Friday, December 4, 2009

Concert Review: Sacromento Press: Wizard Rundgren remains a truly weird star at Crest

Wizard Rundgren remains a truly weird star at Crest

The title of Todd Rundgren's 1973 concept album, A Wizard, A True Star, always seemed half true: A studio wizard he may have been, a one-man band with eclectic influences and an ear for a great hook, but he was never quite the star he aspired to be.

Indeed, Rundgren, who made his recorded debut as a member of The Nazz in 1967, always seemed just a year or two behind the true trendsetters, and a bit ahead of the curve when it came to stardom. Despite several early hits -- "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light" positioned him as a singer-songwriter in the mold of Carole King or Elton John -- his tendency to go off in five directions at once and a healthy skepticism about stardom itself seemed to push him in the direction of cult star rather than rock star.

Forty-two years and dozens of albums later, Rundgren remains a cult star, occasionally releasing albums but rarely selling many. But his cult is devoted and passionate, and Wednesday night he drew a half house of ravenous fanatics to the Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento. The crowd of about 600 was fanatical, calling out to the singer between songs. One loutish fan even walked up to the apron of the stage to address Rundgren, who was in a mid-song vamp.

The draw wasn't just Rundgren. The concert was promoted as a chance to hear him perform, start to finish, that same 1973 album, A Wizard, A True Star, known in its day as the longest single album ever released on one vinyl long player, at approximately 50 minutes. Most albums of the time topped out around 40.

More a collection of electronics-mad moments or melodic flights of fancy than fully-realized songs -- one string of five songs are barely a minute each -- it was a curiosity then and remains so now. Wizard came out the same year as The Dark Side of the Moon, Quadrophenia, Aladdin Sane, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Band on the Run and Houses of the Holy; any album would have a hard time standing out. That Wizard, with its dye-cut cover (a Dali-esque portrait of Rundgren) and lacking a hit single, did even reasonably well was no mean feat.

Wednesday night, 36 years after its release, Wizard got another chance. The music, now extending well over an hour, came across powerfully. Freed of studio wizardry and abrupt edits, and of the density of the original studio sound, the music had a chance to breathe, and Rundgren's six-piece band, featuring old Utopia bandmate Kasim Sultan on bass and vocals, as well as Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, managed most of the tricky changes and bizarre shifts in tempo and tone.

That wasn't always easy. Rundgren's tastes, rooted in The Beatles' psychedelia and the orchestral soul of his native Philadelphia, had become informed over the years by the weird time signatures and tonalities of Frank Zappa's work -- "Cool Jerk" in 7/4 anyone? -- as well as the burgeoning glam rock of the early '70s. And then there was that whole singer/songwriter thing.

And Rundgren's rather dour sense of humor and irony (one refrain goes "You want the obvious/You'll get the obvious") tends to undercut much of what he does on an emotional level. Though he sang such soulful numbers as "Sometimes I Don't Know What to Feel" and a soul medley that included the chestnut "La-La-La Means I Love You," Rundgren maintained an emotional distance that verged on cold at points. One is always aware that he is performing, most likely with tongue in cheek.

In that respect, Rundgren didn't help himself with the frequent costume changes that struck this viewer as something out of community theatre gone wrong. He emerged during the opening "International Feel" in an astronaut's spacesuit, and subsequent songs saw him in a red fat suit (inflated on one song, deflated on the next), an orange leisure suit and a Isaac Hayes-inspired satin-and-skin ensemble that looked ridiculous on Rundgren.

Still, the costumes were part of the fun, and evocative of the crazy-quilt of Wizard. A studio-inspired and electronically-created album, it came off better live than might have been expected. The pacing of the album, played mostly in its original sequence, lent itself to live performance. Musical peaks and lulls came through beautifully. Even the odd little between-song instrumentals and sonic tangents served to give Rundgren time for costume changes, and a chance for the band to show off.

By the time he and the band got to the soaring refrain of "International Feel" and then to the album's closing number, "Just One Victory," the evening was complete. A powerfully emotional anthem to hope, the song is free of irony and self-conscious wit, going to the core of '70s soul's optimism. It has long been Rundgren's show-closer, but set in its original context at the end of Wizard, it was even more moving.

Rundgren may remain mostly a cult star, but to have maintained that cult for three-plus decades is quite an accomplishment. And it should be said that Wednesday night's show, as rich as it was, neglected at least a dozen classic Rundgren songs. Even as part of the very short tour of Wizard, Wednesday night was a chance to celebrate not just an album, but the career of a man who, while perhaps not a wizard, is certainly a talented magician.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TV interview abc tv




Todd Rundgren introduces his band and performs Just One Victory from "A Wizard, A True Star" AWATS - Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 12/1/09

opening setlist for the AWATS show on the west coast

Todd premiered the Todd Rundgren's Johnson material as the opening set for the AWATS show on the west coast

kasim / prarrie / jesse and todd performed the following set..

