Sunday, September 6, 2009

Interview: AWATS Cleveland .com

It's all the rage lately: From Van Morrison to Steely Dan, classic-rockers have been performing classic albums from start to finish in concert.

Not to be outdone, Todd Rundgren will make a two-night stand Sunday and Monday at the Akron Civic Theatre, where he'll present his magnum opus "A Wizard, a True Star" in its entirety at each show.

Far be it from this art-rock cult hero merely to jump on the bandwagon and play the music, though.

"This is not that," Rundgren insisted, reached by phone at home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Rather, he's intent on bringing the album to life.

"You know me," he said, laughing.

"If I get an opportunity like this, I'm not going to squander it by just going through the motions. . . . It's not simply playing the record. This is actually a theatricalization of the record. It's got to be more like a Las Vegas revue or a Broadway show."

He was leery of giving away surprises, but Rundgren promised everything from elaborate video presentations to costume changes.

"We've amped up the whole production," he said. "I'll even be doing some characters, in the context of the music. Instead of just being myself, I'll be acting out the music."

He'll be accompanied by guitarist Jesse Gress, keyboardists Roger Powell and Greg Hawkes, sax player Bobby Strickland, bassist Kasim Sulton and drummer Prairie Prince.

Originally released in 1973, "A Wizard, a True Star" didn't generate any Top 40 hits, although it featured "Just One Victory," a signature Rundgren tune. Alongside whimsical bursts of experimental original material, the eclectic album also made room for covers of various R&B oldies and "Never Never Land" from the Broadway musical "Peter Pan."

Rundgren, 61, plans to flesh out the performances with other songs, too.

"People can be assured that they're not going to hear just an hour's worth of music," he said. "It's going to be a full show, but 'A Wizard, a True Star' is the reason we're all there. Put it this way: If someone isn't excited enough about seeing 'A Wizard, a True Star,' nothing else is going to push them over the edge."

Of course, all of the above begs a basic question: Why?

"You're not the first to ask," Rundgren said.

The idea of revisiting "A Wizard, a True Star" in concert was first proposed to him by a British promoter, who hipped Rundgren to the fact that his landmark album had found a new following.

"A Wizard, a True Star" didn't generate any Top 40 hits, although it featured "Just One Victory," a signature Todd Rundgren tune."A young generation of electronica and turntable artists are quoting the record," Rundgren said. "They're not only citing it as some sort of a seminal record in electronica, but they're literally taking bits of it and sampling them into their own records."
Rundgren is set to take his "A Wizard, a True Star" production to London in February.

When American fans caught wind of the overseas show, they clamored for a stateside run. A seven-date U.S. tour was booked, starting in Akron.

Northeast Ohio "is in the heartland of my support," Rundgren said.

"It's been that way since, geez, the late '60s. So if there's any place where this would have a likelihood of at least paying for itself, if not becoming a flashpoint for a whole phenomenon, it would have to be the Cleveland area."

Rundgren has always had a soft spot for "A Wizard, a True Star," too.

"To me, it's the beginning of my real career as a musician," he said.

"Up until then, I was pretty much following the rules of the game. An album was a collection of singles, and singles were all short, accessible songs that usually were about the opposite sex. 'Something/Anything?' [Rundgren's 1972 double album, with the Top 5 single "Hello It's Me"] was an attempt for me to get a grip on that.

"By the time I got to the end of that record, I not only had a grip on it, but I was bored with it."

When he began work on "A Wizard, a True Star," he was putting the finishing touches on his own recording studio.

"I was still crawling around on the floor, wiring stuff behind the console when the musicians were setting up," he said.

"I'd run in and say, 'OK, here's this part, now practice this,' then I'd go back a wire a little more, until I finally got it together enough so we could capture the songs.

"From that point on, all of the usual rules about making records didn't apply. I didn't have to book the studio. I could show up any time of day or night. There were no bills, except the electric bill. And I didn't have to consider how long I spend noodling around on something. . . . The record, in a sense, represented that freedom."

While preparing for the concerts, Rundgren gained fresh insights into the album.

"In going back and listening to it again and reviewing the lyrics, I realized that it wasn't as nonsensical as I thought it was," he said. "That was kind of a pleasant surprise, that it wasn't as silly as I thought."

Spoken like a wizard, a true star, no?

That album title was meant as a joke, by the way.

"It was a spoof on becoming a show-biz personality," Rundgren said. "I think I read it in a review somewhere -- 'a wizard, a true star' -- and it just amused me. It wasn't supposed to be serious."

1 comment:

Scott Sheppard said...

About the album title, I think Todd was serious at the time. I think his album titles have always said something about the author as well as the content. Faithful was a collection of faithful recreations of old tunes, and an album that his faithful followers would buy without any advertisement. Healing contained music whose notes were based on the healing ability of music and helped Todd coemd to terms with being pistol whipped/robbed at his Woodstock home. Arena was about how men solve problems but also Todd's desire to play to larger audiences, I could go on and on, but you get the idea.