Friday, July 9, 2010

Interview: "expect the unexpected" from

Expect the unexpected from Todd Rundgren

By Dan Kane staff writer
Posted Jul 09, 2010 @ 07:00 AM

Why is it not so surprising that Todd Rundgren's latest tour and recording project is a salute to blues pioneer Robert Johnson?

After all, Rundgren has been confounding fans and critics since the late '60s with his kaleidoscopic and deeply eclectic talents and tastes.

Best known as a keyboard-based pop-rock tunesmith with a string of breezy hits — "Hello It's Me," "We Gotta Get You a Woman," "I Saw the Light," "Can We Still Be Friends," "Bang the Drum All Day" — Rundgren has at various points explored electronics, R&B, progressive rock, hard rock, bossa nova, Beatles homages, show tunes, outright silliness and Eastern spirituality.

And now, Robert Johnson's Mississippi Delta blues of the 1930s. Rundgren's upcoming tribute album is titled "Todd Rundgren's Johnson."

A longtime Northeast Ohio favorite who has played three sold-out shows at Canton's Palace Theatre, Rundgren will appear in concert July 16 at Clay's Park Resort in Lawrence Township, headlining the Rock N Resort Music Festival.

Joining Rundgren, on guitar and vocals, will be bassist Kasim Sulton, guitarist Jesse Gress and drummer Prairie Prince. Recent shows have alternated Johnson standards, such as "Sweet Home Chicago," "Love in Vain" and "Crossroads," with such Rundgren diversities as "Black Maria," "Unloved Children" and "No. 1 Lowest Common Denominator."

I phoned Rundgren, 62, at his home in Hawaii for an expansive interview. He was great to talk to — funny, thoughtful and still very engaged in his career. Highlights follow.

Q. Can you give me a preview of your upcoming show here?

A. We usually play two hours. We'll do the 12 songs from the Robert Johnson record, then the rest will be more or less blues-influenced songs from my own career. Which sounds strange, but as it turns out, my first job as a professional player was in a blues band, which is a little-known fact, and that's what gave me the gumption to undertake this blues project. It's a very bluesy evening featuring Robert Johnson, but not exclusively. I don't want people to think this is some type of Library of Congress presentation. (Laughs)

Q. I'm very curious — why Robert Johnson and why now?

A. I finished an album called "Arena" about two years ago and we needed distribution for it, which is the nature of the music business these days with many artists trying to figure out how to get their records into stores. So we shopped it around and found a company that was interested in the record, but they had an additional clause in the contract that I would also record an album's worth of Robert Johnson songs, because they had acquired the administrative rights to Robert Johnson's songwriting. So they convinced me to do it. It took me about a year to get (the album) done. I soon found out after I agreed to do it that Eric Clapton has made a second career out of tributing Robert Johnson. (Laughs)

Q. Well, you've just got to outdo him!

A. I was kind of thrown into a tizzy at that point trying to figure out what my approach would be. I finally came to the conclusion that this actually did have something to do with Eric Clapton and all of the other white blues guitar players in England in the mid-'60s, who were essentially a more direct influence on me than Robert Johnson was. The English had such a leg up on us American guys. We were playing the Ventures and surf guitar and along come the Yardbirds and all these other British bands who'd been listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

Q. Does your Robert Johnson album sound like a Todd Rundgren album?

A. I never thought doing something very authentic or Robert Johnson-like was going to be the approach. There's a difference in the way you approach blues as opposed to R&B. I have experience with both, but as a singer I have more experience as an R&B stylist. The blues takes a certain other discipline. It's supposed to be more simple and it does have an improvisational aspect about it. I wasn't trying to mimic Robert Johnson. I was still trying to sound like myself in a sense. It's more about a feeling and trying to give voice to that feeling.

Q. The last couple of times I've seen you in concert, you have been very guitar-oriented and very rocking, versus playing piano and singing. It must be great to play something like "Black Maria" and let it wail.

A. I like to wail, yes. (Chuckles) We get a little crazy with the guitar. I started out in music as a guitar player, then I got into the piano because it was a good songwriting tool. And writing songs on the piano naturally led to having to perform them on the piano. Then I discovered that I was never going to be very good at singing and playing the piano together. Some people are very good at it, but for some reason, whenever I start to get into the singing, I forget that I'm playing the piano and make a mistake and it's all downhill from there. (Laughs) It was something I could get away with in front of my fans. But then I went out on tour with Joe Jackson, who is a real piano player, and I came to the conclusion that I have no business singing and playing the piano live. I'm just not good enough at it. That's when I made the decision to migrate back to the guitar and, thankfully, it has come back to me. If you don't play the guitar all the time, you can lose your edge.

Q. It's fun to watch you play guitar. You seem very into the moment and into the musicianship of it.

A. It's a quality that goes back to the start of my musical career, when I wanted to be the gunslinging guitar player. I wanted to be mentioned in the same breath with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton and all that.

Q. You're playing a show in September in Akron, where you are doing the "Todd" and "Healing" albums in their entirety. So I guess you're going to be doing that insane Gilbert and Sullivan song ("Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song")?

A. (Laughs) I'm doing that song, yes. Gilbert and Sullivan was one of my refuges from the travails of my teenage years. I had a friend who was a very smart guy and I did very poorly in school, so the way I would prove that I was smart was I would memorize all these Gilbert and Sullivan songs. I'd go to the library and get the full libretto in the bathtub for hours memorizing all the lyrics, then I'd come out with this stream of Victorian English. ("Nightmare Song") is still somewhere in my brain. It just needs dusting off. I've often thought it would be fun to do a stage musical like "Pirates of Penzance" or something like that.

Q. When you listen to the "Todd" album 36 years later, are you impressed with what you concocted? Some of that stuff is visionary.

A. Actually, I built my own studio during "A Wizard, A True Star" and that kind of set things off. We were no longer operating in a world of rules. (Laughs) We could do anything at any time. We had pretty much thrown off the yoke of the clock and whatever the studio owner might have told us about not plugging box A into box B. (Laughs) We could essentially do any nasty thing that we wanted. But that resulted in sounds that are difficult or impossible to reproduce later. The equipment doesn't exist anymore, or we just can't remember what order we plugged the things in.

Q. You have been adored in the Cleveland area for as long as I can remember. Any theories about this?

A. It just goes back a very long way, I think. Ohio was one of the first places that accepted the Nazz (Rundgren's late-'60s band), and for some reason that just continued. As soon as I began to play solo, Cleveland was one of those places we'd always go back to. We got good airplay. It's one of those mysteries I can't fully explain.

Q. Would you say you are happy with your place in the scheme of things? Many less talented than you have gone much further.

A. I probably could have managed my finances better, but at least I have finances to manage. (Chuckles) No, it's been great. I get just enough fame that I get a little consideration in restaurants sometimes, but at the same time I can eat that meal in that restaurant without getting pestered all through by people wanting attention for themselves from me. I've toured with Ringo, and I know the option is often just a really cloistered lifestyle and I don't like to live like that. I like to go out and walk around and see things. I'm totally satisfied.

Q. And you're going to keep performing forever?

A. Just like Tony Bennett and B.B. King. (Laughs)

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