Steadfast in his determination to chart his own path and avoid being typecast by the record biz, Todd Rundgren debuted a forthcoming album in its entirety before a largely unsuspecting aud Wednesday night. “Arena,” title of the disc, seems to find an artist loath to repeat himself in a reflective mood. The heavy themes of his most recent effort, 2004’s “Liars,” remain on point with such provocative new tunes as “Mercenary,” “Afraid” and “Mad”; the overarching sound, as the album title suggests, harkens back to the days when large venues echoed with songs full of rousing power chords, riffing and soloing. The music was generally well-received.
Unfortunately, the exquisite blue-eyed soul of Rundgren’s early solo career gets short shrift in this context. “Weakness,” a love song where Achilles’ heel and Kryptonite are among the terms of endearment, stands out. And the spiritually themed “Bardo” sounds like Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” revisited. But “Strike” and the aforementioned “Mercenary,” both approaching metal, put quite a strain on Rundgren’s vocal cords, particularly when the latter number tested the ability of the sexagenarian to repeatedly shriek, “How you like me now!?”
Rundgren introduced one new song with a “double-your-money-back guarantee” to anyone in the crowd not pleased with it, which he subsequently offered to triple when he realized he applied it to the wrong tune. But the song in question, “Courage,” immediately recalled the power-pop of his ’70s-’80s band Utopia in their prime, all major and minor seventh chords and easily accessible. And he was right — no money was refunded.
His touring band’s mix of longtime compatriots (drummer Prairie Prince, guitarist Jesse Gress) and fresh faces (bassist Rachel Haden, keyboardist Matt Bolton) also seemed to mirror Rundgren’s current mindset of embracing the future with a foot in the past. And a half-dozen songs before the start of the “Arena” set were offered in a blatant attempt to appease those in the mood for something recognizable, among them “Open My Eyes” and “I Saw the Light.” Oddly, two other “hits” included were covers, the Call’s “Walls Came Down” and Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe,” which evidently are personal faves of Rundgren for their timeless sociopolitical commentary.
“Just One Victory,” from his 1973 opus “A Wizard, A True Star,” served as the inspiring encore it has been for many a year and finds Rundgren still hard-pressed to write something/anything more anthem-oriented. The number of Utopia-like moments throughout the night suggest a reunion might be in order. It would be a blip on the scale of other recent rock regroupings, but it would mean oh so much to the act’s faithful following.