Todd Rundgren's Johnson setlist!

Dust My Broom
Stop Breakin' Down
Walkin Blues
Love in Vain
Sweet Home Chicago
Red Hot

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

LAist interview

LAist Interview: Todd Rundgren

the boundary-defying musician, vocalist, composer, producer and original Zen Master of computer technology applied to music, embarks on a very special mini-tour this week, performing his 1973 release A Wizard, A True Star in its entirety in four California cities. This Friday at the Orpheum Theater, Todd and his band will reprise an album so full of music, the pressing required narrowing the grooves so that it could all fit. Covering just about every rock/pop genre even a journeyman fan could imagine, even inventing a few more in the process, it has over time been proclaimed Rundgren's White Album, OK Computer and Pet Sounds.

Acknowledged to be a musician’s musician - on 1972’s Something / Anything, he played all instruments - for this unveiling of A Wizard, A True Star Rundgren has enlisted some phenomenal support players. His touring band for this jaunt consists of drummer Prairie Prince (The Tubes, skinbasher on the Rundgren-produced Skylarking by XTC); bassist Kasim Sulton from Rundgren’s 70’s-era band Utopia; Cars keysman Greg Hawkes; guitarist Jesse Gress (Tony Levin, Robbie Dupree, Adrian Belew); saxophonist Bobby Strickland (The Band, Grateful Dead, Dick Dale), and pianist Ralph Schuckett (another Utopia vet whose session ledger includes James Taylor, Lou Reed, and George Benson though unfotunately not all on the same session). Expect a higher than usual turnout of studio technicians and Musicians Institute grads.

Backed by this fiery group of players, Rundgren will open with a set of “other material”, including songs he has never performed live, before launching into what is sure to be one of the highlights of LA music for 2009. Promising something more than a note for note duplication, he playfully remarks “This is not that”. Expect staging, costume changes and songs fully brought to life with Rundgren making use of his own theatrical sensibilities and Prairie Prince’s talent with set design. (You have to wonder what the visual motif on ‘Rock and Roll Pussy’ - Runt’s purported jab at John Lennon from Lennon’s year of exile in LA - is going to be).

Rundgren spoke to LAist on the phone from his home in Hawaii shortly before heading to LA to begin tour rehearsals.

The album that you’re performing at the Orpheum, A Wizard A True Star, came out in 1973, the same year as Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re An American Band and the New York Dolls’ debut album. Can you tell us what it was like having so many projects happening in such a short amount of time?

Well in those days the entire industry was a little different. It didn’t take months and months to make a record. I guess people didn’t have the idea of “perfection” that they do nowadays, where the idea is that enough perspiration can makes up for inspiration, uh, I don’t know. But it was not incredibly unusual for a producer, which I principally was at that point in time, for a producer to do three, four, as many as a half a dozen projects a year. Because they all took, more or less, an average of a month to record. Also it was just a time in my life where I had no other preoccupations but music. I also built a studio in New York, and that facilitated a lot as well, in that I could record some of my projects in my own studio or even produce from my studio. And that was a situation where we weren’t really under any kind of time limitations, in terms of what time we could come in to record, and how long we spent working. So that made our use of the studio time, I think, more efficient. And, I had no family to demand that I spend time with them. So I could spend all this time, you know, traveling or doing these productions in studios around the world, to record these various records.

Of all the albums that you could have chosen to give this kind of “live in entirety” treatment, why did you pick this one?

I didn’t choose it, and that’s how. I was on tour in England about a year ago, and our promoter approached me with the idea of doing the album once, in London. And he was inspired by the fact that a generation of younger musicians had begun to discover A Wizard A True Star, the record. And exactly how, I don’t know, how they discover that album from 1973 is mysterious to me. But in any case, a bunch of younger musicians were mentioning the record, and it was being sampled on records as well. So he thought it’d be a great way to introduce me to a younger audience in England by essentially doing a special event that would possibly feature some of these younger musicians. When word of that possibility got back to the United States, a group of fans decided that England was too far for them to go, and they wanted to see that album performed. So essentially, they found a venue in Akron and started promoting it themselves. By the time word of this got through the internet to all the fans, we wound up doing seven shows in five cities during the first ten days or so of September. So it went from being a single special event to being a series of dates and because the production is more elaborate than what I usually do, we can only do it in limited runs anyway. So we’re also doing these four dates in California, and we’ll finally make it to London in the beginning of next year, we’ll play a date in London and then a date in Amsterdam.

