Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Real Man

When a man promises you you're going to get a boatload of him, he'd better come through.

And, no surprise, Todd Rundgren did. It's not like I hadn't seen him before cause I had, once in the mid-aughts at the Canal Club with probably fewer than 50 people - an amazing show I know I'll never top for sheer intimacy - and then in 2015 at the National. The problem with the latter show had been that it involved a flashy, LED-lit performance with Todd, a DJ and two wig and costume-changing female dancers/back-up singers and almost none of the classic Todd I craved.

In what was either a nod to the aging crowd or perhaps Todd's preference (he is, after all, turning 71 Saturday), this was a seated show, although that was news to me upon arrival. When I'd bought my ticket at the box office back in mid-April, I'd not been given a choice of being seated, so perhaps I was late to the game.

As part of steerage class, I was herded into one of three cordoned-off areas to stand, not a problem since I've stood at every show I've ever been to there except for my first (Lou Reed) because I didn't know any better, the seated shows (Henry Rollins, Joanna Newsome) and the couple of times I'd been in the VIP section.

With me in the corral was a woman who was as jazzed to see Todd as me, as evidenced by the fact that she'd been to both the shows I'd been to (and the odds of meeting another human who'd been at that Canal Club show was tiny) plus one at the Birchmere. Together we staked our claim at the front railing right behind the sound booth, not far from my usual spot directly in front of it.

Promptly at 7:30, Todd and his five-piece band came out to show us what his Individualist Tour would look like, with a giant video screen behind them. Explaining that the set was based on his recent book detailing his life and music from the '60s to the mid-'90s, he proclaimed, "You're going to get a boatload of me tonight."

Looking around at the decidedly middle-aged crowd dressed up and out on a rare Tuesday night, I didn't think anyone would have a problem with an overdose of Todd.

And just to make sure he had us eating out of his hand, he started at the beginning when we'd first fell hard for his sound with "Open My Eyes" from his Nazz days. The collective excitement/moans of pleasure/elation of those first few notes of "Hello, It's Me" were electrifying, and that's not even counting how good his voice  and the song still sounds.

I could have done without him exhorting the crowd to sing along (I hadn't come to hear them) but I also know people couldn't help themselves.

After thunderous applause, he shared that it was the first song he'd ever written, a sign if ever there was one of musical genius. After struggling for an idea (and stealing the chord changes from an older song), he'd settled on that most reliable of inspirations: breaking up with his girlfriend from senior year of high school. "Her Dad turned the hose on me," he said.

Next came "We Gotta Get You a Woman," a joy to hear since it was a well-played part of my collection of 45s in 1970. Even better, while the band played it, the video screen showed images of women from the '60s and '70s dancing in that distinctive way that could never be mistaken for any other era.

And, yes, there were white go-go boots and girls in fringed bikinis dancing, if that tells you anything. It was almost too good to be true.

It just kept getting better. Next they did "I Saw the Light in Your Eyes" and I was just one of the many dancing in place and absolutely in musical heaven. These songs were my youth and hearing them live was incomparable.

Saying that his guitar - a seafoam green Stratocaster - was sad about being ignored during all those piano ballads, he picked it up to introduce a guitar-based song. He reminisced about playing the blues "in the corners of the subway as only a white man can do" before making his guitar very happy with some screaming guitar work.

Talking about his future as a highway of black vinyl, he quipped, "It's amazing what you can accomplish without children around!" What made it even cooler was that as he played, the screen showed images of not only his albums, but albums he'd produced: Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American band, " Badfinger's "Straight Up," the New York Doll's eponymous album, Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" and that's just what I recall.

And, if I'm honest, I had no clue he produced any of those, though I knew he produced his own stuff.

He talked about getting stuck artistically, so he remedied that by buying a round the world ticket "where as long as you keep going in the same direction, you're good" as a way of having new experiences. As he sang, images of old Pan Am tickets, itineraries (Kabul, Calcutta, Madras, Tehran, Bangkok, San Francisco, NYC) and postcards showed onscreen.

Throughout the evening, the once-young crowd didn't hesitate to sing and dance along, although those in the front seated row had to be repeatedly told to sit down by Security.

The 1978 song "Can We Still Be Friends" was accompanied by old photos of Todd with everyone who mattered in the '70s and '80s: Ringo, Alice Cooper, Elvira, Little Richard and Bowie.

Although Todd made sure neither of his guitars got ignored for too long, he sang many songs like "Real Man" either with microphone in hand stalking the stage or standing in front of it on the stand and pantomiming gestures as he sang. His hands went to his eyes, ears, heart and outstretched to convey lyrics winningly, even when old photos of him performing in enormous bell bottoms, spandex, sequins, shorts, plaid shirts with the sleeves cut off, a suit, satin pants and a whole lot more were screening overhead.

And because Todd's a huge fashionista, we also got photos of his wardrobe highlights: a pumpkin orange velvet suit, red satin pants, a brocade suit with a big polka dot shirt and small polka dot tie, a fringed jacket, a spandex catsuit, a space suit, a fat suit, as a woman and lots and lots of glam. I'm guessing that the point of those photos was to show us Todd's wardrobe obsession and it was as good a look at fashion history as a fan could hope for.

His fashion advice was simple, though. "Get a guitar and wear it. Doesn't matter if you can play it, you'll look sharp."

And while tonight's ensembles (yes, there were two) were less flashy, the man's still a snazzy dresser and proud of it. I can say that because the view from the cheap seats, um, cheap floor was stellar. Even so, during the 20-minute intermission during which the Todd nerds compared notes, I took the opportunity to slide into an empty seat to take a load off and get a tad closer.

For the section labeled "Digressions, Dreams and Dissertations," Todd took pre-recorded video questions from audience members lucky enough to have approached the tablet that recorded them.

Asked about his favorite song to play in concert, he denied having one, saying what he didn't want to play was a far shorter list (and includes "Bang the Drum All Day," which made some in the crowd moan in sadness). When he mentioned that he wasn't popular anymore, a drunk woman yelled out, "You're still popular!" to which Todd responded, "Shut up! I'm not soliciting answers from you."

Asked about his other guitar, he said it was a belated birthday gift from a restaurateur who also granted him oysters for life after he did a short set at his restaurant.

If only I had a skill set that could get me raw oysters for life.

After he finished answering dumb questions from middle-aged men, the band went on to play deeper cuts from all his bands and solo work, causing much whispering between Todd nerds as they marveled at hearing things they'd never heard in years of going to Todd's shows.

I only recognized a few (1973's "I Don't Want to Tie You Down"), but I could listen to Todd sing the phone book and be happy. And ending with 1978's "Fade Away" was practically perfect, even when it means putting up with seeing assorted exes dating back to the '90s.

"This is your love life" aside, when a man like Todd promises a boatload and delivers at least twice that, a girl can't ask for much more.

Except maybe a seated ticket next time he comes through town. And, if not, you can be sure I'll stand for Todd any day.

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