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Rundgren brings his next wave to Belly Up Aspen

Kelly J. Hayes
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoRock musician Todd Rundgren performs Tuesday at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN ” In a summer concert season punctuated by ’70s and ’80s acts playing standards and golden oldie radio hits, it is rare these days to hear much new music from seasoned rock ‘n’ roll veterans.

But based on Todd Rundgren’s performance Sunday night at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, the iconic artist, producer and techno-innovator is not resting on past laurels. At the age of 60, Rundgren has found a second wind and taken to the road with music from a new album called “Arena,” which will be released in dribs and drabs over the summer as digital downloads, and on CD this fall.

Rundgren brings the new stuff to the Belly Up Aspen Tuesday in a show that starts at 9 p.m. with opening act Will Hoge.

For those who know Rundgren from the “Todd is God” days (“Hey, I had a name that rhymed,” he once chuckled), don’t expect to hear such favorites as the sweet as syrup “Hello, It’s Me” or the stadium anthem “Bang the Drum All Day.” While the set list does include some familiar oldies at the top of the set (“Black Maria,” with stinging guitar solos) and in the encore (an inspiring “Just One Victory”), the meat of the show is the 13 new songs that make up “Arena.” And it is music for the times.

Judging from the opening guitar chords of the song “Mad,” the first song from the new material, it is clear that the tenor of these times has made Rundgren, well, mad. The five-piece band, grounded by longtime collaborator and former Tube’s drummer Prairie Prince and a new bassist, the pixie-ish Rachel Haden, is heavy on guitar licks that scream with attitude nearly as loudly as Rundgren’s vocals do. For much of the show, there are three guitars meshing, with keyboardist Matt Bolton donning a Les Paul for rhythm accompaniment as lead guitarist Jessie Gress (another longtime Rundgren partner in crime) and Todd himself trade guitar licks.

The songs on “Arena” are for the most part marked by hard-charging and intricate riffs accentuated with smart, incisive lyrics. The tunes “Courage,” which Todd introduced as “a certain kind of song” in deference to those longtime fans who like pop melodies, and “Weakness” may be the most accessible of the new tracks, while the anthem “Strike” and the statement maker “Gun” are more political and angry.

The near-sellout crowd at the Vilar show saw a confident and capable group of musicians enjoying themselves fully. The intimate concert hall and the spare stage setup made it seem almost as if the audience were watching a garage band featuring accomplished musicians who were simply having fun playing together. While many in the crowd may have come to the Vilar hoping to hear the songs of their youth, they got behind the new material, and it was clear that they had as good a time as the band.

Many Rundgren fans have reached an age where they take comfort in being covered by the nostalgic wave of his early works. But as he once said about his musical adventures, “It not so much about new music as it is about getting over old music.” What has differentiated Rundgren from so many artists over the years has been his ability to consistently reinvent and reinvigorate himself through his music.

Tonight you’ll hear the next wave.


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