the palace of fine arts theater
san francisco, ca usa
when it was first announced that todd rundgren would be performing his classic “a wizard a true star” album in its entirety for the first time ever, rundgren fans everywhere began to quiver in anticipation. where would the shows be? (the first rumor was london only.) who would be in the band? (could this be the long-awaited utopia reunion?) what else would be played that night, given the LP is only 50 minutes in length? (a solo set of hits? utopia’s greatest misses? another run through of “arena“?)
as the rumors turned into reality, most of the questions were answered: the shows would happen in the midwest where they’d been orginally conceived by fans (rundgrenradio.com). the band would be rundgren’s usual suspects (some ex-utopia folks, other veterans from todd solo tours, greg hawkes from the cars/new cars, etc.). and that first set? a spin through some utopia chestnuts. all in all, it promised to be a grand thing. and as the reports came in from the september shows in akron, chicago, minneapolis and a few other towns, fans were raving.
then came the announcement that todd would bring AWATS to the west coast. and in SF, it would be the palace of fine arts, the site of rundgren’s live recording of the “2nd wind” album back in the early 90s. could it get any better, we thought? no, it couldn’t. and so we bought tickets dead center orchestra in the first several rows and waited for todd to come to town.
when the evening finally arrived and the lights went down, we were greeted with only four people on stage, dressed in black with minimal instrumentation visible: todd and jesse gress on guitars, kasim sulton on bass, and prairie prince on drums. could this be ‘newtopia’? unfortunately, no. this was the debut of “todd rundgren’s johnson,” a ‘blues’ band covering robert johnson songs exclusively. apparently this was borne out of a contractual obligation with rundgren’s current label to try and eke out publishing money for their roster artists by having people cover each other’s material. not sure who will be covering todd’s stuff, but i can’t imagine this arrangement generates much income. what it did generate this evening was a lot of grumbling from fans who had hoped to hear a set of utopia music as a precursor to the AWATS set.
now, as we all know, nobody tells todd rundgren what to do. and that’s served us fans well for the most part over the course of his illustrious career. this robert johnson set, however, was an unfortunate choice in my opinion, as todd’s vocal and guitar styles are not suited to the blues. add in the fact that the band was ill-prepared and under-rehearsed and you ended up with forty minutes that would have been better spent out in the lobby drinking.
all that said, there were some enjoyable moments; it’s always great to hear todd play electric guitar, of course. but it sure would have been nicer to hear that guitar on a selection of tunes from his vast catalog of amazing songs. if this is any indication, the best part of the set for me was when roger powell responded to a comment from todd (“it’s the blues, you don’t wanna get too tight!”) by yelling out “just like utopia!”
i used to be a ‘todd is godd’ guy. seriously, he was my favorite artist for a while. a lyric from ‘healing, pt. III’ was my senior quote. but todd lost me after “2nd wind” with (in my opinion) misguided and not very interesting career choices at times. for years, his output just didn’t grab me like so much of his past work had. until last year when i saw the “arena” tour at slim’s. and i remembered why i used to commit to rundgren’s music so deeply.
which brings us to the main event of the evening—the second set. it was, quite frankly, amazing. i’ve always loved the AWATS album precisely for what many people think makes it one of his least accessible works—the wild musical schizophrenia of the whole thing. it has some bonafide rundgren classics (“sometimes i don’t know what to feel” and “just one victory”) combined with scratch-your-head aural snippets (“dogfight giggle”) and musical sketches (“just another onionhead”) strung together in one continuous 50-minute (on LP, anyway) cosmic rock and roll suite. great stuff.
live, the music was nothing short of revelatory. todd always manages to put together a crack band (they must do it for love, because i can’t imagine he can pay them much) and tonight was no different. prairie prince, kasim sulton, ralph schuckett, greg hawkes…all brought something unique and personal to an already unique and personal set of music.
highlights for me were an extended “you don’t have to camp around,” a nice long version of the motown medley, a throat- and emotion-wrenching “i don’t want to tie you down,” and a stirring “just one victory” to close. but the entire set was inspired, touching, goofy, fun, rockin’, you name it. after 70 minutes, everyone in the theater had forgotten about the opening set and left buzzing about how todd had managed to pull it off again. still an iconoclast at age 61, rundgren demonstrated why so many of us have been such passionate proselytizers for him over the years. it was a beautiful thing to see. and hopefully this recording will attest to the fact that it was also a beautiful thing to hear.
here’s a sample from that night, “when the shit hits the fan/sunset blvd.” enjoy.