It would probably be hard to find someone in the Western World who wouldn’t at least recognize the song “Hello, It’s Me.” It was written and first recorded by Todd Rundgren in 1968, and a more up-tempo version of the song included on his Something/Anything album of 1972 reached #5 on the Top 40 charts in 1973.
Spirit of Harmony Foundation Concert celebrated Rundgren’s 50-year career
50 years after that first recording in a career in which this artist has regularly reinvented himself – moving from the pop/rock songs of his solo career through the electronic, synthesized progressive rock of his band Utopia, then back to a more traditional pop/rock sound - Rundgren is still touring. In Chicago September 8th for a benefit concert for the Spirit of Harmony Foundation at the House of Blues, Rundgren, in a black pullover shirt and slacks, managed to delight and excite fans regardless of which point in his career they had come to love his music. Fans ranged in age mostly from ‘40s to ‘60s, and if the likes of his earliest songs like “We Gotta Get You a Woman” and “I Saw the Light” drew the greatest cheers, there was much love in evidence for the concert’s full selection of music released from 1968 to 2017.
Joining Rundgren for the nearly three-hour concert, called “A Night of Harmony II,” was his regular band of guitarist Jesse Gress, bass guitarist Kasim Sulton, drummer Prairie Prince and keyboardist Greg Hawkes. They opened the show with three early songs - “Real Man” from 1975, “Love of the Common Man’ from 1976 and “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” from 1972. These selections exemplified the humanistic Rundgren themes of many of his 1970’s pop solos: songs of a young person trying to find his way in the world – establishing his values, building relationships and ending them. But even when his themes are reflective and even a little rueful, the songs are hopeful. His melodies of this period are traditionally structured, deceptively simple, accessible and memorable – and accompanied by sometimes surprising harmonies that viscerally capture the emotions the lyrics describe.
After certainly winning the approval and emotions of the crowd filling the floor of the House of Blues with those first three songs, Todd and the band moved to numbers that let the crowd rock out more freely: with the 1977 Utopia hit “Love in Action” and “Buffalo Grass,” from 2000. The plaintive ballad of missed connections from 1975 (“Cliché”) was followed by two more rockers (“Let’s Do This” from 2017 and “Black and White” from 1975).
Todd and the band took a break and turned the stage over to the young brothers Richard and Kyle Shallbetter, who beautifully sang an a cappella version of Rundgren’s 1975 “Born to Synthesize,” that employed overdubbed recordings of their own voices. Rundgren and the band returned to the stage for his 1978 ballad of a breakup without resentment, “Can We Still Be Friends?” before closing the set with the upbeat and humanistic “One World” - originally recorded with his band Utopia.
Todd Rundgren and the Chicago Sinfonietta joined forces for the eclectic second set
Ever the innovator and experimenter, Rundgren’s second set employed backup instrumental support from the Chicago Sinfonietta – a 60-piece orchestra with symphonic instrumentation, led for this concert by guest conductor Rich Daniels of City Lights Orchestra. Rundgren had performed with an orchestral back up in 2012, when he and his band performed with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam, Holland. The Sinfonietta opened the set with the lively “Initiation,” an extended instrumental piece from the 1975 album of the same title, here orchestrated by the Shallbetter brothers.
They continued with another up-tempo piece – the orchestral version of “Another Life” that was played in the Amsterdam concert. Rundgren returned to the stage dressed in a lime green pattern jacket over a t-shirt and together with his band and the Chicago Sinfonietta, performed a mixture of, as the program promised, “hits, rarities, fan favorites and surprises.”
Todd made the fans wait no longer for his earliest hit, “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” From there the musicians proceeded with a mix of upbeat songs joyous (“I Saw the Light”), compassionate (“Bag Lady” and “Wailing Wall,” both benefitting from the orchestra’s string sections), reflective (“If I Have to Be Alone,” “Parallel Lines, ””Second Wind”), hard rocking (“Property,” “Mammon,” “Fascist Christ”) and just plain goofy (“Frogs,” and “The Smell of Money”). “Frogs,” Rundgren explained, was written on assignment for a festival with the theme “Plagues of Egypt,” and he was assigned to write about the plague of frogs.
Rundgren ended the concert with reflection
Animated and playful on stage, Rundgren took his place among the enduring rock greats like Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Elton John, Jimmy Buffett and Bruce Springsteen; who continue to tour well into their later years. Indeed, it’s hard to picture other 70-year-olds doing what he and those other icons do so frequently. Listening to some of the lyrics, especially those in some of later songs performed toward the end of the concert, might give a clue to the mindset of this eternally youthful jester. In “Second Wind,” which he recorded in 1991 at the age of 43, he writes:
Give me back my lack of reason
Give me back my sense of humor….
Now that I know what to fight for
Now that I need more adventure
Now that I have thoughtful patience…
Blow like cyclone my second wind...,
He finished the formal second set with the iconic “Hello, It’s Me,” an upbeat breakup song that unresentfully anticipates and celebrates the memories that will endure from an important relationship that has ended. The “encore,” which Todd explained would be played without the usual ritual of leaving the stage and returning to play in response to audience demand, was “Fade Away.” The lyrics provided a sort of reassurance to the fans that there is something enduring in our relationships despite all the change around us.
In a hundred million years
When the planet disappears
You and I will stay
And watch the world fade away
The party continued the next day with The Intoxicats at Martyr’s
For many in the crowd, though, the parting was brief as Todd, his bandmembers, and many in the audience gathered the next day at Martyr’s, a music club on Chicago’s north side, to hear the music of The Intoxicats – a band fronted by Todd’s wife Michele Rundgren.
The Intoxicats describe themselves as an “exotica/surf/spy band" from Kauai and Minneapolis.” The nine-person group included, in addition to Michele Rundgren and Amy Meyer on lead vocals; guitars, bass guitars, percussion, flute, saxophone and trombone. They confessed that this engagement was their first live performance. The 75-minute set sounded to this listener’s ear like neo-punk music, with their covers of songs like Debbie Harry’s “Rapture.” If the music was mostly of a different genre than Rundgren’s work, the band, in their colorful costumes and sporting Michele’s infectious and unfailing smile, maintained the spirit of fun established the night before, as Todd looked on approvingly from the back of the room.
Rundgren’s Spirit of Harmony Foundation promotes music education
The show was the final event of a three-day weekend in support of Rundgren’s Spirit of Harmony Foundation, following a Friday night concert at Notre Dame University with guest performance by ND students, and the Saturday House of Blues concert.
The Spirit of Harmony Foundation promotes instrument-based music education through donations of instruments and other needed resources and building awareness of the moral imperative for music education.
A highlight of The Intoxicats show was an instrument donation drive, in which patrons who donated a musical instrument and bought a ticket to the show earned the right to a photo with Rundgren before the show. This writer was happy to donate an old trombone to SOHF to earn a portrait with one of his longtime favorite singer -songwriters.
With music bringing such lifelong to joy like this, who wouldn’t want to pass on the gift of music to future generations?
For more information on SOFH, visit the Spirit of Harmony Foundation website
For more information on Chicago Sinfonietta, visit the Chicago Sinfonietta website
Todd Rundgren, vocals
Jesse Gress, guitar
Kasim Sulton, bass guitar
Prairie Prince, drums
Greg Hawkes, keyboards
Richard Shallbetter, vocals
Kyle Shallbetter, vocals
Chicago Sinfonietta, Rich Daniels conducting, instrumentals
All Photos by Jim Snyder except as noted
Here's a slide show of photo highlights from the Spirit of Harmony Foundation "Big Weekend" events.
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.