Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in Little Rock

Posted By on Tue, Apr 28, 2015 at 12:39 PM

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Music legend Todd Rundgren released his 25th solo studio album "Global" earlier this month, and spent a few days in Little Rock in support of its release. On Saturday, April 18, I headed out to Arkansas Record and CD Exchange in North Little Rock for Record Store Day. They had food trucks, free merch and a special guest appearance by Rundgren himself. A steady line of Rundgren fans shuffled in line for over 3 hours getting an autograph and photo op. He even stayed an extra hour — missing lunch, apparently — to continue to signing autographs as his wife, Michele, offered to take pics with people's cameras. Reade Mitchell (store manager) and Bill Eginton (store owner) were effective hosts. Mitchell, who you may know from local band The P-47s and as a former radio DJ for Magic 105, acted as MC and played music over the PA system from Rundgren Radio, Todd's personal online radio show.

I quickly learned Arkansas has some hardcore Todd Rundgren fans. The store sold out of his new record before I even got there, and there were only a few Utopia albums, Todd Rundgren 45s and one Nazz album left at a table located near his signing booth. I ventured into the store for a while — because I had to buy at least one vinyl album, since it was Record Store Day – and, like a rock ‘n’ roll Easter egg, I stumbled on a deluxe 2-LP Todd Rundgren album entitled “Todd” from 1974. Store employees seemed surprised to see it. I immediately got in line for an autograph. They eventually had to cut the autograph line short, and did so just one person behind me — I barley squeezed in. Todd and his Michele were very friendly. I will say this for Rundgren: he is one of the coolest rock stars I've ever met.

Before Saturday, the main things I remembered about him were his songs "Hello It's Me” and "Bang on the Drum All Day.” "Hello” is one of those soothing radio anthems I'll never forget from my childhood. It reminds me of a family trip to Florida in 1976, when I was 4. Good, peaceful memories on that long ride to and from Florida in a little red AMC Pacer with my parents."Bang on the Drum" came out the year I started playing drums and it's often in my head, almost like a mantra, as I'm working my 12-hour shifts as a nurse. It wasn't until I was about 20 when I discovered Rundgren's 1973 album "A Wizard, A True Star" while learning about other unconventional artists, such as Alex Chilton, Syd Barrett, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Ian Curtis.

Before listening to "Global" I became curious and somewhat hesitant when I read a disclaimer of sorts on the Todd Rundgren website about the show. It read:

PLEASE READ: this is not a "hits" show. The stage production will be unlike anything Rundgren in the past. The singer/guitarist will be joined onstage by just two female vocalist and a DJ/keyboardist, and while Todd is keeping details under wraps, he is promising the show will be a video and lightning spectacle to behold.

Saturday evening I listened to older Todd Rundgren albums and then to "Global" several times as I read several things on the internet about him. I already knew he was a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer but I never realized he produced such acts as New York Dolls, The Band, Bad Finger, Grand Funk Railroad, Patti Smith, The Psychedelic Furs, Cheap Trick, The Tubes, XTC and Bad Religion. I began to realize who exactly I had just met — a truly underrated musical genius. “Global” was nothing like I expected. Lyrically it’s an album promoting peace, love, unity and global spiritual awareness, However, the music is something like Depeche Mode meets The New York Dolls, with Rundgren's own unique voice and production. There was maybe a pinch of soul and a dash of funk. It grew on me the more I listened, and it was just a little warm up for what I would see the next evening at the live show.

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Rundgren will be 67 this June, and yet he sang, danced and played guitar on this tour like he was still in his 30s. I looked at some early reviews of “Global “online and it seemed he'd already gotten some criticism for what he's doing this time around. To me, though, it seems like he's forcing listeners to open their minds and step out of their usual comfort zones. He's always done what he wants, no matter what people think. This is refreshing, but can be a dangerous venture in the unpredictable music industry. He's always dabbled in many styles of music. This particular show was great. It was entertaining, fun and visually striking. It was over-the-top, yet intimate and really just made you want to dance, smile, and hug the person next to you. How many other great artists from the 60s are forging ahead, embracing new technologies, and can still put on a full cardio workout set of well over 20 songs with just a DJ/keyboardist and two back-up singer and dancers. The standing room only crowd knew all the lyrics and had huge smiles. This show had all the best styles of the last four decades and elements of something like New Order, Todd Rundgren and Prince put all together in a blender on the "pulse” setting.

He sang with a great vocal range - as good as ever - and played some killer guitar licks. He played a transparent guitar, which glowed in all the venue’s brilliant lights. His DJ/Keyboardist was Dâm Funk, the great modern funk and electro producer from Pasadena, California. His back up-singers/dancers — Ashlé Worrick and Grace Yoo — were chosen from auditions held in San Francisco, Honolulu and Los Angeles and selected by Rundgren’s wife, Michele. I loved the 60s-style costumes, Afro wigs and choreography during the opening part of the set. They had two other costume changes that made them into futuristic monks and, later, belly dancers. The state-of-the-art lighting and visual effects of the show were up there with the best bands I've seen over the past few years at The Rev Room.

I mingled and talked with people during and after the show and got the following quotes to help describe the set through their eyes:

"It's like a rock-art meets interpretive dance.”

"I saw him 40 years ago at The Barton Coliseum. This is different ... I think it may be his first actual 'dance' album.”

"It was not at all what I expected ... this it's like a rave for older people and I forgot my mushroom.”

There were reportedly 36 states represented in the audience along with a couple from England and a family from China that traveled specifically for this show. I briefly talked with the couple from England (dressed quite dapper and both wearing multi-colored, light-up party glasses). They seemed to beam with excitement.

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