Singer-songwriter-producer-technological innovator Todd Rundgren has been in the music business for over 50 years and while he’s never stopped or really slowed down, it’s fair to say the songs of his first 25 years are those best loved by his fans. Honoring that assumption, Rundgren has mounted a hybrid concert/book tour that celebrates the first half of his career – the years between 1970 and 1995 . The tour dates were scheduled to coincide with the release of his autobiography, titled (as is the concert tour), The Individualist. The book covers roughly the same time frame – leading up to his 50th birthday in 1998, and he’s scheduled book signings along with concerts in tour stops. The Individualist tour stopped in Chicago on April 23 and 24, 2019, with concerts both evenings at the Athenaeum Theatre and a book singing at Rattleback Records in the Andersonville neighborhood the afternoon of April 24th.
Boomer fans descend on the Athenaeum Theatre in Lakeview for two nights of Todd Rundgren
The main stage of the Athenaeum was filled to nearly its 984-seat capacity with mostly baby boomer fans, enthusiastic but more sedate than the usual rock concert crowd, generally staying seated rather than standing through the performance and foregoing any of the usual rock concert staples of cigarette lighters or other accessories. Many of them sporting t-shirts from Rundgren concerts of recent years, they were there for the music, and they didn’t have to wait long to hear their hero sing. Taking the stage just a few minutes after the announced start time of 8 pm, Rundgren launched right into the story of the first half of his career – told with the help of projections and his dry, self-deprecating humor. He led off with 1974’s I Think You Know, a lesser-known song that was nonetheless an appropriate opener for this autobiographical set . he song’s theme is the difficulty of trying to explain oneself (“I would draw a diagram/To signify the things I am/But I think you know), but perhaps it was also a nod to the faithful fans in attendance that he understood they already knew many of the stories he would tell over the evening.
Fans didn’t have to wait long to hear Todd’s earliest and greatest hits. He explained that the first song he ever wrote was Hello, It’s Me. It was originally recorded with the band Nazz in 1968 but its was Rundgren’s more upbeat solo cover of it, released in 1972, that made it to #5 on the pop charts and has been frequently heard ever since. He followed Hello, It’s Me with two more of his greatest hits, We Gotta Get You a Woman, from the 1970 album Runt; and I Saw the Light from his 1972 breakthrough solo album, Something/Anything.
Todd Rundgren’s The Individualist Tour included hits and deep tracks from the first half of his career With those three mandatory songs out of the way, Rundgren continued the story of his solo and songwriting career. The remaining 12 songs of the set were some of his more accessible tunes – much loved by this crowd of faithful followers, even if not Top Ten hits like Hello, It’s Me. Rundgren referred to some of these more melodic, pop-oriented numbers - like A Dream Goes On Forever, and It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” as his piano songs and discussed the duality of his writing between pop and harder rocking songs. He suggested that his guitar would “get jealous” when he would spend too much time writing “piano songs,” and gave the audience some of his guitar songs – Black Maria and The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The set also included one of Rundgren’s novelty/comedy songs. An Elpee’s Worth of Tunes from 1974 is a Gilbert & Sullivan-esque patter song that commented on Rundgren’s astonishment that he could make a living recording music. Another highlight of the set was the pop ballad, Can We Still Be Friends,” accompanied by projections on screen of Todd and the many artists for whom he’s produced recordings or otherwise collaborated – Patti Smith, David Bowie and Rod Stewart among them.
Rundgren and band members Kasim Sulton on bass guitar, Prairie Prince on drums, Bobby Strickland on winds and synthesizer, Greg Hawkes on keyboards and Jesse Gress on guitar maintained a rock concert pace and energy level throughout. Rundgren bounced around a bit on stage, but mostly used his hands for visual interest: sometime pointing, sometime praying, sometimes conducting his band as if he were an orchestra maestro.
The concerts’ second sets changed nightly
While the first tour’s first set setlist is reportedly fixed for all performances, the tour publicity says the second set varies from night to night, so this reviewer attended both nights to check that out. The second set in both cases opened with a slide show called The Fashionista, reviewing Todd’s flashy and colorful fashion choices over the years: everything from sleeveless t-shirts to colorful robes, exotic makeup and hair dyed over his natural brown color to two or three shades of pastels.
The next element of the second set, apparently done each night, was a question and answer session. Fans were invited to record a short (up to 15-second) video asking Todd a question before the concert. Selected questions were chosen by the producers and projected on screen in this segment for Todd to answer on stage. This reviewer took advantage of the opportunity and asked Todd if he would ever consider writing for the theater. He answered that he felt many of his concerts were theatrical, but that if someone brought him a good story, he’d be eager to write a musical. After five or six minutes of Q &A, he launched into the 1995 song The Individualist, for which the book and concert are named. It’s a rich and complex piece, starting as a rap, then morphing into something soft and jazzy.
The remainder of the second set, as promised, differed between the two nights. The April 23rd set included a more familiar and poppy selection – “I Don’t Want to Tie You Down, “ “Cliché,” the mock-Eastern “Eastern Intrigue,” and the harder rocking “Black and White,” before closing on the sweet and reflective “Fade Away.” An encore of the high-energy pop-rock “Want of a Nail,” finished the evening on an up note.
The second set of the April 24th show showed Rundgren’s philosophical and socially conscious nature, Musically, the selections were generally more complex and less familiar than those performed the night before, There was “Tiny Demons,” with a long instrumental section – almost orchestral in its sound. “Born to Synthesize” began with a cappella vocals then led into jam solos for each of the band members. “Bag Lady” - a sensitive ballad about one victim of urban poverty was another highlight of the set. The set proper closed with the upbeat rocker “Determination,” but was quickly followed by an encore - the anthemic “Just One Victory” – urging hope and optimism in the face of the ongoing disappointments in society and personal relationships pondered in so many of his lyrics.
The Individualist tour, which began in early April in Germany and visited 10 North American cities, will conclude on May 23 in Osaka, Japan.
For more information on Todd Rundgren’s touring engagements, visit theTodd Rundgren Tour Date Site
Todd Rundgren, vocals
Jesse Gress, guitar
Kasim Sulton, bass guitar
Prairie Prince, drums
Greg Hawkes, keyboards
Bobby Strickland, winds and synthesizer
All Photos by Jim Snyder except as noted
About the Author:
John Olson is an arts carnivore who is particularly a love of music, theatre and film. He studied piano, trombone and string bass into his college years, performing in bands and orchestras in high school and college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While working as an advertising agency account manager, he began a second career as an arts journalist and is now principal of John Olson Communications, a marketing and public relations business serving arts and entertainment clients.