In Concert: Todd Rundgren’s Clear Humanity

With multiple attempts at a 2020-21 tour yanked out from under him, Todd Rundgren has pulled a fresh concept out of his back pocket in turn. In lieu of a one-off worldwide livestream, Rundgren kicked off the “Clearly Human Virtual Tour” on February 14.

Sporting a setlist focused on the ambitious 1989 album Nearly Human, Rundgren and his 10-piece band (including bassist Kasim Sulton and synthesist Gil Assayas from the 2018 Utopia reunion tour) are now midway through a 25-date residency in Chicago; original talk of limiting each show’s streaming market via “geofencing” quickly gave way to a few visual and verbal nods to a different city each night. Intrigued, I ponied up $40 for February 25’s “Indianapolis” show; for more cash, you could control what camera angle you were seeing, order the usual merch, have your face projected onto video screens the band can see, or even attend in person (the last option subject to being one of 19 people to pay VIP prices, then pass a COVID test within 72 hours of the show).

It’s a great concept: cutting down overhead by staying in one place, Rundgren has added a horn section (Steven Stanley on trumpet and Nearly Human sax man Bobby Strickland), three backup singers (Nia Halvorson, Grace Yoo and Todd’s wife Michele), guitarist Bruce McDaniel and second keyboardist Elliot Lewis to his usual rhythm section of Sulton, Assayas and drummer Prairie Prince. The musical results all night were pretty marvelous, ranging from a smooth purr to a raucous roar, with lots of guts and grace to spare. Pin-sharp after two weeks with the material, the band eagerly powered through most of Nearly Human plus selected classics from the 1970s (the 10-part vocalese in “Can We Still Be Friends” was downright awe-inspiring), a few Utopia tunes and later R&B-inflected gems (with the precision funk of 2nd Wind’s “Love Science” and the slow burn of “God Said” from 2004’s Liars proving especially effective). Rundgren’s occasional forays into lead guitar on his iconic green instrument “Foamy” were spaced out for maximum impact; the rest of the time he stalked the lip of the stage, strutting his stuff while the players did their thing. His obvious delight in his “nebbish as soul man” persona was utterly endearing — and once he shucked his suit jacket to reveal a bit of a pot belly and comfy athletic shoes, you were in on the joke as well.

The only weak link, for this show at least, was Rundgren’s voice. His melodies, especially on his soul material, are fairly fearsome, multi-octave constructions; they require a sturdy vocal instrument, a comprehensive range, consistent breath support, and lots of stamina! On this night, Rundgren’s bottom and top were strong, but a little phlegmy and forced, and the midrange between the two was unsteady to the point of outright disappearance at times — including during the opener “Real Man”. (l’ve had to sing for numerous worship services or concerts with a dry throat, sinus congestion or a cold, and I think that’s what may have been going on. Take it from me, it ain’t much fun.) Previous reports have found Todd in great vocal form on this tour (and Cirdec Songs’ Cedric Hendrix reported that he was up to snuff for the next night’s show); hopefully, this was a one-time glitch that some rest — or maybe hot tea and honey — fixed! And in my book, Rundgren earned “show must go on” bonus points for his perseverance in difficult circumstances.

In short, Todd Rundgren’s come up with an enjoyable cure for the no-concert blues — one that, even on a bit of an off night, was highly effective, impressive and fun! If it’s been too long since you rocked out in your favorite venue, I recommend you check out the remaining livestream dates for the “Clearly Human Virtual Tour” at NoCap Shows.

— Rick Krueger

Setlist:

  • Real Man
  • Love of the Common Man
  • Secret Society (Utopia)
  • Something to Fall Back On
  • Parallel Lines
  • Unloved Children
  • Love in Action (Utopia)
  • Compassion
  • Can’t Stop Running
  • The Waiting Game
  • The Smell of Money
  • God Said
  • Love Science
  • Feel It
  • Sweet
  • Change Myself
  • Can We Still Be Friends
  • Lost Horizon
  • Rock Love (Utopia)
  • Hawking
  • The Want of a Nail
  • Hello It’s Me
  • I Love My Life

Thoughts?

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