With all the different styles and textures on the tracks on A Wizard A True Star, how did you approach the recording? Was there a standard method of doing tracks live in the studio and overdubbing from there, or did that approach change with every song?

Well, in those days I had been working in a couple of contexts. One was the Something/ Anything context, which was me playing everything. And then there was the fourth side of Something/ Anything, and this is the record I did right before A Wizard A True Star. And the fourth side of that is all live sessions with a band. So I was not locked into doing things one way or another way. But this was the first project we did at the studio we built in New York called Secret Sound. We were still wiring up the console and stuff like that when guys were turning up to the first session. We’re frantically trying to get everything working while they were rehearsing the songs. So in some cases it would be like that, it would be live and very much resemble a live session, and in some cases it would be just me, by myself, and the biggest difference there was that I was essentially the engineer. We had no engineer to really operate the tape machine, I would have to turn it on and then run out and play whatever I was gonna play. Or, we did do a lot of recording in the control room.

So, much of our approach was out of the fact that we had our own environment to work in, and were freed of the usual limitations. I was… I could do anything I wanted that other studios might frown upon, like running it too hot or wiring things together in these weird configurations that they were not comfortable or familiar with. So it was really a different record from the stand point of how we worked. It was more like a college project or something. It wasn’t a typical kind of studio thing. Although I imagine that the Beatles had a similar kind of freedom in the studio, where you could take over a studio for a month and not have to share it with anyone else. So that was a principal element, the complete freedom to ignore the usual constraints of being in the studio.

There’s a very unique bass sound on some of those tracks, that’s kind of a quavering, wobbly bass sound. How did you achieve that effect?

We had a limited number of effects available to us in those days because it was all analog, you know, pre-digital. A lot of the vocal effects, nowadays they would use what would be referred to as a digital delay. Well there was no such thing in those days. If you wanted that kind of delay, you had to do it by an analog method. So we had a thing called a Cooper Time Cube which essentially was a couple of long pieces of hose inside a box, with a funnel speaker on one end and a microphone on the other end. So you would get this synthetic doubling effect, And one of the pedals we used to depend on a lot was called the Univibe, It’s essentially a classic effect that a lot of people used, Jimi Hendrix used it a lot on his guitar. Not so much on the bass. But we were working from a different kind of ethic, that whole idea that there were no rules that we were compelled to follow. So we would apply things that probably people didn’t think of. But using the Univibe on the bass, was, it wasn’t that unusual for the way we were working. Let’s just plug everything into everything else and see what it sounds like.

You were one of the first prominent musicians to offer a direct to consumer model for purchasing music over the internet. What did you find rewarding about that experience and, do you plan to continue working that way?

Well it was not exactly….it wasn’t based so much on sales. It was called Future Net. And the idea was that artists would get underwriting to create new music, and that the underwriters would get the chance to kind of look over the artist’s shoulder and peek at what they were doing. And so it was not a standard consumer model, it was supposed to be for people who were particularly devoted to certain artists.

And it was great for a while but the problem was, it was always a technological burden, and I needed to have the participation and the help of other entities. And at some point we sold it to someone who then proceeded to dismantle it. Put no money into it, starved it to death and essentially brought the whole enterprise to its knees. And it hasn’t recovered since. I would like to go back to the concept again, which is different from the standard, record sales. More sort of long term underwriting, and a different sort of relationship between the artist and the people who listen to the music. But at this particular point in time I’m too involved in musical things, I suppose, to get back into the whole technology trip. But that doesn’t mean I won’t get to a place where I will revisit the concept and try and re-prog.

Regarding the 2004 album Liars, did you begin with the concept before writing the songs or did you notice that you had a lot of songs with a common theme?

The concept evolved… I had done a little bit of recording but at the time, I was very sort of unfocused about it. I wasn’t really thinking I was ready. I was just… writing songs and recording them. And eventually I got to the point that I thought, I’ve got enough basic groundwork done, I should start to think about finishing a record. And I realized I wanted to do something that was conceptual, which I hadn’t done in a while. And I realized that at least some of this stuff I had been writing about was on the topic of, not just truth, but also reality and surreality and all these sort of glamours and things like that that I discovered, after ruminating, seem to be almost endemic in human character. And so after that, it almost started to write itself from a lyrical standpoint. Eighty minutes worth of music, all of it about that central topic. It turned to out to be a real goldmine, I guess, of ideas for things to write about. Once you realize and acknowledge the fact that this weird relationship that human beings have with the truth creates so much conflict, how much conflict and turmoil… that’s where most music comes from. It comes from turmoil. Most art is the product of some kind of turmoil deep inside that artist’s soul.

