Concert Review: Todd Rundgren Rediscovers a Pop Catalog’s Glory

A 1970s singles repertoire ranking alongside Elton John's and Paul McCartney's gets its full due in this A-sides- and B-sides-filled tour.

Todd Rundgren Goes Full Fan-Service on
Chris Willman

In the past year, hell has frozen over a couple of times for Todd Rundgren. There was that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination — devotees never thought they’d see the meritorious day — which, if only the fan vote had counted, would have seen him sliding in. And then there is the matter of Rundgren, who previously has done concert outings where he sang close to no easily recognizable catalog material, now acceding to fan demand and doing a tour where he plays virtually all of his known hit and semi-hits, down to the very poppiest of them. He’s performing 1970’s “We Gotta Get You a Woman” every night on this tour, for heaven’s sake, so hell’s flame tips must surely be nipping.

The “Individualist Tour” that touched down Thursday and Friday at the Wiltern in Los Angeles actually represents maybe the greatest fan servicing Rundgren has offered in his 51-year career, or at least since the shows that got turned into 1978’s “Back to the Bars” live album. (And even then, he wasn’t about to backtrack to “Leroy, boy…”) A few years ago, he did do a more purely rock ‘n’ roll-based tour that found him revisiting a surprising quorum of the classics… something he indicated at the time was a one-time sop to popular demand, but which maybe he enjoyed more than he thought he would. Last year saw a Utopia reunion tour, another snow-day-in-the-underworld special. For this year, promoters asked if he’d do a “Something/Anything?” full-album tour, something that didn’t hold much appeal for him. But he did take an interest in the idea of a series of retrospectively based two-night stands that would incorporate audience Q&As, as a sort of book tour behind his highly readable memoir of last year, “The Individualist — Digressions, Dreams & Dissertations.” In these, he’d get to promote what he’d set down in black and white, as well as also, like, play “Black and White.” And there’d be at least one question guaranteed not to come up in these Q&As: How come you didn’t play “Can We Still Be Friends”?

Watching Rundgren tear through one of the greatest song catalogs of the 1970s in the first act, I was reminded of talking with Elvis Costello and how he came to terms with emphasizing what at least the fair-weather portion of his fan base considers the classic period. He uses the word “repertoire” — which is so much classier a word than oldies. And does Rundgren have repertoire: Hearing so much of the early material played chronologically, as it is in the first part of this show, you quickly come to realize, if you didn’t already, that his only peers during that period, as far as singer/songwriters who wee able to effortlessly churn out streams of three-minute masterpieces, were Paul McCartney and Elton John. Elton is taking his repertoire on a farewell tour right now; Todd has aired out some of these equally worthy songs so infrequently, it almost feels like a hello tour.

For Record Store Day in April, a box set was released that includes all of Rundgren’s A-sides and B-sides from the 1970s through early ‘90s. Perhaps coincidentally, this tour is broken down into two sets each night, the first emphasizing mostly the A-sides, followed after intermission by a set made up mostly of deep tracks. Each night, the 18-song opening setlist is identical, while the second, nine-or-10-song set is completely different between the two nights at each stop on the tour. That has the effect of satisfying different constituencies. One- and two-night tickets were offered at each American city along the way, so anyone coming just for one was guaranteed the hits in part 1 and anyone serious enough to go in for a two-fer was guaranteed nothing but surprises in the show’s second halves. The gambit also satisfied another important constituency: Rundgren himself, who’s never been big on boredom. Even attendees checking in for just one night benefit from an artist keeping himself on his toes.

But even the “hits” set includes a wealth of material he’s rarely played over the years, starting with the 1974 opener, “I Think You Know,” which maybe was chosen because of the establishing message it sends out: I think you know these songs. From there, it was back to the beginning of the chronology, with two cuts from the Nazz’s first 1968 album, “Open My Eyes” and “Hello, It’s Me.” Of course it was his solo remake four years later that was the hit, but Rundgren reminded the audience it was the first song he ever wrote. “What do I write it about?” he wondered aloud, standing in front of a projection of the Nixonian pose he struck on the inside jacket of “Something/Anything?” “It’s 1967, ‘68, the summer of love. I thought, should I write about the Vietnam War, or should I write about taking drugs that I hadn’t taken yet?… I realized it was right in front of my face,” he noted, striking a mock-sobbing tone. “I was still upset about the girl that broke up with me in my senior year of high school” (“and her dad turned his hose on me,” he added on night 2, an additional detail from the memoir). “I realized after that and the success of that song, if you can’t think of anything else, write a song about a girl.”

