Well, you can’t say Todd Rundgren didn’t warn anyone. The first words out of his mouth last night at Bogart’s in Cincinnati could have served as a mantra for his entire career, but they held especially true for the wildly indulgent performance at hand: “I am what I am.”
Familiar as that saying is, it also served as the opening line to Rundgren’s new indie album, State, which half of the program’s repertoire was devoted to. Take your pick as to which might have seemed more unsettling – the fact that State’s music is drenched in electronica-heavy dance beats or the idea Rundgren had of using such rave-friendly dance sounds as the basis for the entire performance.
He brought along two long-time bandmates – guitarist Jesse Gress and drummer Prairie Prince. But with very few exceptions, both, like Rundgren, were subservient to the show’s heavily computerized drive. In short, the better portion of the music was essentially canned. That didn’t seem to bother the crowd – heavily populated by 50 and 60-somethings – half as much as being showered with music they had never heard.
Frankly, that element proved quite intriguing. Good for ol’ Todd for not staying mired in the past. For those patient enough to hang tough with the State songs, there were rewards. Groove-dominate as the music seemed, it was still graced with plentiful pop hooks and a melodic sensibility that shifted from the contemplative (the set-closing Sir Reality) to the tensely textured (Ping Me) to the purely celebratory (Party Liquor). And while you couldn’t always tell underneath the live beats and synths, there was considerable humor in the new tunes, as well. “You shall receive what you deserve” sang Rundgren under the party funk of Serious. “Since you been dancing on my last nerve.”
It was in the delivery of this dance floor pop that things became problematic. Watching a truly pro groove merchant like Prince do little more that color a static, pre-established beat was a little painful. Same with Rundgren. While he obviously got a good aerobic workout leaping about in an effort to sell the crowd on the idea of a rave, his live musicianship was limited to two brief guitar solos at the start and end of the set.
Any concert that restricts Rundgren’s guitar time operates creatively in the red. In that respect, this program hemorrhaged.