Thursday, April 9, 2009

Article: Columbus Dispatch COVER STORY
Musician still rockin' -- but now in low-tech style
Thursday, April 9, 2009 3:11 AM
By Kevin Joy
Todd Rundgren: "I explored online communities early on."

Todd Rundgren: "I explored online communities early on."

Todd Rundgren is getting back to basics.

The rocker -- who pioneered digital-music technologies (and unfettered access to them) decades before Napster, iTunes and MySpace -- is logging off (in spirit, at least) and focusing on music, not megabytes.

His 19th studio album, Arena, is being heralded as a throwback, to a time long before familiar hits such as Hello It's Me and Bang the Drum All Day took a back seat to an experimental catalog of progressive rock, jazz fusion and even rap.

Yet the man whose Time Heals music video in 1981 was only the second clip shown on MTV has seemingly eschewed the technological habits of today -- no cell phone, no Facebook and certainly no Twitter.

He avoids Internet message boards and finds the idea of iPods a concern for album-oriented musicians such as himself who don't make a living from Top 40 radio singles. Even blogs, he said, have become too nasty.

Meanwhile, Rundgren's PatroNet project -- an online music-subscription service launched in 1998 -- was recently put on hiatus because of technical difficulties posed by the release of Windows Vista.

"I explored online communities early on," he said. "As time went on, I'm circumspect about some technologies."

It wasn't always that way.

In 1978, Rundgren performed what was considered the first interactive concert -- a midnight set at the state fairgrounds via the Warner/Qube system that allowed home viewers to dictate the show's set list in real time.

"As I recall, the Qube box would give . . . (home viewers) three or four options (of songs they wanted to hear)," said Rundgren, 60. "It was a fun experiment at the time, but it could become predictable."

Likewise, his albums were experimental in their day: No World Order from 1993 allowed listeners to remix tunes on their computers, while his 1995 release, The Individualist, was the first "enhanced" compact disc, with a video-game component.

The music morphed, too, to fit his ever-changing style.

His shows throughout the years have been equally varied -- including acoustic solo gigs, bossa-nova-infused lounge-style acts and high-volume spectacles complete with Day-Glo suits and video screens.

Although his early radio tunes remain best-known, as do his prog-rock collaborations with former backing band Utopia, crowds needn't expect a greatest-hits set list.

"Most of my audiences know that you don't go to a show with specific expectations," Rundgren said. "Since Utopia broke up, I would do solo shows, R&B revues.

"I would barely touch the guitar without playing in a supergroup" such as the New Cars (he joined the 2005 reunion and brief tour to fill the role of former Cars lead singer Ric Ocasek).

Yet the concert Friday ought to seem plenty familiar.

"We're doing pretty much straight-up, '70s-style arena rock -- sans the smoke bombs and pillars of flames," Rundgren said. "For a lot of my longtime fans, it's something they have missed."

Also a producer for dozens of popular musicians -- including Cheap Trick, Meat Loaf and the New York Dolls, with whom he reunited this year to handle the veteran rockers' fourth album -- he mixed his Arena album on an Apple laptop (and played all of the instruments), proving that the digital spark hasn't faded entirely.

"It's a very guitar-oriented record," Rundgren said. "I don't have guest rappers."

But if he did?

"I'd probably have Lil Wayne. My kids seem to like him."

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