Monday, March 28, 2011

A Todd Rundgren Two-Fer

In 1976, Todd Rundgren released an album called Faithful, side one of which was filled with covers of songs that he enjoyed in his youth, performed, naturally enough, as faithfully as possible to the original. They were, however, songs of unnatural complexity and distinction, such as the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. To Todd’s credit, they sound amazingly close to the originals, and I used to delight in fooling people by playing them his version of “Good Vibrations” and betting them that it wasn’t the Beach Boys.

In 2011, Todd has embraced an even greater challenge: covering himself as faithfully as possible. In keeping with a recent trend that has seen Lou Reed bring Berlin to the stage, Van Morrison resurrect Astral Weeks, and Steely Dan alternate among three consecutive albums in its catalog (The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho), Todd is performing not one but two of his classic albums: 1974’s Todd and 1981’s Healing. These are very different albums representing different periods in his career and in the state of music in general. Both can be lumped in with his more progressive works, though there are ample examples of pop, soul, heavy metal, and other styles throughout.

In the case of Healing, he had originally played all the parts himself. For this show, he put together a crack band of musicians with varying degrees of history with Todd. On guitar and keyboards was Jesse Gress; on bass, keyboards, and background vocals was Kasim Sultan, who played with Todd in Utopia; on drums was Prairie Prince from the Tubes, who has played with Todd for years; on keyboards was Greg Hawkes from the Cars (and the New Cars, featuring Todd) and Bobby Strickland, who also played soprano, alto, and baritone saxes, and recorders. In each city of the tour, he has recruited a local choir to perform as well. In Boston, where I caught the show on March 27, it was a Berklee College of Music group called Overjoyed.

If you knew the albums, you knew the show. The only surprise came in the visual aspects – and in the fact that this complex music was recreated exquisitely well. Visually, the band were in the height of 70s glam fashion during the Todd material, with lights and lasers recreating the era of arena rock excess. During the somewhat more spiritual Healing material, I noticed that the band were all barefoot. Unfortunately, Todd’s presentation was so faithful that during the Healing set, Prairie Prince used electronic drums extensively, an artifact from the era best left in the past.

It was a magnificent evening, all the more amazing to me because I actually have had zero interest in anything the man has done since 1989’s Nearly Human. I had long written him off as someone who lost his way, who abandoned music for computers and various side projects that drew him away from his strength, a devotion to music of uncompromising power and originality. But last night, even as the music was from decades gone by, he was fully engaged and energized in his performance.

And his audience, as always, was with him all the way. Few artists have such a loyal and devoted following as does Todd (even though I wasn’t going along with his more recent stuff, I could never turn my back from his work from the early 70s to the late 80s). This was demonstrated by the fact that the anthemic final song of the night, Todd’s "Sons of 1984", ended with a refrain that the crowd picked up seamlessly as the curtain closed on the band. For minutes after the lights went up, the faithful continued to croon, “Worlds of tomorrow/Life without sorrow/Take it because it’s yours/Sons of 1984.”

That song, of course, was written in 1974. Performed now in 2011, it seemed to take on a different meaning. That utopian promise in some ways seems further away than ever before, but this world is ours, this music is ours, and it’s up to us to make our lives what we want them to be. I had never doubted that Todd had been delivering such a message in many of his works for many years, but last night’s concert provided a guided tour not only to his past but to mine as well, and everyone in the theater. It’s not too late. Orwell’s 1984 never happened. It’s still possible. You just have to remain faithful.


Kathy said...

Thanks. It was one of the most special nights of my life. Todd has been my musical epicenter since I first discovered him. I've been one of the faithful and will continue to be forever and a day.

Jeff Berlin said...

Hey Jason, wish i knew you were there too, would have been great to finally meet you ! Great review! It was a transcendental experience to watch Todd do Todd.. an album I've listened several hundred times. In an age of instant gratification, knowing that any song can be summoned and replayed at any time, when all information is at your fingertips all the time - seeing these songs perfectly re-created note for note, live on stage, was jarring. As I watched and listened I knew this moment could never be relived - how important it was to be "in the moment".

however I would differ on 1984 never coming true, .. i believe we're living under Big Brother right now, we're just dimly aware of it. For instance your cell phone tracks you wherever you go.. we are indeed the sons of 1984

bonsai said...

Hi Jason,

I'm sorry to hear that the instrumentation detracts so much from the material that the post-1989 material doesn't live up to Todd's previous work. Vive la difference -- and fortunately, there's so much of Todd's work to go around.

If you have an inclination to dip your toe into the post-1989 pool, "Godsaid" and "Afterlife" from the Liars album, though synth-driven, are two of Todd's most sublime pieces ever, in my opinion. The melodies, gorgeous chord progressions, and wonderful point of view are all just you'd expect from Todd's earlier works --- just more nuanced from the passage of time.

Thanks for the post!

Just my $0.02.