Monday, February 27, 2012

Todd Rundgren's Unpredictable Evening At City Winery



I saw Todd Rundgren last night. I got home just as Meryl Streep was giving her Best Actress acceptance speech. She joked a bit about how the first thing that came to her mind upon hearing her name called, was how the world would deliver a collective groan and think, "Oh no! Not Her again." Then she shrugged it off and said, "But whatever. This is probably the last time I'll be up here." I guess the older one gets, the opportunities to do what you do best become infrequent, so you might as well revel in the successes as they come.

I haven't yet seen "The Iron Lady," so I don't really know how good Meryl was as Margaret Thatcher. I imagine it was her usual riffing on an accent, which when nailed, is some of the best riffing in the game. But as I was saying....I saw Todd Rundgren last night.

It was Night One of Todd's City Winery residency, which is being called "An Unpredictable Evening With...." For those who have seen Rundgren as many times as I have, beginning as early as 1975, you know "unpredictable" doesn't necessarily mean, "Now I'd like to do Side Two of "Runt." It can, especially in later years, mean 3 songs in a row with flubbed lyrics.

But not last night.

The shows are being billed as "semi-acoustic," but there were two electric guitars on stage, an electric bass and a drum kit. The approach was a bit lighter in sound, with the band casually seated, and yet, just as heavy as a classic Rundgren performance can be. The most "unpredictable" thing about the night was Rundgren's demeanor. As my friend Lesley pointed out, "It's been years since I've seen him this relaxed. It was like he really wanted to be there...like he was really having fun." She was right.  That alone made "Night One" an absolute joy.

There were some "unpredictable" tunes, as well. It's been a long time since full (sort of) band versions of Utopia faves like "Lysistrata" and "One World" were played. Same can be said for the cover of ? & The Mysterians "96 Tears," which Utopia covered in the 80s. It was also a nice surprise to see Todd at the piano for near-perfect versions of "Too Far Gone" & "Compassion." Even more of a surprise was just how much I loved the cover of Lorne Greene's "Endless Prairie." Unlike Todd's recent and somewhat relentless setlisting of Red Rider's "Lunatic Fringe," this oddball choice didn't feel forced or lazy. It'd be easy to complain, like some impatient bar patrons behind me, about how that slot would have been better utilized with a "hit." But I can honestly say, seeing our boy enjoy himself with Kas and Jesse and Greg (?) and especially those in attendance, was much more satisfying to me than another take on "Hello It's Me." And given the opportunity, I wouldn't swap the Lorne Greene cover out.

There were some "hits," like the bossa nova version "I Saw The Light," which I  prefer over the pop version only because Todd spares us the maniac cackle after the line, "It's not something that I say in jest." "Black & White" from 1976's "Faithful" rocked while one of the most stunning versions of "I Don't Want To Tie You Down," from "A Wizard/A True Star" made me understand just why I keep coming back time and time again to see this man perform.

Rundgren looked good, younger even, and his voice was about as perfect as you'd want it be, with his falsetto clean, natural and unforced. One more "unpredictable" moment which was also the last, was when Todd Rundgren sat at the piano one more time for a version of "Hawking," a song about Stephen Hawking that has been blowing my mind since it was released on 1989's "Nearly Human" almost 25 years ago. This is a vocal tour de force, and lately Todd has been nailing it while playing the guitar. This was the first time I'd seen him attempt this on solo piano. If not for one hiccup on the last verse, which snapped me out of my euphoria almost long enough to mind, this performance of "Hawking" might have been the most powerful since it's debut.

Like Meryl Streep, I imagine Todd Rundgren has begun to feel mortal. He is human, after all. Maybe he's not sure how much longer he'll be up there. And just maybe, that feeling is the linchpin to a new approach in his career, one where he takes it a day or even a minute at a time. He did point out early on, "Unpredictable could either mean, this will be a night you will relish forever or one you will regret for the rest of your life." I have no regrets about last night. This was Todd Rundgren the way I want him.





15 comments:

Marcia said...

Wow, thanks for the great review, Sal. He did Hawking??!! Great. Hard to believe it has been that long since Nearly Human, isn't it? He will be doing 2 nights here- can't wait!

Anonymous said...

