Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tour organizers like Ohio fan base, venue

Todd Rundgren will perform his albums Todd (1974) and Healing (1981) on Sunday night at the Akron Civic Theatre.

The music industry may be wheezing and gasping, watching album sales plummet as listeners download a song or two (legally) rather than buy entire albums. But while the attention span of the average young listener seems to be shortening, many veteran artists with deep catalogs are finding their fans not only still listen to albums, but they also want to see them performed in their entirety.

The trend has taken hold across genres, from indie rockers such as The Pixies to hip-hoppers like Public Enemy, and, of course, classic rockers are reaping the benefits of fans hungry to be transported back to the album era.

Singer/songwriter Todd Rundgren has hopped on the bandwagon with encouragement from his dedicated and well-organized fan base. In 2009, Rundgren debuted a weird and wonderful ''theatricalization'' of his album A Wizard, a True Star (1973) at the Akron Civic Theatre, featuring 12 costume changes, films and slides. On Sunday, Rundgren returns to perform two albums: Todd (1974), the follow-up to AWATS, and Healing (1981).

The albums were chosen by Rundgren's fans and the tour was organized by online fanzine, once again premiering at the Civic. The folks at say they returned to Akron in part because of the strong Ohio fan base for Rundgren as well as the venue, nearby hotels and the general love for all things Runt.

The albums are two of the many stylistic landmarks in Rundgren's 40-plus-year career. Todd followed the dizzy, dense, metaphorical middle finger to the ''Rundgren as the male Carole King'' notion that was AWATS, and in some ways is even musically wilder and more adventurous than its predecessor. Healing, released seven years and four albums after Todd, was a synthesizer-heavy, insular, mostly calm musical meditation with a three-part suite at its center.

Both albums contain a few longtime concert staples, including A Dream Goes on Forever, The Last Ride and Don't You Ever Listen from Todd, and the R&B/pop-flavored early MTV hit Time Heals and the ominous Tiny Demons, both from Healing but packaged as a separate 7-inch in the original vinyl edition to make up for the lack of a single on the album. But much of Healing has never been performed.

Fans will also get a rare look and listen to some of the oddities on Todd, such as the Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired An Elpee's Worth of Toons, as well as the actual Gilbert and Sullivan-written Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song, plus straight-ahead rockers Everybody's Going to Heaven/King Kong Reggae and No 1. Lowest Common Denominator.

For Rundgren, these ''entirety'' shows obviously make picking a set list easy, and also allow him to see just what records mean the most to his fans.

Here is a Q&A with Rundgren from his Hawaii home shortly before the band was to start rehearsals for the tour.

Q: Were you surprised that fans chose ''Healing'' as opposed to one of your more popular albums?

A: It was kind of a surprise,because you always expect Something/Anything? [featuring the oft-covered soft rock hit Hello, It's Me]. But AWATS was kind of a dividing point in my fan base. A lot of people never got past that; they got up to Something/Anything? and then they kind of couldn't endure the weird music that came after that. And in that sense they are completely unfamiliar with what happened after that, and may only remember me in the vaguest terms.

But the hard-core fans are the ones who actually survived that transition and came to realize that is actually the ride you're in for. I'm not going to do two albums in a row that are exactly the same. There is some evolution and sometimes revolution [ha, ha, ha] between records and that I think is essentially what my current audience expects, and that's why they don't ask for something obvious like Something/Anything?

Q: They are very different albums. You seem to have been in very different head spaces during their recording.

A: Yes, it's a small challenge to make them co-exist, but I think they don't contradict each other. One [Todd] is one end of a big kind of upward curve of me getting weirder and more out there, and you could say that the other is essentially the diametrical side of that curve. Of me almost creating order instead of disorder. I wouldn't say it's a conservative record, but trying to do some very precise things with the music, tell a story that has some coherence on one side and create a musical experiment on the other side and musical mediation, or something like that. You could say that Healing is a very purposeful record.

