I guess it says something ungood when you’re thinking about the concert you saw last night and you keep mentally noodling on the visual imagery, rather than the sounds.
I blame Todd Rundgren. It might not be entirely his fault … but he’s used to people blaming him for weird stuff, so he can take it.
At the Keswick Theatre last night (it’s just outside Philly), Rundgren and company played their show against a backdrop of one of the best-known pictures of TR ever taken.
It’s from the inside of his most successful album, 1972’s Something/Anything? The photo shows him from the back, in silhouette, standing in the improvised L.A. home studio where he cut parts of the record, and throwing a Nixonian V-for-victory sign as if millions of worshipful record buyers were standing right outside his window.
Rundgren’s between-song patter early in the show poked fun at fans “who have been in a coma for 40 years” — that is, those who reject his other musical paths and continue to demand the easy-to-like commercial pop of Something/Anything?
And yet, there he was, rear and center, larger than life, an omnipresent ghost for the entire show: Plucky Pop Todd, the very embodiment of the Rundgren those fans adore.
PPT has been following his real-life doppelganger around for longer than I’ve been alive. I guess Rundgren decided to put him up there as an acknowledgement of his inevitable presence, and a sop to those fossilized but still loyal fans:
OK, you guys still buy tickets to my shows, which is pretty much the biggest source of cash flow at this point in my career. I’ll give you the Young Todd you like. You want the obvious, you’ll get the obvious.
Of course, Today’s TR played pretty much the whole show with his back turned to Plucky Pop Todd. Whether that’s a simple consequence of stage design or a subliminal personal statement is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.
Rundgren’s contrarian refusal to play to the masses has actually set him up with a nice degree of flexibility. His set list is not weighed down with hits he must play, so he’s free to cherry-pick from throughout his career for most of the show.
(Having fulfilled the unwritten requirement that any Todd Rundgren piece contain the word “contrarian,” I must also provide a little bit of background. When TR is not touring in support of a new album, he does a not-quite-greatest-hits show that mixes his handful of true chestnuts with his own selection of tunes from his back catalog. That’s what I saw last night. So, no two hours of Swedish electronica or bossa nova.)
To keep the PPT fans happy, he played four songs from Something/Anything?, as well as a blistering version of “Open My Eyes,” by his old Philly group the Nazz.
“Hello It’s Me” seems kinda perfunctory at this point, and the audience has to pretty much carry the chorus.
But “I Saw The Light” was charming; “Black Maria” showed off Rundgren’s lead guitar chops; and being in a room full of Rundgrenites when the man plays “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” remains thing of beauty and a joy forever.
The rest was a well-played if somewhat random grab bag of tunes from Rundgren’s past, including (off the top of my head) “Love In Action” from 1977’s Oops! Wrong Planet; a double shot of “Lysistrata” and “One World” from 1982’s political-minded Swing to the Right; “Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel” and part of the smoove Philly-soul medley from 1973’s A Wizard/A True Star; “Determination” from 1978’s The Hermit of Mink Hollow; the inevitable “Bang The Drum All Day” from 1983’s The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect; “Love Science” from 1991’s 2nd Wind; and “God Said” from 2004’s Liars.
“Lysistrata” — disarming power-pop in its studio incarnation, more hard-rocky at the Keswick — provided a platform for the night’s other bit of noteworthy stage patter.
After explaining the song’s mythical backstory, TR mentioned that “the U.S. military has recently opened all combat roles to women…”
—oh, shit, I thought, current affairs. Here comes something wingnutty.
— and then he expressed his concern that “if the women get a taste for the warrin’, the men will have to withhold sex from the women to get them to stop … and THAT’s not freakin’ happening. We don’t have the willpower, and the warring will continue forever. So don’t join the military, girls.”
About a minute after he said that, I saw a young-looking woman march up the aisle in a hurry; I imagined her to be a mortally offended staff sergeant on leave.
Truth was, though, that not too many people in the room were of mustering age.
In a pre-show interview, Rundgren lamented that his fan base was “dying, literally;” I thought he was being dramatic, but the gray hair scattered throughout the Keswick convinced me he was telling the truth. Apparently, TR is a taste too esoteric to be passed down through generations, and most of the people still on his train have been there for decades.
It will be interesting to watch how this most roguish of pop singers handles that continued process.
Will he be forced to channel Mike Love and perform more of the “hits” just to make sure people keep coming?
Or will people past 60 — not usually those who go in for change and unpredictability — remain willing to buy tickets to see him without really knowing what they’re going to hear?
The evidence to date suggests that, as long as his voice holds out (and it’s pretty good, all in all), Rundgren’s journey will continue to draw enough ticket buyers to fill theaters.
Although it doesn’t hurt to run Plucky Pop Todd up the flagpole just to make them feel at home.