If he's feeling mortal, maybe he'll finally give in and give us that quasi-acoustic/piano pop album we've all been waiting for since Runt, Ballad Of, and S/A. Randy

Noam Sane said...

Thanks for the review, Sal. Sounds like a great show...I, too, lose it every time I hear "Hawking," especially that majestic sax solo.

Apparently some of the Winery shows will be broadcast on the web - www.toddrundgrenwebcast.com. Twenny dolla. Pretty good deal, really.

Great live show from last year in Amsterdam, with a full orchestra - radio broadcast, it sounds great - grab it before it disappears:

http://bigozine2.com/roio/?p=981

allen vella said...

As someone who was sitting near Sal, and not as big a fan ( and what that means is I don't know his catalog as thoroughly, but have always felt Todd is a wizard, a true star) as some of the others in attendance, Sal nailed the performance in his review. I had no idea what to expect, haven't seen the man in over 30 yrs, and I've read Sals reviews through the years, so I gathered it could have gone many ways. Having no expectations is usually a good thing... As a relative novice, what I saw was a super talented, professional doing what he does best,effortlessly,relaxed, and with great humor. What blew me away was his voice, it was so spot on, he had control, nuance, passion and strength all in tact. It is such an iconic instrument to me, and it came through in all its splendor.(his falsetto kills!) I would have loved to see him rip on a guitar solo. The band (Jesse and Kasim) was excellent, (the drummer, who I understand is not a regular member was ok). In all, for me this was a real treat and a memorable event. I shall return! TYS

misospecial said...

still feeling good after this one, and preparing for tonight (what will it bring?)

my favorite line: "be ready for an evening of unexpected pleasures and disappointments."

the lorne greene segment had me in tears. to me it was like we were up in his room and he played us this stuff—it was goofy, it was weirdly inspired, it felt like we were in on the joke, and it was one of the shows i will remember forever.

Sal Nunziato said...

Thanks Noam. I do have that Amsterdam show and it is as you say, GREAT!

Anonymous said...

I was there last night and you captured the evening perfectly. Do you know why he left all the lead guitar breaks to the other guitarist on stage?

Sal Nunziato said...

@Anon I was thinking the same thing about Todd not soloing. The tan Telecaster didn't look familiar either. Between the Utopia reunion and the Robert Johnson shows, maybe he had enough soloing.

cmealha said...

I keep rooting for him. The Amsterdam shows and your description of last night's show make me think he's starting to take it seriously again. No matter how often I get frustrated with him all is forgiven when I hear what it is he is capable of.

A walk in the woods said...

Cool. I saw him on the weird Utopia reunion last year in Atlanta -- wait, actually, technically, it was "Todd Rundgren's Utopia" which is similar but different -- and it was one of the best Todd shows I've ever seen. Not because I really really love his prog side (although I do find it pretty interesting) but because the whole idea was so odd that I liked it better than just a greatest hits show.

He does seem to be in a cool place right now where he feels free to just do any damn thing -- techno album? Sure! blues album? sure! Prog rock tour? sure! Acoustic weird tour? sure! Ringo's All Star Band? sure!

And I dig that.

retroDan said...

fantastic review Sal. glad "reProductions" didn't turn you off of Todd completely. was a bit worried there. heh.

curious to see if Todd's going to change his set list during his stay at City Winery.

Anonymous said...

I think he leaves a lot of solos to Jesse because Jesse is just a great guitarist. I think if you asked Todd whether he or Jesse is the better guitarist, he would say Jesse is (in most respects). Todd is great, and a great guitarist himself, but he is pretty realistic about his strengths and weaknesses. If he thinks someone else in the band can do a better job on a particular part than he can, or if he'd prefer to concentrate on nailing some other aspect of the song (like the vocal), he'll happily delegate to another band member.

A guy called Tak said...

Sal, now I want to listen to the show.
Anyone recorded?

Sal Nunziato said...

Tak,

There is this:
www.toddrundgrenwebcast.com

Unknown said...

Sal, it was great catching up with you. I realized that I haven't read your blog in awhile, so I wanted to make a point to stop by. Your writing is stellar as usual and although I'm not a big Rundgren fan, I enjoyed your review. Let me know what you think of Volbeat, I think I can take it....