Review: ‘The Individualist’ Todd Rundgren returns to the Rockies
“Once a year, whether we need it or not,” one Todd Rundgren fan, nee, disciple, chuckled as he stood outside the Boulder Theatre last week clutching a copy of Rundgren’s new book “The Individualist” while waiting for an autograph. He was referring to yet another Colorado appearance by the artist/producer/performer/innovator, one that came exactly a year since his last Denver concert with the band Utopia. It was the 53rd Todd performance that the fan had attended.
The 70-year-old Rundgren has shown few signs of slowing down, either with his prodigious touring or on-stage, where he still exhibits the enthusiasm and energy that have been a hallmark of his 51-year career. This current tour, which had already seen a spring jaunt across the U.S., dates in Japan and now a second run through America, coincides with the release of an autobiographical book, “The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams and Dissertations.” (More on the book in a bit.)
For the first time, perhaps ever, Todd has authored a show that strings together all — and I mean all — of the hits and fave raves that his ever-loyal fan base reveres. For decades, the easily bored and always gazing-to-the future visionary artist would only bring new music from more au courant releases to his concert performances, while mixing in the occasional nostalgic numbers.
But in recent years he has performed the 1973 album “A Wizard. A True Star” live in its entirety, and then, last year, took his ’70s and ’80s prog-rock band, Utopia, on the road for a throwback. Maybe the time is right to gaze back at a life, not just well-lived, but spectacularly conceived.
The 2-hour and 45-minute, 27-song, Boulder Theatre show was broken into two sets, with the first devoted to the way, way back repertoire. Songs like “Open My Eyes” and the ubiquitous “Hello it’s Me” (“The first song I ever wrote,” he said of this four-decade-old signature track) meshed neatly with the Philly soul-a-fied “We Gotta Get You A Woman” and the pop hit “I Saw the Light.” The aged crowd swooned as the band played what could have been a Pandora “this is your life” playlist.
But when the white suited, sunglass-clad rock warrior picked up the green guitar he calls “Foamy” for some ripping solos on songs like “Black Maria” and “Kiddie Boy,” the crowd’s swoons turned to shrieks. Make no mistake, Todd is one of the greatest solo lead guitar players that the genre has ever produced. Along with his balladeering, his vocal gifts, lyricism and production skills, any of which would constitute talent enough for one artist, Todd’s quiver overflows when it comes to his licks on “Foamy” and his other axes.
Throughout the show, Todd told stories that related to the time frame of the music. A screen behind the band showed old photos to illustrate his commentary. A montage of acts that he produced (Meatloaf, Hall and Oates, Grand Funk Railroad and countless others) went by in the blink of an eye. For the song “Too Far Gone,” old photos from an around-the-world solo adventure were shown with passport pictures and shots of him walking ancient souks in the Far East. “You used to able to buy one plane ticket and travel around the world as long as you kept going in the same direction. I recommend everyone do it. They have this great airline, it’s called Pan Am,” he said with a wink to the past that brought a laugh from the crowd.
For any in the audience who had seen Todd before, the backing band was as familiar as Foamy. Guitarist Jesse Gress, who provides lead licks that fill in when Todd is in crooning mode, was in fine form as was the pony-tailed keyboard player, Greg Hawkes, formerly of the Cars. Prairie Prince continues to pound out the rhythm on his drum kit and Kasim Sulton, the pride of Staten Island, is seemingly ageless as he plucks his bass. Another reviewer commented that this ensemble is “starting to suspiciously resemble lifers at this point.” A worthy contribution to the show was made by sax man, flautist and keyboard player Bobby Strickland, who brought another level of soulful sound to the proceedings.
All of the 27 songs came from albums released prior to 1998 and so constitute just one portion of Todd’s prodigious recording output. Which brings us back to the book that the “Individualist” tour supports. As idiosyncratic as its author, the book is a linear series of isolated memories of his formative years. Each of the 188 pages has a single-word title and each page is written in three parts. The first paragraph is about an experience that Todd witnessed. The second is his assessment of the experience he witnessed and finally, the third is his conclusion about the experience he witnessed and assessed.
In other words, each page is its own individual story. Pick up the book and you can turn to any single page and read it out of context or order. And yet, each story follows the previous in chronological order. It ends the morning of his 50th birthday, which also happens to be the day he married his wife, Michelle, at their Hawaiian paradise on the Island of Kauai.
My personal favorite from this performance was of the song “Kindness” from 1991’s “Second Wind” album. He sang the song, an ode to “the one that showed me kindness” with eyes closed and both hands essentially conducting each element of the band with movements and gestures that portrayed an emotional attachment to every note and musical change. When I began to read the book, I discovered that the first chapter, or page, was called “Baba,” for his grandmother, for whom he wrote the song.
His final paragraph take-away of her aging was this: “Something about aging, perhaps the growing insensitivity of the body, causes the past to become progressively clearer as the present defocuses.”
An apt opening for the book. And a summation of the “Individualist” tour.
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