Todd Rundgren – A Wizard a True Star

December 9th Live @ the Fillmore

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music,   By: Robert E Martin

12th January, 2016     0

by Bo White

Todd Rundgren may be one of the most misunderstood icons in modern rock music. In a career that spans 50 years Rundgren is known as a producer as well as an artist. At age 16 he developed a passion for music and memorized Gilbert & Sullivan songs. He knew their entire libretto and became an outcast at the very same time he began to dig guitar-based rockers like the Beatles, Stones, and the Yardbirds as well as the cool Philly sounds of The O’Jays and Delfonics.

His first stab at fame was with Woody’s Truck Stop, it was a gig that lasted about eight months. By 1967 Rundgren formed the Nazz as way to open Pandora’s Box and become America’s answer to the Beatles. Along the way he had a spectacular alpha dog hit entitled Open My Eyes. It was covered by Roy Wood & the Move and every other bar band across the stretch of the globe.

Pretty soon he caught the eye of Albert Grossman who built Bearsville Studios near Woodstock and managed the careers of Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin and others. At the time I didn’t care a hoot about al this and that but I dug this quirky little song entitled We Gotta Get You a Woman. It was deliriously stupid in a cool man-cave way. Nobody took it seriously because it was off the hook. I loved it!

But when Todd’s 1971 masterpiece Something Anything hit the stores I was there, it was a stoned masterwork for the Todd-O-Matic . It contained Hello It’s Me, I Saw the Light, Couldn’t I Just Tell You and a whole box of other gems. And just as I thought Rundgren hit his power-pop stride, he switched gears with a Wizard, A True Star (one of Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time). It was psychedelic and soulful and totally whacked. I loved it.

During this time Todd toured as a one-man show followed by a full band treatment. He also took his new band Utopia on the road. I was lucky to see both versions though I never quite got into Utopia’s long and drawn instrumental excursions. When I mentioned this to the owner of my favorite record store, he simply stated that I did not understand more progressive music. He was probably right. Rundgren was known as an in-demand producer turning the knobs, bringing in big monitors, limiters, compressors even the kitchen sink.

But one of his most amazing accomplishments was helping Grand Funk to become more serious about songwriting and musical craft. It was total genius to bring Donny Brewer out from behind the drum kit to lend another voice to the saga. We’re an America Band, Walk Like a Man, Some Kind a Wonderful were stone gems that kept the Grand Funk name up front up to this day on oldies stations across the planet.

But now I’m on the cusp of seeing my hero Todd Rundgren one more time at the Fillmore in Detroit, can we still be friends?  A full house greeted Todd Rundgren as walked onto the stage. It was a true love fest between the artist and his disciples. The show opened with an immaculate reading of I Saw the Light. Rundgren was in good voice though he sings at a lower key that when he first released it. Back then, he sounded like a brassy Carole King, now his baritone is strong and convincing and there is no chance for any cool falsetto. The background harmonies were heavenly with all five of the musicians adding their vocal parts. The crowd was ecstatic.

The band consisted Kasim Sulton (bass, vocals), John Ferenzik (keyboards, vocals), Jesse Gress (guitar, vocals), Prairie Prince (drums, shades) and Todd Rundgren. It was an economical outfit who could do more with less, a small band with a big band cluster of sounds. Rundgren tipped his hat to his Philly roots with a powerful execution of Open My Eyes, the great power pop chestnut by the Nazz, it was one of the highlights of 1968.

Rundgren enjoyed bantering with the crowd especially with his version of kidding on the square, mocking his own long career in the business; “This is the walking dead star for those that have been in a coma for 45 years.  Do you think something is wrong with Detroit; nothing is wrong with Detroit! If these songs are what you hoped for, a greatest hits list, then the show is already half over!”

The next song was a popular track on Something/Anything entitled, It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference. Todd sang without his guitar, the tempo was slowed down, soulful and passionate. It’s about love gone wrong.

Buffalo Grass is an incredible rocker about truth revealed. It has a big throbbing bassline, keyboard trills and syncopated rhythms that sound like Buffalo crossing the trails. It got real, aided by an existential guitar workout with an exquisite interplay between Rundgren and Gress. This segued into Can We Still Be Friends from the Hermit of Mink Hollow LP…the piano led trip was followed by brilliant accapella harmonies.

Todd continued the rap:  “Now we are actively defying the 45-year-old coma…and I just did the setlist back stage. Who is here for Trump... President Sphincter Head.”

Todd changes course with a rap about sex police, the separation of church and state and getting the fundamentalists. ”Who you think you’re messing with sweet clean and guilty.” It was all done tongue in cheek. At one point Todd intoned, “This is the Kasim Sulton Show. “

Fascist Christ is down in the playlist but it strikes a chord with Rundgren’s devotees. Todd does a bit of accapella singing “Old time religion, it’s good enough for me” and gets the crowd worked up and singing along.

Bang the Drum is a goof but it’s a durable and loveable ode to childhood memories, using music to drift away from the boredom of the classroom. Rundgren has sung it at several of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band concerts, they remain good friends to this day.

Prairie Prince deserves special mention, he’s a superb drummer and a founding member of the Tubes and a founding member of Journey and he’s performed with Todd Rundgren on many occasions. Tonight he was in great form, dressed up in white cardboard glasses tinted with a pink lens. It was his alternate rebellion; like a woman dressed to the nines but she’s wearing boxer shorts underneath.

Rundgren starts another rap near the end of the show, “Yes, I was from Philly”, then shifts to a 12 bar blues, followed by a funked up big bottom soul music reminiscent of Sly & the Family Stone. Rundgren’s guitar work is phenomenal, I forgot just how powerful he was and how form and technique give way to his uncommon harmonics. He can play it soft and cool as well as hard and wet. He is truly a heavy metal rocker, an unappreciated guitar god!

Todd funks up the show with the spectacular Sometimes I Don’t Know How to Feel. It is an ode to revelation and conquering fear. The next big treat was Todd’s homage to soul music. He conjures up the colorful images of soul music in the sixties; lots of color and big bad afros.  He recalls the days when The Impressions, Miracles and Marvin Gaye created these incredible harmonies and big messages about freedom.

Todd created a winning triumvirate of soul music that included I’m So Proud, Ooo Baby Baby and I Want You. He finished up the night with two of his greatest songs, Couldn’t I Just Tell You and Hello It’s Me. He also encored an anti-war epoch with the lyric, “I Won’t Go to War.” It was filled with rage, anger and truth.

The night was a flawed masterpiece, a triumph that incorporated good vibes, great songs and social consciousness. It was perfect!



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