Breitbart-types beware, Rundgren live leaves no room for "Liars".
Lots of people who post on Facebook were apparently dead shocked two weeks ago, when Todd Rundgren suggested to an interviewer that people who voted for Trump might want to stay away from his show. (This was reprinted on the front page of Breitbart because of course, nothing else happened that week politically). Apparently they weren’t aware that Rundgren tends to speak his mind on a great variety of topics, especially when interviewers ask him to. And they definitely didn’t know about a little tune called “Jesse” that he recorded in back 1992 (Sample lyric: “I wanna fuck you, Jesse Helms..and I gotta say, fuck you, Tipper Gore”).
The other controversial thing about Rundgren—and certainly a bigger deal to his fans—is that he plays what he wants, when he wants to. Each of his last three albums is informed to varying degrees by EDM; the latest, White Knight, also features an all-over-the-place list of guest stars from Donald Fagen to Bettye Lavette to Trent Reznor. Unlike virtually every other rocker of his age (70 this year), Rundgren almost never does “greatest hits” tours; though he did undertake a brief one last year. That hits tour played the Wilbur in Boston, as did the White Knight tour this month. I was at both shows, and exactly two songs overlapped.
From the looks of things, he’s winding down the EDM phase: There were still tapes and samples in the current show (plus two dancers who doubled as backup singers), but this year there was a live band, all familiar faces in the Todd world: Bassist Kasim Sulton, ex-Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, guitarist Jesse Gress, and ex-Cars keybardist Greg Hawkes (and if you swapped Gress for Elliot Easton, it would be the same band as the ill-fated New Cars). The show divided neatly into an EDM first third, then a rocking middle section, followed by a closing stretch of R&B. The rock stretch and the encores were the only times he played guitar. Rundgren’s voice has deepened in recent years, so no more of those wild falsettos, but overall it’s aged rather well, and the current set is largely about what he can do as a vocalist.
The setlist was effectively a greatest non-hits of the past half-dozen albums, which means it’s largely material that all but the most devoted fans have overlooked. And since he’s always been a gregarious live performer, the material did indeed click onstage: The melodies came out stronger in the EDM tracks, which didn’t sound that far from old-school Todd after all. “Everybody” (the opener from 2015’s album Global, done early in the set) sounded a little goofy on record, it’s a song about how we’re all in this together but it dares to rhyme “Everybody can’t live the life of Riley” with “Everybody can’t get a twerk from Miley.” Onstage it’s still goofy, but in a good way—as in, funny and inclusive. Particularly since he made a valiant (and brief) attempt at twerking while singing it.
The rock section had a few nods to the old Utopia sound; “Secret Society,” about the importance of longstanding friendships, is one that grows more resonant by the year. And anti-Trumpers got their money’s worth with “Tin Foil Hat”, the song he and Fagen sing on the album—The song wasn’t done live, but the video was shown during a costume change. It’s full of ungracious cheap shots, and is extremely funny.
The soul section was the longest part of the set, and seems to be where Rundgren’s heart really lies nowadays—not to mention that of Hawkes, who got to play two sax solos and even with the band often hidden behind a scrim, was clearly having a blast. “Beginning of the End” was either about mortality or the end of a relationship; it’s a tearjerker either way—but “Buy My T,” a funny one about the state of the music biz, was the antidote. Closing out the set was “God Said” (from 2011’s Liars)—musically an homage to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” era, and lyrically spelling out the philosophy Rundgren’s hinted at in a few handfuls of songs: God exists, God doesn’t care what you pray to, and God wants humans to be fulfilled and to look out for each other. Don’t know if the Breitbarters have heard that one, but I’d be glad to play it for them.