By Christopher David
Halfway through Todd Rundgren’s performance at the Athenaeum Theater on Tuesday night, he talked about how his interest in synthesizers sometimes caused him to neglect his guitar. “There it would sit,” he said, “in the corner, beckoning me. And I’d pick it up, and I’d say, I’ll always be there for you, buddy.” Following that reflection on his return to old sounds while exploring the new, the opening crunch of a classic tune from 1975’s Initiation filled the hall. The tune? “The Death of Rock N’ Roll.”
Todd Rundgren—musician, producer, visionary, and now, author—is not an easy guy to pin down.
And that’s to everyone’s benefit, as illustrated in grand fashion during his two-night stand at perhaps the most intimate venue he could have chosen in Chicago. Currently in the middle of a U.S. dual-purpose tour—a career retrospect set that ties in with the release of his memoir The Individualist—Rundgren showed off the many facets of his versatile career in a two-hour plus set that gave as much attention to hits as it did to deep cuts, a reminder that even Rundgren’s most recognizable tunes, taken together, defy easy categorization.
Expertly backed by drummer Prairie Prince, guitarist Jesse Gress, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, multi-instrumentalist Bobby Strickland, and Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton, Rundgren spent the evening alternating between strolls back and forth on stage and absolutely shredding his guitar at any available opportunity, most notably on classics like “Black Maria” and The Nazz’s “Open My Eyes.” Let me say it again: absolutely shredding, as in schooling the hell out of any metal band this writer has seen in recent memory. As with many great artists, it’s easy sometimes to forget just how multi-talented they are when there are so many musical irons in the fire, but Rundgren put that to bed just a few songs into the show, setting the tone for an exploration of each era in his career that ebbed and flowed in a pitch perfect setlist.
Early in the set, Rundgren mused on his history with production vs. songwriting, noting that he chose both, which led to his decision to pursue more challenging records following his explosive mainstream success after 1972’s Something/Anything. “Which, I guess,” he smiled, “is the reason we’re all here.” A video screen provided a backdrop (if ever there was a cooler picture than the one with Rundgren’s arms spread in triumph from the gatefold of Something/Anything, I don’t know what it is), and images relevant to certain songs and eras added an extra layer of depth to the performance. (The staggering breadth of his production work alone was highlighted in a gallery of album covers spanning the length of an entire song.)
The second set started with a unique Q&A opportunity for the audience via pre-recorded questions submitted through an iPad in the theater lobby. A novel approach, certainly, though it shouldn’t come as a surprise from an artist who has continually pioneered new technology and media. Over the course of several questions, Rundgren discussed his writing process (“I need absolute solitude if anything is going to happen”), his Spirit of Harmony foundation, a non-profit that focuses on music education and instruments for underprivileged youth, and the concept behind 1981’s Healing. In discussing the latter, he wryly commented that he “wanted to explore the idea of whether someone could legitimately be healed through music..and the FDA hasn’t said anything yet.” Throughout the night, Rundgren’s sense of humor was apparent—as though it could be suppressed—and if the main set was a barnburner, the second set kept that momentum going with a blistering version of “Black & White,” the soaring harmonies of “Drive” (surely one of Rundgren’s most unsung tunes), and a sweetly-delivered version of “Fade Away” before the house was fully brought down by a raucous version of “Want of a Nail.”
It’s tough, in the world of rock n’ roll, to defeat the march of time. Some burn out early, some figure out how to make it last longer, but very few have the ability to relish the process of adaptation to new trends, genres, and approaches to songwriting and production the way that Todd Rundgren has in his more than fifty years at the game. Noting his role as a mentor to younger musicians during the Q&A, Rundgren indicated that he relished his role as an ‘elder statesman’ when it came to his line of work. There isn’t a better one out there.
For more on Todd Rundgren, click here
For photos from the show, click here
Todd Rundgren – Athenaeum Theater, Chicago, IL, April 23, 2019 (setlist)
How About a Little Fanfare? (Intro)
I Think You Know
Open My Eyes
Hello, It’s Me
We Gotta Get You A Woman
I Saw the Light
It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference
An Elpee’s Worth of Toons
Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel
Too Far Gone
A Dream Goes on Forever
The Death of Rock N’ Roll
Can We Still Be Friends
Love of the Common Man
Couldn’t I Just Tell You
Real Man (reprise)
The Individualist (w/ audience Q&A)
Black & White
I Don’t Want To Tie You Down
Want of a Nail