[29 April 2003]
A Weathered True Star
Mention the name Todd Rundgren to a member of Generation X, and you are likely to elicit one of two responses—“He’s that guy who raised Liv Tyler.” or “Oh yeah, he did that ‘Bang on the Drum’ song that gets played at sports events.” Both of these statements are, in fact, true—Rundgren is the former common-law husband of Bebe Buell, Ms. Tyler’s mother, and his 1983 novelty hit “Bang On the Drum All Day” has been absorbed into the standard canon of comic-primal rock viscera, alongside “Wooly Bully” and “Louie Louie”. Unbeknownst to many among us, however, Rundgren’s career includes far more than these two footnotes to popular culture. His path has been an endlessly fascinating, sometimes puzzling arc, from his stint as lead guitarist of the late-‘60s psychedelic rock band Nazz, to the winsome and tuneful hits of his early solo career, changing direction significantly with the 1973 masterwork A Wizard, A True Star, into the boggling sphere of prog-rock, up through his technological innovations in interactive music. The media and presentation of Todd Rundgren’s music have drastically evolved over the years, yet, at the core, his exceptional talent as a composer remains constant. During his performance to a full house at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, these simultaneous forces of change and consistency were in full evidence.
Rundgren began his nearly-three-hour set with the pro-peace anthem “Lysistrata”, passionately strumming away on a Takamine acoustic guitar and rhythmically stomping his foot in an almost trancelike manner. The performance garnered an enthusiastic, hand-clapping response from the audience. He continued with several songs on the acoustic guitar, a rarity from a musician whose style runs more toward experimental electronica.
Switching back and forth between a grand piano and the guitar throughout the course of the evening, Rundgren played material from his entire career, frequently infusing the performances with the off-the-wall humor that is his trademark. Although his once-soaring tenor voice has become coarse with the passage of time, the 54-year-old rocker has weathered the aging process fairly well. His impressive dexterity on guitar has not faltered, and, if his piano-playing style has traditionally run to the chordal and rhythmic ends of the spectrum, rather than aspiring to the stratosphere of the flashy solo, that style serves as a window into a compositional approach in which harmony serves as the basis for all other musical elements—a commonality between Rundgren and French Impressionist composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
One of the most prominent marks of Rundgren’s talent is his ability and willingness to completely reinterpret his own material and the material of others, in an imaginative manner comparable in scope (but not in sound) to that of jazz arranger Gil Evans. Rundgren’s re-imagined compositions were, naturally, quite eclectic; “Bang the Drum All Day” became a kitschy sendup of the Hawaiian tourism industry, complete with ukulele accompaniment; “Born to Synthesize”, one of Rundgren’s more angular electronic pieces, became a blues shuffle on acoustic guitar, and, at one point, incorporated the theme song from The Jetsons. The 1972 hit “I Saw the Light” was recast as a bossa nova, as Rundgren shook an avocado as if it were a maraca against a recorded backdrop. Over the course of the two-hour set, he also included earthy performances of two Marvin Gaye standards, “What’s Going On” and the soulful, plaintive “I Want You”. At the close of the concert, amidst the glowing camaraderie of the Rundgren-faithful, Todd walked along the front row of the theatre, shaking every outstretched hand he could. It was a gesture entirely in keeping with the entire evening, in which a musician greatly revered by many in the audience not only reminded them of his humanity, but invited them to revel in it.
Former Spacehog frontman Royston Langdon opened the show with much promise. “We’re all here to listen to one of the greatest American musicians of the last thirty years, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my new father-in-law,” he announced to a cheering audience, acknowledging the connection to Liv Tyler. Langdon’s set was an enthusiastic mix of hard-edged rock and anthemic piano ballads, displaying a pleasant ability on both instruments. The only glaring flaw in his performance was his inability to modulate the dynamics of his voice—even in the most poignant moments of the ballads, his voice was at top volume, slightly abrasive. Nevertheless, his inherent musical ability teems with promise, and if he follows in the footsteps of the virtuosic composer who happens to be his “new father-in-law,” his future is bright indeed.