Monday, April 5, 2010

Review: Bergan PAC

Todd Rundgren Unleashes Johnson
and Delivers a Big Batch of the Blues at the BergenPAC
A Feature Article by Rich and Laura Lynch

On a day when Christians around the world were marking the crucifixion of Jesus Christ - the recording artist Todd Rundgren, known as "God" to many of his fervent fans - went down to the crossroads on the opening night of his tour that is a tribute to the blues guitarist Robert Johnson who is perhaps best-known for his alleged deal with the devil. Rundgren and his band performed to a packed house on Good Friday, April 2, 2010 at the BergenPAC in Englewood, New Jersey and by all accounts got his "Johnson" off to a great start.

Todd Rundgren's musical muse has spanned many styles through the decades - morphing from power pop star to progressive rocker to acapella artist - he has been well-known for always experimenting and mixing up his approach to music. By taking on this current project Rundgren is mining territory that's been well covered by acts such as Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and countless others - all who have been influenced by the legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson - who died young in 1937 - yet, made his mark on generations of guitarists with his passionate playing and vocals.

Rundgren has said that he wanted to put his own stamp on the Johnson material and what became apparent was that him and his band - Jesse Gress (guitar), Prairie Prince (drums) and Kasim Sulton (bass) - were ready to mine the back catalogue for his own rarities that would be well-suited to a treatment of the blues.

The audience enthusiastically greeted Todd and his crew who were all clad in dark colors. The stage layout was straightforward with equipment and lighting. The concert started with a double guitar assault with Todd and Jesse exchanging licks on "Dust My Broom" backed by the lively rhythm team of Prairie and Kasim. This set the timing and tone for the evening. "Stop Breaking Down" had a sultry groove and glaring solos. It was followed by "Kiddie Boy" with its feisty fret work and tempos.

Rundgren's approach to the blues was aggressive with emphasis on guitars and beguiling beats with less focus on the emotion and perhaps empathy associated with the blues. Todd handled lead vocals backed by harmonizing band mates. Rundgren blended solos with singing as they performed songs from his catalogue mixed in with blues classics. Throughout the night, Todd chatted with the crowd promising a "shit load of blues" and jesting about johnson.

"We're going to liberally apply the Johnson throughout the show," Rundgren said when greeting the New Jersey audience. "We came here with the assumption that a lot of you came here to get your fill of the Johnson."

"We're going to be plumbing the archives for songs we haven't played before," Rundgren said between bluesy takes on his own "Black Maria" and "Bleeding" adding to the unique vibe of this tour.

"We're gonna hop back on the Johnson for a minute," Todd told the crowd before launching into "Last Fair Deal" and "Love In Vain".

While the setlist swelled with over two dozen songs the majority of the numbers were fast paced, short and succinct - showcasing galloping guitar leads backed by tight blues grooves powered by Todd's royal rhythm section featuring Sulton and Prince. However, the guys did stretch it out for a longer take on "Mystified/Broke Down and Busted" which was the mesmerizing musical climax of the evening.

During the concert we did learn a little more about Todd the man and the tools of his trade. He introduced the audience to his "new BFF" - a cream-colored Fender Telecaster he called "Butters". Over the past few years Rundgren has been using a bright green six-string and tonight we learned its name was "Foamy" - Todd would switch between both axes throughout the show as he chopped away at his two-page setlist.

This being Todd's first time - er, first night of the new tour - the Johnson did get a little sloppy at times. There were a few moments where Todd forgot lyrics, one song was aborted and after performing a version of "Red Hot" he said - "Yeah, we're working on that one."

Todd a producer, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has put his own spin on Johnson's songs utilizing an aggressive two-guitar attack in the process. The volume was turned up high in the BergenPAC and this was definitely the loudest show we have seen in the venue. Fans more familiar with Rundgren's pop and radio-friendly periods may have been taken aback by Todd's intense and noisy interpretation of the blues, and we did notice a number of patrons heading for the door early, but the majority of the people in attendance stayed for the full two-hour show.

Other highlights from the evening included "Walking Blues", "Born To Synthesize" and "Riverside" merging into "Crossroads". The encore featured an engaging version of "I Saw The Light" and "Tiny Demons" which had a slightly spacy feel and flow. Rundgren ended the night with more hard driving riffs and rhythms in "Boogies". Todd's covers were liberal and lively demonstrating how subjective interpretations can be but also keeping it interesting by being different. Thus, after many years in the music business Todd is still imaginative and an important, iconic figure in rock.

Opening for Todd was Bergen County's own "Lucky" Larry Stevens who has made a career of warming up for many big name acts in the region. Stevens - who describes himself as a cross between John Mayer and Elvis Costello - was engaging. He was joined by Montclair guitarist Van Manakas who underscored the singer-songwriter's tunes with a rich and warm electric lead tone that was a highlight of the set. Steven's is currently finishing up his third solo titled record with help from the rhythm section of Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel) and Muddy Shews (Southside Johnny) slated for a summer release.

ABOUT THE BERGENPAC: Bergen Performing Arts Center (BergenPAC) is an organization of and for the community that it serves throughout northern New Jersey, by being a creative focus, educational resource, and engine of economic vitality. BergenPAC's mission is to make the live performing arts accessible to the entire population - building a creative home that guides and liberates the imagination of our young, inspires and expands the lives of our adults, and attracts established and emerging artists of excellence and relevance. This timeless theater is conveniently located in downtown Englewood among a diverse range of restaurants and shops.

Dust My Broom
Stop Breaking Down
Kiddie Boy
Soul Brother
Walking Blues
Kindhearted Woman
Black Maria
Last Fair Deal
Love In Vain
Open My Eyes
Red Hot
Sweet Home Chicago
#1 Lowest Common
I Went To The Mirror
Come In My Kitchen
Born To Synthesize
I Saw The Light
Tiny Demons

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