Friday, June 25, 2010

News Article: New Zealand shows

Hello it's me (and Johnson)
4:00 AM Saturday Jun 26, 2010

Todd Rundgren is also known as the man who acted as father for actress Liv Tyler. Photo / SuppliedTodd Rundgren laughs as he predicts the end of the current model of on-line music sales, which will disappear like the Sony Walkman and vinyl singles: "Because some songs are priceless, some songs are worthless ... . and some songs are worth exactly 99 cents."

He should know. In a 40-plus year career, he's made songs, and whole albums, in each category.

However, although he has appeared on more than 40 albums under his own name or that of his bands (the Nazz in the 60s, Utopia from the mid-70s), been producer for everyone from the New York Dolls and Patti Smith to Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell), Shaun Cassidy and the Psychedelic Furs, Rundgren allows himself another dry laugh as he describes his position in the marketplace of music.

"I'm a fringe artist."

Given his long career - which admittedly has only troubled the American top 20 singles charts with I Saw the Light and Hello It's Me in the early 70s - you'd think this innovative musician who was also in the vanguard of video and internet technology would be a household name.

But if he's known for anything today it's as the man who acted as father for actress Liv Tyler - daughter of Aerosmith's Steve Tyler - when she was a child.

Rundgren's wayward career has taken him from soul-pop through expansive prog-rock, from guitar hero to abandoning the guitar entirely. Yet he comes to New Zealand playing a programme of blues by the legendary Robert Johnson (1911-38), delivered in the style of the late 60s power-rock bands like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. His new album is Todd Rundgren's Johnson - a title more risque to an American audience.

And he's candid about why he's gone in this direction. It wasn't by choice.

After years of not playing guitar to concentrate on singing, he decided to record a stadium rock album - Arena - and needed a distributor.

"The company that made the deal administered Johnson's music publishing and a requirement to distributing Arena was I record an album of Johnson tunes. I agreed because I wanted to get my record out and thought I'd figure out how to deal with this later."

In the meantime, however, Eric Clapton started making "a second career" out of paying tribute to Johnson - an influence on musicians such as Keith Richards, John Mayall and Clapton - "so anything I did would pale by comparison. It would be creepy, trying to outdo Eric Clapton."

Ironically, he concluded he could do justice to the old bluesman's music by playing it in a power-rock format like Clapton's Cream so he wouldn't be competing with Clapton in the "authenticity" stakes.

And so that's what he touring now - with pick-up musicians in different regions to make it economic. Just like bluesmen of old.

"The entirety of Johnson is 40-45 minutes and that's an opening act. My shows are usually two to two-and-a-half hours, so of necessity I'm going to fill it out. The blues guy I know best is myself. My big initial influence was electric blues and English people like Clapton who did their own version of that."

So his show is one part electric Johnson and a large dollop of Todd as guitar hero.

Such conceptual projects have long been Rundgren's method of working and, recently, he has taken to playing his earlier albums in their entirety. Again not his idea.

An American fan started Rundgren Radio which broadcasts his music and related interviews and, through listener surveys, learned what albums fans wanted Rundgren to play. So after decades of simply going his own way musically, he now occasionally meets the marketplace demand, and the theatrical shows, playing his classic albums A Wizard, A True Star and Something/Anything sell out.

"I have a devoted audience because through not playing what people expect I have weeded out all the dilettantes. So now the audience I have will come to see anything I have to present, but it depends on a certain recognition they need to get every once in a while and deeply desire. So I go and do that."

An amusing and almost detached observer of his own career, he notes a rare experience when he fronted the New Cars in 06 - the old Cars with him in for lead singer Ric Ocasek - and discovered a very different audience response from what he was used to.

He admits people come to his shows expecting and wanting Hello It's Me "and I mostly don't play it because it's too out of context of what I'm doing at the time".

"So the first time [the New Cars] played we were eight songs in and people were still singing along. Completely different than my shows. If there are people at my shows who haven't fully kept up with my career they're stumped at several points trying to remember where, if ever, they've heard this song.

"But with the New Cars, there was that power of familiarity, when they hear the first note they are fully committed and the song is sold."

As someone who has sat in a studio with artists as diverse as Meat Loaf, XTC (he produced the fraught sessions for their glorious Skylarking) and Grand Funk Railroad, Rundgren observes his role as producer, "goes along with the priorities of most listeners, a decent song".

"People don't want to hear the most incredible version of the world's crappiest song. They would rather hear a half-assed version of of the world's best song. You are always striving to hear material that might be attractive to a listener.

"Material doesn't have to be super confident, it just has to be done with style or some perceptible emotion. The thing people care least about is the thing some artists, to my mystification, are most obsessed with: sound quality.

"There is no uniformity to how people listen anymore."

Opinionated, slightly cynical and funny, Rundgren - who produced Bat Out of Hell remember - says he doesn't hear much humour in music these days outside of hip-hop ("Flavor Flav is a funny guy").

"I'd love to make a record like [Frank Zappa's] Absolutely Free, just guys musically goofing off in the studio. And the audience is prepared for it, comedians are filling sports arena now.

"If you have a choice of going into comedy or music your odds are 50:50. And if you're in a band, you have to develop a sense of humour as a survival mechanism.

"It's deadly if you wind up with someone who has no sense of humour. It can make for some long, uncomfortable bus rides.

"You've got to have a sense of humour in this day and age. It's too easy to fail."


Who: Guitar hero Todd Rundgren
Where and when: Powerstation, September 24
Trivia: In 1980 with his band Utopia, Rundgren wrote and recorded the album Deface the Music on which he paid homage to the Beatles by writing songs in their changing styles.

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