“Buffalo, you’ve been so kind to us,” Todd Rundgren said toward the end of his tour-opening show Sunday night. He was actually performing in Chicago, as most fans watching the pay-per-view livestream knew, but this was not a senior/Spinal Tap “Hello Cleveland!” moment. The current Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee’s entire 25-date “tour” will be broadcast from the same Illinois stage, but geo-targeted to different regional markets, complete with visual cues saluting the would-be host towns and, yes, multiple winking shout-outs to the virtually targeted city du jour.
A gimmick, as we head into the 12th month of an era in which really any large-scale musical performance has been a novelty gig of some sort or another? Undoubtedly. A successful one? Indisputably, judging from the thrilled remarks from fans in the comment stream accompanying this exercise’s premiere webcast, although that had less to do with the innovations inherent to this month-long-plus exercise in reinventing the touring wheel than the strengths of the show itself. Rundgren’s “Clearly Human” series of live webcasts — named after the 1989 album “Nearly Human,” which got played in eight-tenths of its entirety — is a rock-and-soul revue of the sort the star hasn’t taken on any road, real or imagined, in about 30 years. And it’s a triumph of old-school R&B/pop ghosts in the 2021 high-tech stream machine.
Rundgren may face uphill odds in getting voted into the hall this year, as he did in two previous times on the ballot (“It’s no secret that don’t care about it,” he told Billboard last week, in his typical unpolitic way, about being put up for another turn at bat). If the entire voting bloc was put in front of a screen for this show, his entree might be hastened. After some admittedly more esoteric touring concepts and configurations in years past, Rundgren has been on a crowd-pleasing roll with his road shows recently, going from a hard-rocking greatest hits tour and a Utopia reunion jaunt to this outing that puts the emphasis squarely (if not necessarily entirely) on his Philly soul side. That hasn’t been a constant throughout his eclectic career but it’s an early heavy influence that he returned to in ’89 and is resurrecting again now. Whatever real or imaginary cities Rundgren may be performing in over the next five weeks, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia” is a truism that may hold especially true right now for fans who get especially excited when he pulls out those R&B roots.
Rundgren has a noted distaste for pure nostalgia for its own sake, so maybe the sense of invention that is part of this touring experiment is helping heighten his investment in reviving a musical sound and style that was already somewhat revivalistic when he was indulging his love of soul the first time around.
Before livestreaming became the only way to experience live music in 2020 — aside from the odd drive-in shows, and some heartland country-rock club gigs where social distancing ends with the strict instructions and hand sanitizer at the door — Rundgren had had his own ideas about doing virtual tours that were a little different from what’s going down now. He’d thought of doing shows from a fixed location and having them transmitted to clubs or theaters in other cities where they would be experienced on video but communally, He’s down with the new livestream models but concedes the lack of a significant gathering of humans on either end has its drawbacks.
The nearest thing to a solution to that, as of opening night Sunday, was to fill a Chicago soundstage with a mixture of live fans — 19 per show right now, in singles or pairs — and set them in-between video monitors bearing the video or still images of remote viewers who have paid extra for the privilege of being seen by Rundgren and band as they perform. (The microphones of the remote viewers were also turned on Sunday night, which was good for applause, but also ironically allowed other viewers to hear some of their at-home murmuring in the background in quiet moments — just like a real show! Presumably the chatterers may be put on mute for future shows, even if that does make the effect slightly less realistic.)
During a recent confab with a few virtually assembled members of the press, Variety asked Rundgren about what he thinks the pluses and minuses are of the new livestream models … especially since some viewers are enjoying watching shows from home enough that this may well continue on to some degree even after the real concert-going thing resumes. He had a provocative take on what is lost and gained for both fans and performers in these new online environs.
“Well, since nobody’s attempted to do this particular kind of thing before,” Rundgren responded, “we’re still learning a lot about all of these issues. I mean, right now, the period leading up to the first show is the scariest part. Because in a traditional touring environment, you’ve got local promoters who guarantee the events. They send you, like, half of the guarantee to ensure that you’ll show up. This becomes your financing to develop your show, and you kind of know how many tickets you sold well before the gig, because audience members, if they know they want to see a show, also probably know where they want to sit to see the show. So ticket sales will start out really brisk, usually, for a terrestrial tour. For these online things, ticket sales start out really slow, because people know that it’s not actually a physical seat they’re fighting for. They can kind of sign up any time, you know? So the whole ratio of advanced to walk-up is completely different. … By the time the first show starts, I’ll probably be in for about a million dollars of all my own resources, because I’m the promoter of the show. And it’s scary. We don’t know exactly what kind of response we’re going to get.
“But to your issue of what’s gained and what’s lost, yeah, there are certain things that are lost” for the audience, he continued. “But then for a segment of the audience, and especially at times like these, when people are financially strapped, all they have to do is… Now, I’m letting the cat out of the bag here. All a whole family has to do, and all of their neighbors have to do, is buy one ticket, and they all get to see it in real time, live. Whereas under normal circumstances, they’d have to hire a babysitter, pay for parking, and pay premium prices for the liquor in the venue, if they want to get a little tipsy and yell and stuff during the show. So there are a lot of manifest benefits for getting the show live, but getting it at home. You pretty much don’t miss anything if you go to the bathroom. Just turn the volume up a little bit so you can hear it and leave the door open!” he laughed.