Todd is the record that essentially goes even further than A Wizard, a True Star in some ways. A Wizard, a True Star is an unordered jumble of ideas and at the same time, it still has a fairly consistent instrumentalization about it. And by the time we got to Todd, we had gotten more daring about the hardware, keyboards and drum machines and things like that. And so it was to my mind a more radical record than even AWATS was, in that I took a lot of those small ideas and developed them, and the results sometimes were very peculiar and sometimes very pedestrian.

Q: When you first listened to the albums again, what memories of the era did it bring back?

A: What was I on? [Laughs.] was kind of ''on'' the same things as AWATS. But also the first successful iteration of [his pop/rock band] Utopia is happening at the same time.

In terms of the way it was performed, it was kind of a step back to Something/Anything? in that I did a lot of it myself. I was playing drum parts and only on a few tunes did I use another drummer. I was kind of offloading the ensemble music onto the Utopia concept and I was getting back into something that was a little more insular and personal in the studio.

It was a chance to be in some ways even more daring with stuff that was kind of new and unfamiliar like synthesizers. We were experimenting with drum machines, which had been around but were getting more sophisticated. By the time we got to Todd, it was our official playpen and we had gotten things under control a bit, which meant we could get more out of control with it. We understood our working environment a little better and made more sophisticated use of it.

That's where my head was at, in a state of total freedom. I could do essentially whatever I wanted. I was making more and more money off productions I did for other people and so I was making the music that I purely felt like making.

Q: Then you get to ''Healing,'' and it's very focused and has gravitas and an overriding theme. It's seems like a serious record. Where were you at that time?

A: It's a more serious record though there are some unserious moments, like Golden Goose. Essentially, I had gotten to a point of psychic exhaustion, that I had pushed myself so hard for such a long time in terms of trying to expand my consciousness and my musical range that I got to a point where I had gotten almost sick from it. Not literally but psychically exhausted and enervated, and needed to collect myself in a way and to look at my experience in a different context.

I wanted to clarify some of the feedback about what effect my music was having on other people as well. When you start to write anthems and things like that, it appeals to a different thing in people than the typical love song. Love songs conjure up reminiscences and things like that, and more anthemic themes or themes about the nature of consciousness and stuff like that tend to give people a more hopeful aftertaste. They start to get aspirational rather than reminiscent. So I had to kind of confront and resolve in my music the effect it was having on other people.

The album itself is a story on one side and a musical experiment on the other side. And the context of the first side is supposed to be open to interpretation as all tales are, but I have my own idea of what it's supposed to mean. I don't want to spoil it for everyone else, but I needed to make some clarification, in whatever poetic or oblique terms, of how I saw myself, how I saw the possibilities of music and how reality plays into all of that.

It isn't any easier to explain than sort of the craziness of Todd [laughs]. The [musical] possibilities are greater than I assumed they were and that some of these realizations have been cannibalized by various drugs and things like that [laughs again]. None of that makes me a drug addict; it just keeps widening horizons for me. And then at a certain point, I realize that I have widened the horizon, but I have given myself so much area now to cover, it all is going to be completely exhausting, so I have to start narrowing in or focus on certain things. Essentially pull back, reorganize.

At a certain point you've said what you have to say about it and to continually harp on it is a lack of growth. It was definitely a turning point and something I needed to do for myself to get ''healthy'' and to get into a proper frame of mind, to where I wasn't feeling confused and somewhat overwhelmed by the possibilities I'd created.

Q: With two albums to perform, will you be skipping the ''theatricalization'' concept?

A: The approach will not be like A Wizard, a True Star. We've actually made the band smaller, removing a keyboard. But I will pick up the slack in some songs by actually playing the piano, which I never do anymore. So, only for the sake of these shows will I play piano.

But it is going to be something that — as the last show was — should be beyond people's expectations. So if last year was the greatest show on Earth, this should be the greatest show on Earth part two [laughs].

Q: Are you all going to sing [anthemic album closer from ''Todd''] ''Sons of 1984'' together?

A: I think that's a given, isn't it? Since it's on the record, I have to perform it and I can't stop people from singing it. So I might as well encourage it [laughs].

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