listen to many of them by choice.