Sunday’s show came off nearly flawlessly for what Rundgren was considering the equivalent of an out-of-town tryout (no offense, Buffalo). “You guys are the greatest to put up with our efforts,” he said near the end, with a slight tone of apology, though there were no audible snafus other than one false start, one forgotten lyrical line, and — not a gaffe, but a warning — the moment leading into the vocally demanding “Hawking” when the singer remarked on how dry the soundstage was and said, “We’ll see if I have it; we’ll soon find out.” He did, and with Rundgren in top vocal form, even for the want of a water bottle, the “Clearly Human” tour opener went down on the books as representing one of the best bands, best setlists and best overall shows that Rundgren has put together in his 50-year-plus career.
One thing that became quickly clear during the show — that may not have been going into it for many fans — is that, despite being neatly tied to “Nearly Human” in content and style, this is not a performance where an entire album is played straight through, as Rundgren has done on several tours in the past. (Spoiler alert: the two songs from the ’89 album that didn’t make the cut are “Fidelity” and Rundgren’s cover of Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers.”) Aside from the obligatory but well-spun early smash “Hello It’s Me,” material on the list ran from 1975’s “Initiation” to 2004’s “Liars” (recent concert staple “God Said”), with particular focus on the “Nearly Human”-adjoining albums. A highlight was “Can We Still Be Friends,” with the three female backing vocalists (including the star’s wife Michele Rundgren, returning to the stage fold after a long absence) and many players forming a choir for the a cappella scat-operetta section near the end of the tune that’s probably never been pulled off so lushly in live performance before. Also, if unlike Fear, you’re one of those people who likes New York because it has saxophones: the two- and three-man horn charts are everything, with sax soloist Bobby Strickland a particularly valued retunee.
When Variety asked last month about how this would compare to previous full-album tours, Rundgren said it wouldn’t, necessarily.
“The shows that you cited, the ‘Todd’/’Healing’ show and ‘Wizard, True Star,’ those are essentially album theatricalizations. We do the albums literally in the same running order but try and add some theatrical element to it. For ‘A Wizard, a True Star,’ a lot of it was costume changes; I went through 12 costume changes in an hour. ‘Todd’/’Healing,’ we put all the instruments on rolling risers so the layout of the stage would change all the time, and the second half of the show featured a full choir. So yeah, I’ve been doing ‘American Utopia’ for a long time,” he chuckled, referring to David Byrne’s stage extravaganza.
“This particular show, we’re drawing a lot of the material from ‘Nearly Human,’ but it isn’t an album recreation or theatricalization like those were. Those take me like a year or so to put together. And with this particular show, we made the decision probably sometime during the summer when we realized that my live tour that was supposed to be scheduled for this February was going to be moved again until October. So I said, first of all, I want to try out this virtual tour experiment, but I want to do something that might not be practical to tour with, because it has some kind of high production value. Having a larger group of musicians actually gives the audience more to look at, because there are interactions going on between all the musicians, and with and the little dance steps they throw in and all of that stuff, i’s supposed to be a celebration. I think at this point, doing something artsy — yeah, that might be the more obvious way to go, but just doing something fun I think is maybe more important now, that people have some fun in their lives.”
Rundgren also elaborated on revisiting the R&B-revue style of the late ’80s for these shows in response to another question at the confab. “
“I had of course dabbled in R&B and at being an R&B singer, but it was never something that I made a full commitment to” back in the 1970s, he said. “I’d do a couple of songs on a record that maybe had an R&B thing to it, and then after that it would be white pop or some hard, gritty, screamy thing. But I did make a conscious decision (with ‘Nearly Human’) that I wanted to take being an R&B singer more seriously. There were so many R&B influences in my singing — most notably Stevie Wonder, but also Eddie Levert from the O’Jays and innumerable great R&B singers. So I in a certain way, bit the bullet by writing material that required me to do that. YThat was probably the greater challenge, or at least equal challenge: coming up with material that a white guy can sing, but that doesn’t attempt to go outside of my legitimate experience (and make it sound like) I grew up in Harlem or something. So, with those two challenges, I have to say that I learned so much during the course of the production of the record and then learned even more when we had to take it out on the road and do it.
“And I had to build the stamina for that kind of thing. It’s not simply hitting the notes and having the stamina to get through the show, but being able to abandon yourself in a certain way to the material so that it doesn’t come out the same way all the time. That’s part of R&B, I think, is that you want to constantly explore the material as much as you can. You don’t ever sing it exactly the same way, because that’s when it starts to lose its meaning for you — you’re just like doing the work, but you’re not feeling it. So, yeah, it was a great period in my life, and especially because that’s the kind of commitment that I made. Something changed, I guess, in me as a singer, after that. Previous to that, I always had a certain apprehension … and my technique was kind of spotty, so I would be in the position of occasionally losing my voice. But I think that the long-term end product of that process of me trying to relearn singing is that my voice today is as good as it’s ever been. I have stamina; I can sing those two hours with ease. But more importantly, I really enjoy the singing. It feels physically good to me. And it makes me, I think, a healthier person overall — that kind of aerobics on a nightly basis.”