Musical mad scientist Todd Rundgren returns to Belly Up Aspen

Andrew Travers | The Aspen Times
Todd Rundgren will perform at Belly Up Aspen on Sunday.
Lynn Goldsmith/Special to the Aspen Times |

If You Go …

What: An Evening with Todd Rundgren

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When: Sunday, Jan. 17, 9 p.m.

How much: $35/GA; $60/reserved

Tickets: Belly Up box office;

Todd Rundgren expects his fans to expect the unexpected.

Over the decades, he’s made radio-friendly guitar rock hits, perfected prog-rock with Utopia, performed with symphonies and played as a one-man band. These days he’s experimenting with electronica.

So what to expect out of a Todd Rundgren show when he returns to Aspen on Sunday with a four-man ensemble behind him?

“It’s definitely not a greatest-hits show, because that would only be 15 or 20 minutes long,” he said from the road between recent gigs in Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Arizona.

But on the current run he does tend to pull out his pop hits — “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “Bang the Drum All Day” and such — while mixing things up with the curveballs one would expect from Rundgren. His current lineup has a master list of about 50 songs, which he pulls from during his sets.

Recent records — two released last year — have seen Rundgren exploring electronic dance music on “Global” and avant-garde electronica on “Runddans.” A tour in support of “Global” last year went big on lights and production and guest artists. (It also was expensive, which is part of the reason why he’s currently on the road with a simpler show: “You do a tour that doesn’t make any money and then you say, ‘Well, I’ve got to do a tour that makes some money.’”)

In the 46 years since his first solo album, he’s stayed curious and adventurously explored the hinterlands of music. Going to see Rundgren live, you’d be as likely to find a teenager who’s discovered the newer stuff as a baby boomer looking to hear the radio hits of 1972’s “Something/Anything?”

He trusts audiences to stay on board for the creative swerves.

“I labor under the illusion that my audience is somewhat used to the unusual changes that happen,” he said. “Every once in a while we’ll have individuals that come out of a coffin to see the show, as if 40 years of changes never happened. But I make the assumption that everyone knows that this is a pattern.”

His constant state of creative flux is a key to his art. Rundgren has never sought to reinvent himself, he said, he’s just listened to new and different sounds. Whether it’s rap or electronic or world music, this musical genius might always hear something to latch on to. That instinct may be what led him to produce other artists — Patti Smith, Cheap Trick and Hall and Oates among them.

“I’m still trying to remain flexible and open to new ideas, new influences,” he said. “I mean, musical progress didn’t stop with my generation. It continues to evolve.”

He’s never become the old guy complaining that young people’s music is noise.

“Whatever’s on the radio — today it’s Taylor Swift and Imagine Dragons — it’s not good to my ear, but it’s not good for reasons I understand,” he said.

His mad-scientist approach extends beyond his musical styles. Rundgren has also stayed on the cutting edge of music and technology — pioneering concert broadcasts and becoming one of the first artists on MTV, for which he directed and produced his own videos. For 1993’s “No World Order,” he released an interactive CD that allowed listeners to craft songs into infinite versions from their musical bits and pieces. Back in the late 1990s, he developed a technology called PatroNet that allowed listeners to subscribe to a musician’s output on the Internet. It never caught on, but it paved the way long before Spotify or Apple Music or the concept of streaming began taking over the industry.

The loss of revenue through Internet technology in the years since has crumbled the record industry. That makes some sense to Rundgren, who notes that until Thomas Edison invented recording, people had to hear music live in order to hear it at all. That, he argued, is music’s natural state.

“What never goes away is the live performance,” he said. “And that’s where musicians have always, and should always, place their financial well-being.”