Thursday, March 31, 2011

Todd Rundgren delivers psychedelic gem

Only Todd Rundgren could pull this off:

Band members decked out in what looked like pajamas made in an orange mescaline factory.

Four synthesizers playing at once, a full choir, a drummer who was wheeled on and off the stage behind his kit when needed. And when Prairie Prince wasn’t playing drums, he offered up a strangely effective tap dance that managed to be comical and still make musical sense.

There was unabashed theater at the Stranahan Wednesday night for Rundgren’s rock show, featuring a massive light display and music that veered from bombastic metal to spiritual meditations on the healing power of compassion.

All delivered by what appeared to be the coolest preacher on the planet.

In short, it was an aural and visual feast thanks to Rundgren and his exceptional five-piece band that kept the vast majority of the small but enthusiastic 614-person audience beaming.

The concert also was a reminder of his unique ability to balance between obscure eclecticism and commercial accessibility. Along with Frank Zappa and Sparks, Rundgren is one of the original prog rock jesters. And he’s also one of the great pop balladeers of his generation.

But he never repeats himself and he pays his core audience the ultimate tribute by not pandering to them.

So, no, he didn’t play “Hello It’s Me” or “Bang The Drum All Day” and while there were a few murmurs from folks who wanted to hear those pop hits, the expectation was that if you came to the show you would get the “Todd” album from 1974 and “Healing” from 1981 and that’s all. Promoted by Rundgren fans, this mini-tour is about paying back the devotees with some nostalgic weirdness that sounds surprisingly contemporary.

You can’t help but listen to much of this music in the context of what would come about seven years later via new wave and conclude that Rundgren was far more interesting as a composer than the folks he influenced. New Order versus Todd Rundgren? No contest.

Wearing a strange Sgt. Pepper-type outfit for the first set that featured the “Todd” album and an ensemble that featured a long white jacket and cream colored pants for the “Healing” portion of the show, Rundgren also brandished a technicolor Gibson SG that he used to remind everyone of just how overlooked he is as a guitarist.

The “Todd” album is a strange collection of songs that zig and zag from spare piano ballads to balls-to-the-wall rockers. There’s the short, lovely pop of “A Dream Goes on Forever” and the psychedelic soul of “The Last Ride,” which featured a blistering guitar solo. Rundgren worked the stage on all of them, using a cordless microphone and acting out many of the songs with hand gestures and strange dances when he wasn’t playing an instrument.

He botched the piano part on “Drunken Blue Rooster” and at times his voice was a bit ragged, but in a show filled with moving parts, the lack of mistakes and Spinal Tap-type errors was minimal.

The “Healing” songs were a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with that fairly obscure album. Its themes of compassion and forgiveness are delivered in a warm wash of synths and many of the songs feature a choir, resulting an uplifting and joyous vibe.

Rundgren hopped around the stage like the Easter Bunny gone mad on “Golden Goose.” And on the ruminative “Pulse” you could hear his bare feet going across the stage as he sang “step by step.” “Compassion” was a beautiful ballad and it was followed by the chaotic “Shine” with Rundgren’s guitar and the choir locked in an intense coda that built to a long climax.

His band featured long-time collaborators Prairie Prince, Greg Hawkes, Kasim Sulton, Jesse Gress, and Bobby Strickland and they played as a tight ensemble, occasionally clowning around and adding to the theatricality without ever showing up the music.

The opening act was the Psychodots out of Cincinnati. The band of Sylvania area transplants — Bob Nyswonger, Rob Fetters, and Chris Arduser — played a tight, 30-minute set that left you wanting another hour’s worth of their music.

The ‘dots have been working together for decades and they play in a tight power trio format that always sounds like a vintage sports car veering around hairpin curves without ever losing control. Arduser plays drums with a rare mix of power and finesse and Nyswonger on bass and Fetters on guitar seem to have a telepathic connection melodically.

With three strong songwriters, they managed to showcase each during the six song set. Highlights were Arduser’s “Keep Your Counsel,” Nyswonger’s “Veneer,” and Fetters’ “Heaven.” In a perfect universe, the Psychodots would be millionaires and you’d know all their songs and Justin Bieber would just be some cute kid trying to date your daughter.

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