He’s been Runt; a Wizard, a True Star; the Hermit of Mink Hollow; and TR-i among other musical personalities. But on his current tour to support his recent memoir, Todd Rundgren is once again the Individualist.
“This is all about me,” a self-deprecating Rundgren told the sold-out crowd that on May 6 packed the 1,000-seat Ohio Theatre in Cleveland on the second of a two-night stand in a city that’s likely home to more fans per capita than any other.
Like the book, this tour focuses on his career up to Rundgren’s 50th birthday and covers his emergence from Philly on the proto-punk of Nazz’s “Open My Eyes” through the guitar-based rock of “Buffalo Grass” from 2000’s One Long Year.
Backed by a five-piece band that included a Car (keyboardist Greg Hawkes) a Utopian (bassist Kasim Sulton, whose secondary lead vocals on “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel” proved why he’s a constant presence), a Tube (drummer Prairie Prince), guitarist Jesse Gress and woodwinds player/keys man Bobby Strickland, Rundgren had a solid underpinning and five-part harmonies to free him to play guitar or not play guitar and to improvise on vocals as he often did when pacing the lip of the stage and singing to fans up close. In incredibly strong voice, Rundgren rarely wavered out of key and has wisely tuned down some of the songs to match his deeper – but still emotionally effective – 70-year-old voice.
By Rundgren’s standards, this show was a marathon – a two-set affair of 90 and 70 minutes, respectively. Indicative of nothing, apparently, Rundgren was dressed head to toe in tight, black clothing for the first half and loose, white garb for round two. The back half of the evening opened with Rundgren answering a few videotaped fan questions where he said he loves to cook; “Bang the Drum all Day” (not played) was delivered in a dream by a “fiduciary angel;” and budding artists should take any available gig – even if it sucks.
But this concert was about making music and the music Rundgren and his band made was exquisite. Well-paced, with plenty of chestnuts (“A Dream Goes on Forever”) and rarities (“The Death of Rock and Roll”), the songs spilled forth like aural good fortunes. Still on top of his game, Rundgren played under a screen that showed images and videos of his younger self and album covers by artists – Meat Loaf, XTC, Badfinger and the New York Dolls to name just a few – he’s produced over the years.
Those productions and the money they generated freed Rundgren to do whatever he wanted in his own career and the breadth of his output was on staggering display on this night. Novelties like “An Elpee’s Worth of Toons” were juxtaposed with the guitar histrionics of “Black Maria” and willowy ballads like “Kindness,” on which Rundgren played faux conductor, and “Hello it’s Me” and never sounded out of place.
The singer rapped on the tour’s title song; he sung a cappella and gave the band a showcase – Strickland on baritone sax – on a jazzy “Born to Synthesize;” “Cliché” was, literally, electric; and songs that have been mothballed in recent years (“Real Man,” “The Want of a Nail” and “Lost Horizon” among them) were back like old friends who left the ’hood ages ago.
By the time he closed with “Just One Victory,” fans who had given sporadic standing ovations all evening had crowded up front for a chance to slap hands with their musical hero. Rundgren obliged.
But even if he hadn’t, he’d already delivered.