March 20, 2012
Last night, fresh off a five-show stint at City Winery in New York City and a Robert Johnson tribute show at the Apollo Theater, Todd Rundgren arrived in St. Louis to share his The Unpredictable Todd Rundgren Tour with the crowd at the Pageant (6161 Delmar Boulevard, 314-726-6161).
More iconoclastic than iconic, Rundgren is consistently inconsistent, bouncing from hit-making crooner to prog-rock star to soulful blues musician. His four-decade career includes a litany of solo projects and a thirteen-year stretch with Utopia. In some ways his audience is a reflection of Rundgren himself -- they're satisfied with what's come and they're always waiting for what's next.
Last night's show began at 8 p.m. sharp with no opener. Rundgren was joined on stage with guitarist Jesse Gress, bassist Kasim Sulton, John Ferenzik on keys and Tubes drummer Prairie Prince. He opened with "Real Man" from Initiation (1975), running around the stage with that same energy he had when the record was released. Wearing aviator sunglasses and outfitted in a brown blazer, heather grey V-neck T-shirt, black skinny jeans and gold-colored Supra-like tennis shoes, Rundgren, salt-and-pepper locks and all, was ready to shred on his foam green and black Fernandes P-Project Stratocaster -- though that didn't come into play for another song or two.
"Hello suckers," Rundgren welcomed the crowd. "This is an evening that should completely please nobody. I live by two rules: I do not sniff the coke, I smoke, and I do not take requests. You're probably thinking it's because I'm a prick. I'll fully admit there's a little bit of prick in everything I do."
And so the concert began with a cannonball explosion of energy. Next was "Love of the Common Man," full of the playful passion fans love. The evening was punctuated by Rundgren's hilarious commentary, which often felt lost on deaf ears. After "Love of a Common Man," he paused to spout, "Doing a cover is like being transvaginally probed. Until recently I didn't have a metaphor for that. Thank you republicans -- the gift that keeps on giving, from a humor standpoint."
Before launching into "Kindhearted Woman" Rundgren talked about his gig in early March at the Apollo, then belted out that soulful, swinging song, strumming his guitar and scissor-kicking the air. Of course, he ended it with the fancy footwork every musician attempts in St. Louis: the Chuck Berry duck walk, which he pulled off quite well.
Five songs in, Rundgren talked about celebrating his 63rd birthday last year, quipping, "I made a promise to sit more," and pulled a stool to the center of the stage to perform the next eight songs -- sans guitar, but with maracas in hand. The first seated song was "Lucky Guy," a passionate and personal performance that proves, sitting or standing, Rundgren's still got it. Next was a rollicking rendition of "Espresso (All Jacked Up)," followed by a favorite from his Utopia days, "Love is the Answer" from Oops! Wrong Planet (1977).
Rundgren's absurd running commentary was accompanied by staged shenanigans; he and the band kept intentionally missing the count-off and claiming, "We just can't get this right." And at some moments between cuts, try as he might, Rundgren had a tough time getting a word in edgewise as the crowd hurled good-natured heckles, requests and praise at him. Naturally he didn't mince words when responding. "Shut the fuck up," he said with a quasi-grin, "Can't I get a fucking punch line in? You people are incorrigible!" Though crowded, the audience at the Pageant wasn't at capacity, and it didn't feel like a sold out show. In some ways that was better, as the room was full but with enough space to dance and sway. Todd's fans are less concerned with being as close to the stage as possible than with soaking up the experience.
Rundgren's deep, soul-filled and surprising falsetto hit home on "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," and his haunting, restless cover of Lorne Greene's "Endless Prairie" was poignant, unequivocal beauty. This kind of raw passion is balanced by humor; before leaping into "Flaw" he called back to the count-off flub, saying, "We have to get this one right because the world is going to end in December," and, "I recently converted to Mayanism."
Eight songs later the stool was gone and Rundgren was up, blazer off, shredding "Soul Brother" followed by "Medley: I'm So Proud/Ooo Baby Baby/La La Means I Love You/Cool Jerk" from A Wizard, A True Star (1973), teeming with Motown soul. At that point, he took the mic out of the stand to croon to the crowd while dancing across the stage. It's almost impossible to believe that Rundgren is 63 years old, and at this point it feels like he only mentioned his age to further a point that's worth repeating: Todd Rundgren is a rock star, in ways he was 40 years ago, but with fresh, unfaltering passion. He's not playing his greatest hits, he's performing a selection of his relevant-as-ever music. Though sponsored by KSHE 95 (94.7 FM), this wasn't a classic rock concert. It was just a regular rock concert.
A booming intro readied the crowd for the stunning, lyrically-enlightened track "Hawking," with fan-favorite "I Saw the Light" following.
During the guitar breakdown in "Drive," Rundgren shredded on his Strat like a madman, storming the stage with flurries of motion, before heading straight into "Couldn't I Just Tell You," from Something/Anything? (1972). The enthusiasm was palpable, and the crowd went wild when Kasim Sulton and Todd jump-kicked the air in-time during the instrumental break.
After a two-hour ride on the Todd Rundgren wave, the band left the stage at 10 p.m., but quickly returned to a clap-a-thon of applauses for an encore. Todd introduced the band and they played "Hello It's Me," as sweet and simple as it ever was. "I know you've been waiting for something you recognize," Todd says halfway through the song. He finished the night with "A Dream Goes on Forever" at 10:10 p.m., and made his exit while fans poured praise toward the stage, begging for a second encore that didn't come -- hey, he played for more than two hours, and every second of the performance was pitch-perfect.
Early in show, after sentimental, wistful "Buffalo Grass," Rundgren thanked his loyal fans for years of support, "I love you all in a deeply personal way, one that might make you nauseous." Schmaltzy, perhaps, but a feeling that resonated.
Ed. Thanks to reader Mary, who let us know we added a couple years to Todd's age and clarified that the false start was the original intro of "Hello It's Me." Notes and setlist are on the next page.
Personal Bias: The Lorne Greene cover of "Endless Prarie" was unexpected and show-stopping.
Random Detail: Is it just me, or does 63-year-old Todd Rundgren sort of resemble Severus Snape?
Overheard: "Todd almighty!" during "Hawking" and "They use to play this all the time at Dierbergs..." during "I Saw the Light," and "This is from Dumb and Dumber!" during "Can We Still Be Friends."