Live at the U.S. Cellular Theater at the Bijou Theater
May 31, 2017
By Lee Zimmerman
A wizard, a true star, Todd Rundgren’s always managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation, imagination and ground breaking technology. Lately, however, it seems he feels as if he’s been left behind, not taking advantage of the modern sounds and styles that seem so in vogue. Consequently his new album, White Knight, and the flashy new stage show that spotlights those songs find him intent on proving he’s still the wiz he was and well equipped to compete with any of todays’s perkier posers.
With much of the so-called “Hot Toddies” tour set list culled from that new album, the concert deemphasized the obvious hits The obligatory “Hello It’s Me” and the stunning “One World” showed up at the show’s conclusion, but other than a pair of old Utopia standbys “One World” and “Secret Society” and the iconic “No World Order,” few of his standards were featured. No “Bang on the Drum,” no “Black Maria,” no “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” no “Can We Still Be Friends,” no old Nazz tune pulled out of the proverbial hat.
Still, to paraphrase one of those title, it didn’t make any difference. A dazzling display of lights, optics and special effects projected on a scrim situated behind Todd and his two kabuki dancers made the show a spectacle in and of itself. The audience was treated to a pretend newscast aimed at mocking Donald Trump and his many foibles (Rundgren had warned that Trump devotees wouldn’t feel welcome to his concert), a 3-D roller coaster ride, laser lights, and shifting color patterns, all accentuating Todd’s onstage antics. The band — drummer Prairie Prince, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, longtime bassist Kasim Sulton and guitarist Jesse Gress — was excellent, but almost seemed secondary as far as the show was concerned; obscured by the scrim that separated them from their leader, their main purpose was allowing Todd take the spotlight, play occasional guitar, and more often than not, simply sing.
And sing he did, mostly in a wail and croon that demonstrated his vocal prowess is even stronger and more assured than ever. He pranced, danced (often in an abbreviated shuffle that brought to mind the late James Brown), posed and acted out the role of show man, affecting some show biz schtick that emphazized the concert’s flashy theatrics. Much of the performance had a soulful edge, still with ample rock and even some occasional rap. One could count at least three costume changes, and despite a bit of a paunch, the soon to be 69 year old seemed every bit as zestful as he ever was. And every bit as playful as well. His attack on Trump during the song “Tin Foil Hat” was hysterical and hard-hitting. “God Said” was stunning, both as a sermon and as a searing tour-de-force. His dig at crass commercialism on “Buy My T” was superb, even to the point of tossing out tees to the audience. (Notably, only tees were available at the merch stand.) And if anyone had doubts about Rundgren’s rock reliability, “Buffalo Grass” proved he was still the committed rocker he always was. Even with all the effects and theatrics, the performance was, in fact, total Todd, similar in set up to Utopia with all the hints of pure prog pretence.
It’s heartening to find a vintage artist reinvent himself an stay cutting edge. But again, that’s something Rundgren has reliably done throughout his fabled career. Long live the once and future Runt. May Rundgren continue to reign.