in performance: todd rundgren

Todd Rundgren. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.

Todd Rundgren may be one of the very few pop/rock stylists with an extensive artistic career for whom the concept of a retrospective concert program is a novelty. Even the greatest survivors of the 1960s still touring with an ounce of performance credibility and drive tend to favor the familiar. Rundgren, ever the experimentalist, only sporadically looks to the past onstage. In recent years, his concerts have favored evenings full of new music, from the garage rock essentials explored on the 2008 album “Arena” (which he played in its entirely on a subsequent tour) to a 2013 repertoire that discarded his more accessible music for the electronica saturated songs from the completely divergent “State.”

So it was a curiosity that Rundgren, 70, reverted to a somewhat more audience friendly format on Wednesday evening at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati. The evening flipped the philosophy of recent tours by forsaking new material to focus on his extensive back catalogue of pop, soul, rock and prog delicacies. As the current tour is a tie-in promotion to his recently published autobiography “The Individualist” (which was also the title to a his sublime 1995 solo album), Rundgren interspersed the early portion of the program with stories and anecdotes from his 50-plus year career (including a labeling of the clavinet as “a sissy hybrid of keyboard and guitar”). The summation, he jokingly but accurately stated, was a concert presentation that was “all about me.”

For longstanding as well as novice fans, all this translated into Nirvana. Having a band full of longtime pals (Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton, Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes and Tubes drummer Prairie Prince) at his side and his own durable level of stage stamina at his disposal, this was a program that seemingly couldn’t miss. Sure enough, it didn’t.

You don’t appreciate the sense of efficient pop songcraft that has always been a Rundgren trademark until you hear him perform three of his earliest and most popular singles – “Hello It’s Me,” “We Got to Get You a Woman” and “I Saw the Light” – in quick succession as he did near the show’s onset. But you also have to understand the eccentricities of the many stylistic offramps Rundgren’s shows have traveled through the years to realize just how rare such an obvious grouping of songs in his concerts can be. As an audience icebreaker, the tunes proved endearing. As an insight to the career story Rundgren was telling, they were pivotal.

While hearing the hits appeased the masses, it was the many comparative obscurities Rundgren uncorked that painted a fuller, more uncompromising career portrait. Perhaps none were more unexpected that “Fair Warning,” a blast of Philly soul laced with psychedelia, and “Eastern Intrigue,” an aptly named intercontinental slice of pop spiritualism, that nicely blurred the lines between abstract and accessible. Both tunes were pulled from one of Rundgren’s most overlooked albums, 1975’s “Initiation.”

There was also ample rock ‘n’ roll that showed off some still-vital guitar musicianship (“Black Maria,” “Black and White”), a stunning a cappella pronouncement sung with Sulton and co-guitarist Jesse Gress (“Honest Work”) and a neatly orchestrated affirmation that was perhaps the evening’s most lovely and complete pop presentation (“Kindness”).

All in all, a retrospective evening that was fun enough for to satisfy an audience’s basic appetite and, hopefully, the greater creative need of the pop individualist at the helm. It was, as Rundgren states at the end of his autobiography, a “balance between what I wanted to say and what I would be expected to reveal.”

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