Todd Rundgren probably confused more than a few fans with his rave-centric show Sunday night at the Hard Rock Rocksino in Northfield Park.
That’s because the songwriter / super-producer took the stage with a D.J. and two female dancers instead of Kasim Sulton and his backup rock-and-roll musicians (or symphony orchestra, as has recently been the case).
“C’mon Todd! Where’s your band?” we heard one disenchanted ticketholder yelling.
But Toddheads should know to expect the unexpected from Rundgren by now. And if they’d bothered picking up his latest disc, Global (or even 2013’s State), they’d have anticipated the tech-powered dance party instead of a customary rock concert.
Not that there’s anything “customary” about a Rundgren show.
Moreover, Todd wrote and recorded the majority of Global all by his lonesome at his secluded island studio in Hawaii, using the latest computer software. So it can’t be said that Rundgren is pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes by not recruiting a drummer, bassist, or guitarist for the current tour.
No such musicians appeared on the record; having any onstage would’ve been the real ruse.
But even without Todd’s typical auxiliary players on hand, the Northfield affair was anything but stripped-down. On the contrary, the hundred-minute performance was loud, rambunctious, kinetic, and colorful as a candy store, thanks largely to Pasadena emcee Dam Funk (Damon Riddick), who was charged with triggering Todd’s throbbing tracks from atop an elevated riser at center stage.
The Philly-born music guru himself presided down front, flanked by dancing girls Ashley and Grace, whose constant presence brought a pleasant balance to the visuals (as did four perpetually-flickering video columns, two each on the left and right). Wearing a black vest, black pants, and black Nike sneakers (and his now-trademark sunglasses), Rundgren strode into view following a “Thank You” keyboard intro by Dam Funk and dove, headfirst, into Global without so much as a glance over his shoulder.
As its name suggests, the new album is about humanity—people’s relationships with one another and their home world. And from opening selections “Ev’rybody” and “Flesh and Blood,” Todd touched on those sociological, ecological, and sometimes astrological themes throughout the night, crooning into a hand-held microphone while pacing back and forth onstage.
One really couldn’t want for a more boisterous icebreaker than “Ev’rybody,” whose call to clap your hands and revel in togetherness (rather than the petty distinctions between people) was bolstered by a huge beat and robotic background voice. Rundgren played guitar on these cuts (and a couple others)—a translucent instrument that illuminated blue and red from within—his crunchy chords and searing licks satisfying those desperate for a more genuine “rock” element, his nimble finger-work preventing the show from feeling like evening of glorified Rundgren karaoke.
The girls strutted in glittery miniskirts and Afro wigs for the first few numbers, then changed into other outfits that matched the music: Eastern belly-dancer costumes, streetwise sweats, etc. A few audience members tried keeping up the with ladies’ synchronized aerobatics, shaking their hips and flailing their limbs to the electronic grooves and percussion, but it took a little longer for a few older spectators to get with the program.
“Your asses have gotta be numb by now!” Todd good-naturedly teased.
“Truth” harkened to 2004 album Liars, while “Secret Society” was the first of a couple callbacks to Todd’s mid’80s stint with Utopia. “Ping Me” (from State) lampooned 21st century forms of communication. “Earth Mother” found Rundgren engaging in some fancy footwork alongside the ladies. “Skyscraper” indicted one-percenters, condemning the Armani suits and ivory towers of Wall Street and encouraging a bridging of socioeconomic classes.
“Blind,” “Smoke,” “Holy Land,” and “Terra Firma” continued the Global trend, but “One World” brought listeners back to Utopia (without sacrificing thematic continuity). Liars cut “Future” dovetailed nicely with the new “Global Nation,” but we’re sure not many minded when Todd slowed things down a bit for the poignant ballad “Soothe.” Heck, he probably needed the break, too; the Hard Rock’s two in-house video screens showed perspiration beading on Rundgren’s brow.
Todd’s encore consisted of three of his biggest hits, albeit globalized with the same pulsating electronic grooves that charged the new material. Indeed, it took a while to spot 1978 single “Can We Still Be Friends?” because of the facelifts given its familiar progression and keyboard leitmotif. Likewise, Something / Anything? classics “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me” received musical makeovers—but at least folks could (and did) sing along.
A Wizard, A True Star throwback “International Feel” proved an invigorating finale, but “Just One Victory” proved the more apt closer given the Cavs’ playoff victory earlier that afternoon.
We can’t take the Runt rapscallion to task for taking risks in concert—certainly not after considering he’s made a career of shucking trends, pushing boundaries, exploring musical left fields, pioneering new tech, and playing pop-rock chameleon for nearly half a century. When you think about it, launching another tour with a rock band (however talented), would’ve been the far easier route for Rundgren.
But where’s the challenge in that?
Dam Funk was a capable host and Korg keyboardist, but we’d be lying if we said his repetitious extolling to “Clap your hands, y’all!” and “Bring the noise, Ohio!” didn’t lend a hip-hop feel to the proceedings. Were it not for Rundgren’s manic onstage mobility, breathless vocals, and ace guitar work, we might’ve left the Hard Rock feeling disillusioned.
Fortunately, that axe kept things anchored in the rock vernacular for which should-be-Rock-Hall-of-Famer Rundgren is celebrated.
And even a night of Todd doing karaoke covers of his own work—which, we’ve already established, this wasn’t—would be a worthwhile spectacle: An Evening of Rundgren Does Rundgren.
Miss the gig? It was filmed for broadcast on Yahoo at www.screen.yahoo.com/live/event/todd-rundgren , where it may still be available for viewing.
But if you’ve just got to see it in person, Todd has scheduled new Ohio dates at Kent Stage (August 11) and Lorain Palace Theatre (August 12).
Todd will appear on The Late Show With David Letterman this evening, April 27, 2015.
We’ll be reviewing the new album, Global, later this week.