And the hits just kept on coming …
Well, not hits exactly. Todd Rundgren has three Top 40 singles on his resume, including one Top 10, “Hello, It’s Me” (No. 5 in 1973), which he played very early in his marathon show at the Mahaffey Theater Thursday night. He easily coaxed the crowd into a sing-along (“It’s important to meeee / that you know you are freeee”).
Todd sounded terrific, his voice in sturdy shape, reaching for high notes, and occasionally coming up short, but reaching nonetheless — impressive for a fellow two days shy of his 71st birthday. The songs he and his ace five-piece band performed may not have been hits in the strictest sense, but to the predominantly Boomer crowd they were vital tunes in the soundtracks of our young lives. So, hits to our ears, yes.
“I Think You Know,” a bit of a lugubrious opener, was followed by “Open My Eyes,” a 1968 power-pop gem by his first band, Nazz; then “Hello, It’s Me;” “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” a breezy ode to youthful innocence; “I Saw the Light,” a 1972 prom song that has aged extremely well; “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” a complicated break-up ballad; “An Elpee’s Worth of Tunes,” a novelty interlude; the riffy/sludgy “Black Maria,” with hair-singe-ing guitar solos; “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel" …
[Pause for a breath] The tunes came from the first half of the 1970s, when Todd was a fount of songwriting, singing, producing and multi-instrumental brilliance. It’s fair to say that a goodly number of audience members had the tunes tattooed in their brains. He could’ve ended there, maybe dropped in a couple of encores, and few of us would’ve complained.
But, as the saying goes, he was just getting warmed up.
Why all this looking back, this crowd-pleasing, when just two years ago, at the very same venue, he played most of a new album, White Knight, and stubbornly doled out only a couple of pre-2K songs? Because Rundgren is touring behind the release of his memoir-ish book The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams and Dissertations, so he was in autobiographical mode. An undeniably good thing.
Dressed in a drapey black shirt and huggy black jeans, his eyes hidden behind aviator shades, Todd regaled the crowd with a few wry, self-deprecating anecdotes. Harking back to his Philadelphia salad days, he mused, “sitting in the corner of the subway station playing the blues like only a white man can.” After an intermission, he did a brief Q&A session, responding to video queries recorded by fans during the break.*
It was just before intermission that the show reached its fever pitch. “Real Man,” beefed up from the recorded version, led into a similarly beefed-up “Love of the Common Man,” followed by “Compassion,” which gave way to a thrilling “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” probably Todd’s most perfect rock song. Lots of folks leapt to their feet, no small feat for many of the geezers on hand.
For the second, shorter, set, we got a healthy dose of esoteric Todd (but at this point, it would’ve been unseemly to gripe). He opened with “The Individualist” — the title track from a failed 1995 experimental album — where he raps, ill-advisedly. The song is something of a manifesto, though, so it was admirable that he stuck to his guns. The convoluted “Eastern Intrigue,” from 1975’s artsy Initiation album (arguably his first act of all-out commercial subterfuge), was a deranged mess. The dream-pop-like “Tiny Demons,” the closing track on 1981’s Healing, signaled that the hit parade was well behind us.
Set two had its formidable moments, though. Todd and two bandmates, Jesse Gress and Kasim Sultan, served up a lovely surprise by singing, a cappella, the Irish-style ballad “Honest Work,” from the 1985 album A Cappella. Then Todd and company rolled back into rock with a crunchy version of “Black and White.” “The Want of a Nail” (Nearly Human, ‘89) continued the hard sprint to the finish, and had a few of us dancing in the aisles.
Todd returned for one encore, 1978’s “Fade Away,” a sweet, sentimental number that gave the concert a soft landing. A farewell shot of adrenalin — “Just One Victory” comes to mind — would have been preferable. But having witnessed Todd’s two-and-a-half hour retrospective, delivered with commitment and verve, who am I to quibble?
* The best Q&A query: If Todd formed a band like the Traveling Wilburys, who would he want in it? He hemmed and hawed, said he liked his current band, and finally came up with one name: Pete Townshend. It would have been nice to get a full answer.