BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE RUNT Todd Rundgren

A live rendering of 1974’s underrated Todd may not garner new fans, but it’s certain to appeal to longtime
followers and adventurously-minded young pups.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

Save for a
loyal but rapidly-graying audience, Todd Rundgren is in danger of being lost
amidst a sea of cookie-cutter indie-rockers that don’t possess an ounce of his
individuality, innovative nature, or sheer musical “chutzpah.” As
close to a true renaissance man as rock ‘n’ roll has created, Rundgren – a
talented multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, video and multi-media
artist, and tech wizard – has pretty much always done it his way, often with
interesting results, exploring the outer limits of pop, rock, prog, and
electronic music both as a solo artist and with his band Utopia.

 

Although
he’s been making music for better than 40 years now, the anything-goes 1970s
were Rundgren’s era, the prolific musician cranking out eleven
critically-acclaimed albums that hit the charts with varying commercial returns
over the ten year period. The double-disc 1972 album Something/Anything? provided Rundgren with a modicum of pop
stardom, a not entirely-welcome status that the artist quickly denied with the
following year’s difficult-albeit-exciting album A Wizard, a True Star. Featuring nearly 56-minutes of music crammed
onto two sides of vinyl…a technological marvel in and of itself for the time… side
one of the album featured a Beatlesque extended medley of proggish rock, side
two a few pop/rock songs surrounding a ten-minute medley of R&B hits.

 

Against
this backdrop, the release of the double-album Todd in February 1974 found the artist’s fans wondering which Todd
Rundgren would show up in the grooves. While Todd ventured further into the musical experimentation that
Rundgren began with A Wizard, a True Star,
especially considering the artist’s growing fascination with synthesizers and
other technological means to shape music, in truth the album also crossed paths
with Todd’s Something/Anything? era
pop-rock cheap thrills and Utopia’s just-over-the-horizon electronic
adventures.

 

Although Todd didn’t set the woods on fire
commercially [It was still a hands-down
fave at the time of at least one future BLURT editor. – Present-day BLURT Ed.
],  the pricey double-LP did climb to 54 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and
yielded a minor hit (69) in the lofty, ethereal-pop tune “A Dream Goes On
Forever.” Undaunted, Rundgren moved onward and upward with 1975’s
aggressive Initiation, a reckless
synthfest that further pushed the boundaries of vinyl capabilities with better
than 30-minutes of music squeezed onto each side, the album’s electronic-rock soundscape
furthering the artistic sojourn that Rundgren had begun with the release of the
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia album a few
months after Todd.

 

***

 

Whereas Todd Rundgren’s Utopia would initially
best Todd in sales, rising to 34 on
the album chart without the benefit of a hit single, through the years the equally-difficult
Todd has taken on an aura of its own,
the album’s reputation often preceding the actual listening, with gems like the
aforementioned “A Dream Goes On Forever,” rocker “Heavy Metal
Kids,” and Rundgren’s flirtations with Gilbert & Sullivan satisfying
the curious and influencing a generation of like-minded fellow-travelers to
follow in Rundgren’s considerable wake.

 

In 2010,
Rundgren put together a band of various friends, including bassist Kasim Sultan
from Utopia, guitarist Jesse Gress, keyboardist Greg Hawkes (The Cars), drummer
Prairie Prince (The Tubes), and saxophonist Bobby Strickland to perform Todd live, for the first time, in its
entirety. The Philadelphia
show of the special, limited six-date sold-out mini-tour – which also included
a performance of Rundgren’s 1981 album Healing – was recorded and videotaped for subsequent release on CD and DVD. While Healing will be released at a later
date, the live performance of Todd is
more or less a re-creation of that classic album, in spirit if not exactly
musically, minus one song – “In and Out the Chakras We Go.” It’s now
out via Rock Beat Records (www.tr-i.com).

 

While some
of the more technologically-created fantasia from the original album has been
stripped from this live performance, modern electronics allow a lot of the
factory showroom sheen to rise out of songs like “I Think You Know,”
a discordant albeit lovely mid-tempo ballad with shimmering fretwork and
squalls of electronic snowfall. Rundgren’s operatic satire of the music biz,
“An Elpee’s Worth of Toons,” mixes Gilbert & Sullivan with a dash
of Utopia-styled electronica and a pop/rock vibe to deliver its devastating lyrical
message amidst a cacophony of instrumentation and Todd’s best bent vocals.
Changing directions so rapidly that it could give the listener whiplash,
Rundgren and crew slide effortlessly into the ethereal “A Dream Goes On
Forever,” this live version slightly less busy than the studio reading,
but lacking none of the bittersweet melancholy of the original.

 

Rundgren
further indulges in his Gilbert & Sullivan obsession with a spry cover of
“Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song,” evoking memories of Sideshow Bob
from The Simpsons. This performance
is pure delight, Rundgren’s unabashed enthusiasm dripping from his nimble
vocals as Greg Hawkes’ provides the rhythmic backdrop with his chopping piano
play. One of the overlooked gems from the original Todd was the hard rocking “Everybody’s Going to Heaven/King
Kong Reggae” mash-up, the live version pounding at the pavement with
jackhammer ferocity, guitar-drums-bass-keyboards slam-dancing behind Todd’s
strained vocals, the man finally cutting loose with a fire-and-brimstone guitar
solo before breaking down into the monster jam that is “King King
Reggae.”

 

 

 

Another
overlooked cut from Todd was the
smooth-as-silk pop song “Izzat Love?” With an undeniable melodic hook
and harmony vocals rising about the swirl of low-key instrumentation, the song
sounds like something from Todd’s early band Runt, updated with a few modern
flourishes but otherwise a lofty example of Rundgren’s 1960s-styled pop/rock
chops. The song ends abruptly,
descending into madness in an electronic storm, leading into the muscular,
blustery “Heavy Metal Kids,” an up-tempo rocker with malevolent
intentions, crashing drumbeats, and tortured guitarplay. Todd ends with the gospel-tinged pop of “Songs of 1984,”
a perfect showcase for both Rundgren’s songwriting skills but also his immensely
diverse musical sense, the mid-tempo verses brought up a notch by the
uplifting, choir-like choruses.   

 

While it’s
unlikely that this live Todd will
gain Rundgren many new fans, it’s certain to appeal to his horde of longtime
followers… but if a couple of young pups are curious after hearing the live
versions of these songs and decide to check out the originals, or other equally-exciting
entries in Rundgren’s large early catalog – many of which have been repackaged
by British archival label Edsel Records as reasonably-priced double CD sets –
all the better!    

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