Todd Rundgren Saw the Light
by Ken Sharp
Originally posted on July 14, 2011.
“Go ahead and ignore me” was a record company sales slogan employed for one of Todd Rundgren’s early ’70s solo albums. And long since that slogan was first unveiled, music fans have been unable to ignore anything this immensely gifted musical visionary and icon has created. Witness his extraordinary body of music with Nazz, solo Rundgren and Utopia and his consummate production work for The Band, Badfinger, Hall & Oates, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, Cheap Trick, XTC and countless others.
In 2011, there’s a lot happening in Todd’s musical universe. Just released is Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, a song cycle which showcases Todd’s crafty reinterpretation of blues legend Robert Johnson’s celebrated canon. There’s also another new TR record slated for release in September. Augmented by his talented band, including long-time musical comrades bassist Kasim Sultan, ex-Tubes drummer Prairie Prince and guitarist Jesse Gress, Todd will be back on the road in September for a US solo tour.
You’ve always been an artist that’s stayed true to yourself, following the road less traveled. Looking back, do you think that’s worked against you in achieving greater commercial success?
Well, I don’t know how things could have gone any different. I had certain advantages that other musicians may not have had in that for most of my career I had a second job (laughs) and that was producing records for other people. So [I didn’t have] the kind of concern for success that a lot of artists had because maybe their own recordings were their only source of sustenance. I always had this other career going on. When it came to making my music, I never felt I had to make it for any other reason than to please myself.
And that still holds true for what you’re doing today.
Well, pretty much. What you discover in the long run is most people don’t make their living by simply selling records. If you’re successful at selling records, it’s essentially promotion for your live shows, which is where you make all the money. I’ve been fortunate enough to have an audience with a certain level of devotion. Even now while the production aspect of my career has slacked off a bit, I can still make something of a living by performing live.
With that loyalty you’re able to have the leeway to challenge your audience and not always give them what they want.
On this particular tour I’m between records. I don’t have anything new to promote. We’re looking at a different sort of venue, performing arts centers and places that have a lot of subscription season ticket holders. So with this tour I’ve tried to put together a show that is a little bit more familiar and a little less risqué and challenging in some aspects and yet it’s mostly composted of songs that I think my audience would request if I ever took requests. (laughs) I’m making up for the fact that I’m not doing necessarily doing anything evolutionary at this point by playing some of the rarities that we don’t often incorporate into the shows.
Are you enjoying playing much of this material as you haven’t played a lot for many years?
I do enjoy it although it’s one of those things where we’re getting to the point in the tour where I’m starting to gain a certain comfort level with it. Every time you put together a new show there’s elements of pacing. One of the advantages of this kind of show is that since we’re not making a formal presentation of new material we can be kind of loose onstage and a little bit more conversational with the audience – whereas with a lot of shows we’re very much concerned with pacing and things like that. The general tension level is lower (laughs) than it would normally be if I was doing something that had all of the typical challenges in it.
Speaking of challenges, in the past several years you’ve undertaken a series of album shows with A Wizard, A True Star, Todd and Healing.
I didn’t initiate doing any of these album shows. This came through rundgrenradio.com and the fan base. They’re the ones who kind of decide which record they’d like me to attempt to perform. Then I essentially will decide to do it or not do it. (laughs) As a matter of fact we considered doing something this year but as it works out there is so much effort that goes into mounting these kind of shows and they only run for ten days to two weeks. I’m trying to find a way to amortize all of the labor that goes into them.