What he didn’t add is that by the mid-‘70s he was moving away from these girl songs, considering them low-hanging fruit — hence the invention of side project Utopia (not explored in these sets), and solo tracks ranging from the epic religious sendup “Eastern Intrigue” to the homeless-themed ballad “Bag Lady,” both brought up for rare performances in the second set of the Wiltern’s first night. The war between Rundgren’s commercial and less commercial instincts did not come up for discussion in the show’s loosely book-based monologs, but the battle for supremacy between his guitar-oriented and keyboard songs did, as he verbalized an inner dialogue with his jilted axe. After “A Dream Goes on Forever,” he said, “This guy (the guitar) is really getting bent out of shape. He said, ‘Is there something you want to tell me? The clavinet — that’s not even a piano! That’s for guitar players who don’t want to hurt their fingers.’ I said, ‘Fair point.’”

Rundgren was very much in guitar hero mode, more so than on a lot of recent tours where he’d left the trademark vintage solos to second guitarist Jesse Gress — although Gress did pick up a couple of those in the numbers where Rundgren put his instrument down to athletically pace the stage, as he does any time the material starts veering toward his melismatic Philly-soul side. Kasim Sulton provided bass and Utopian harmonies, as he has more years than not since 1975, with the Tubes’ Prairie Prince on drums and the Cars’ Greg Hawkes on keyboard also starting to suspiciously resemble lifers at this point. The wrinkle in this particular ensemble was Bobby Strickland, playing some additional keyboards but mostly concentrating on flute and baritone and tenor sax, after a few decades in which wind instruments didn’t seem too much on Rundgren’s mind. That addition made possible the most extreme rarity of all, the intermission-preceding “Fair Warning,” which featured epic sax soloing from Edgar Winter 45 years ago and which now has Strickland briefly taking the show to an elevated place strings and keys alone can’t.

Video footage gave an especially amusing kick to two choices — the Gilbert & Sullivan-esque “An Elpee’s Worth of Tunes,” which was set to a visual medley of the covers of the dozens of albums Rundgren produced as well as issued himself over the years, and “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” which camped it up with clips of go-go dancers (and a hip-shaking Angie Dickinson) during the choruses.

The first set each night was such a complete show unto itself that anybody would have gone happy after those 90 minutes, though you’d hope nobody did, having missed his announcement of a second act to come under the applause. The only commonality of the second set between the Thursday and Friday shows was the tour’s title song, “The Individualist,” from the mid-‘90s, which was the answer to the musical question: Is there anything Todd Rundgren can’t do? Yes: rap. (There’s a big element of whimsicality in the number, so no one probably need fear Rundgren thinks of himself as a failed hip-hopper at heart.) From there, the remainder of each night was different, through to the climax of “Fade Away” on night 1 and “Just One Victory” the next. (Getting “Hello, It’s Me” out of the way at the outset does allow for more interesting choices of climaxes.) Choosing either night as a you-shoulda-been-there pick is tough: Thursday had the yin and yang of the exquisite “Bag Lady” and the soul-revue rouser “Want of a Nail.” Friday had Sulton joining him for the a cappella rarity “Honest Work,” which sounded like a lost Stephen Foster lament, and “Kindness,” which you also would take as a cover if you didn’t know better, of a devastating show tune.

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Chris Willman

The Q&A segments that began the second half on both nights ranged from the ridiculous (hair coloring on night 1, boxers or briefs on night 2) to the instructive, like a second-night query about when he mastered singing technique. “I was only learning how to sing by the time I got to ‘Something/Anything?’,” he said. That was when I was listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder’s [1970 album] called ‘Signed, Sealed & Delivered’… I realized you don’t sing up here,” he added, moving his hand from his head to his abdomen, “you sing from here. That’s when I started becoming a singer that I would listen to.”

There was only one fleeting nod to age, and certainly no concessions, during the shows. It came at the end of the second-night closer, “Just One Victory,” with Rundgren grasping or slapping hands at the lip of the stage for a minute or two and then touching his hand to his lower back, as it to feign an ache. That visual gag aside, these were shows that saw Rundgren playing and especially singing like a guy in his 20s. He’s figured out a way to howl and still keep his voice fresh and supple for the falsetto-laden ballads, which at 70 has to involve more tricks and/or good living than he lets on. Something as demanding as “Bag Lady,” which goes from plaintive lament to deep-voiced recitative with a lot of twists and turns in between, should be vexing enough to have aged out of his repertoire, but he tosses it off as seemingly effortlessly as the guitar heroics to which he’s returned after spending so many decades focusing on other concerns. If only he’d go on an elixir-hawking tour after he’s done pushing books.