Working as a producer, have you ever worked on a project that ended up having an effect on your own music?

Almost all of my productions have had some eventual effect on my music. In many instances, I’m only interested in doing artists that present a kind of challenge. Production means a lot of things, and one of the things I don’t really feel should be in the category of production is simple babysitting. So if the producer is not making some of kind of contribution, and conversely becoming more and more educated about the act that he’s working with, then there’s not enough music in it for me. So I tend to choose artists that I’m not necessarily 100% comfortable with, and even then I’m trying to challenge us to come up with something beyond the mundane. And so in that sense, I’m always ideally learning something and getting something from the people that I’m working with, even if I don’t directly incorporate that into anything that I do. I mean, I did produce a country album once. I haven’t really done any country music. But in that sense, the answer is yes, I do get affected by the people I work with.

Are there any production jobs that you’ve passed over and later wished that you’d accepted?

Well, there are jobs that just, for whatever reason, just don’t happen. Because many artists are on a schedule, you know, they’ve gotta get a record done so they can go on the road and tour it, often can’t wait for you to finish another project that you’re working on and you lose the opportunity. I was working on a Tubes album when I was approached to do a Talking Heads record. And I was a big fan of the band and I was always disappointed I never got to do that. But ce’st la vie, you know? That’s the breaks. And there are other things that you get to do that make up for it. You know, I did an XTC record that was a Herculean task from a psychic standpoint. It was a very satisfying record to do, and a finished product that only I would have done. And those are the kinds of records that you’re waiting for, the ones that are the perfect match for you.

It was interesting reading XTC’s interviews in response to the production of that record, and, well, you’ve read them too...

It comes with the territory, I guess. You hope that your time with an artist will be pleasant and fruitful. And if it can’t be both of those, it can at least be fruitful. We helped their career, and beyond that, the turmoil just comes with the territory. Put it this way: it would have been horrible if we’d gone through all that AND the record sucked.

Marquee: awats show crest theater california

click on image to see full size

Monday, November 30, 2009

PR: Awats west coast show begin this week

Todd Rundgren's California AWATS Live tour begins this week
Todd Rundgren's "A Wizard, A True Star" album tour in California begins this week. The concerts will include an opening set featuring some songs he's never performed before live. Stops include San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Ventura.

Todd Rundgren during an AWATS Live soul medley

PR Log (Press Release) – Nov 29, 2009 – Todd Rundgren's full-album performances tour in California begins this week. The concerts will include an opening set featuring some songs he's never performed before live ---- Keeping his fans guessing, Todd has chosen not to comment on whether these songs are new material for an upcoming release or songs from previous albums.

Beginning December 1, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco, Todd and his six-piece star-studded band will play the 1973 classic album "A Wizard, A True Star" in its entirety for the first time ever on the West Coast. Band members include: Utopia and Meatloaf bassist, Kasim Sulton; Tubes and Jefferson Starship drummer, Prairie Prince; keyboardist and founding member of The Cars, Greg Hawkes; Todd Rundgren's Utopia keyboardist, Ralph Schuckett; percussionist and horn player, Bobby Strickland; and lead guitarist and former music editor of Guitar Player magazine, Jesse Gress.

Rundgren has only performed the AWATS album live in its entirety seven times. The first ever performance on September 6th of this year was presented in Akron, OH, by two fans-turned-promoters from The results were a sold out show, critical raves and unbridled fan demand for more performances.

The AWATS Live performance features not only the music but an elaborate stage extravaganza with multiple costume changes. According to Rundgren, the album was from an era when most artists were offering production-oriented live performances. "People were wearing costumes and they had special effects and lasers and that sort of stuff to enhance the shows. We'll truck a bunch of that out as well ... it's not just the music of the era; it's a presentation in the style of that era."

The California mini-tour :

December 1st in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre

December 2nd in Sacramento at the Crest Theatre

December 4th in Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theatre

December 5th in Ventura at the Majestic Theatre.

Ticket ordering information is available on Todd and the band will take the show overseas in February 2010.

"A Wizard, A True Star" was included in the 2006 musical reference book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. In 2003, British music critic Barney Hoskyns wrote in MOJO magazine that Rundgren's "A Wizard, A True Star" is simply the greatest album ever made.