Todd Rundgren at Varsity Theater, 5/20/13
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Monday, May 20, 2013
There were signs hung all around the Varsity Theater on Monday night that, if you gave them a moment's pause, did plenty to set the tone for the evening. "Warning," they said, in big, black, capitalized letters. "There will be strobing lights at this show."
Nowadays, of course, "strobing lights" are all but routine at concerts. So, bothering to actually post a warning about them? Well, that could mean things getting a little weird. And, what do you know, after all these years, Todd Rundgren is just as weird as ever.
When Rundgren walked out onstage, joined by his drummer and guitarist/bassist, with daylight still shining through the windows it couldn't really have been anyone else: he wore large, alien-looking goggles, just like the ones from the cover of his latest album, State. Standing up on a low platform, engulfed by smoke and the much-promised lasers, the Runt -- his dark hair dyed platinum blonde at the very top -- looked to be about eight feet tall.
From the opening song, "Imagination," Rundgren was wholly forward-thinking, in more ways than one. The lead song from State, "Imagination" was a long, percolating electronic beat, over which Rundgren sang his mantra: "What is hell? The same old shell." And so he delved into a set that was heavy on new material -- and even when older material appeared, it was transformed beyond recognition.
Typical of the man, then, there was something paradoxical about it all. The music was recognizably his, the pre-recorded electronic beats colored with his usual soulful flourishes, and yet they weren't the hits most people would've come to hear. Rundgren has always been a restless reinventor, forever dabbling in whatever the latest musical trends and technology are, but wasn't it also nostalgia that likely sold the tickets in the first place?
Rundgren was no doubt aware of this. Each time he grabbed his guitar, the crowd cheered, but he wasn't keen to indulge; before you knew it, he was right back at his control panel. But at times it was downright fun -- if not also a little surreal -- to see him confront expectations. Late in the set, for instance, as he cued up "Nothing to Lose," he encouraged his (mostly middle-aged) audience to start dancing. "It's easy," he said. "You just shift your weight from one foot to the other." And the crowd followed suit, jumping up and down, hands raised.
In fact, all night long, Rundgren had a surprisingly youthful energy, dancing and motioning along to almost every lyric. And that may well have been the point: time and again, his distorted, incanted words were an invitation to live in the present -- and, perhaps by extension, to stay young. This was brought into the sharpest perspective on the spacy "Future," where he lamented the lack of flying cars and cities in the sky, while the backing vocals echoed, as a counterpoint, "The future is now."
Yet, for all the times Rundgren showed an impressive grasp of contemporary music, there were also a fair share of failed experiments. "Angry Bird" was his most successful stab at a dubstep-style banger, but "Serious" felt out of place, its beat grinding and just a little too clumsy to work. He even rapped (!) on "No World Order," a song that presented a thoroughly mixed message: the chorus vaguely insisted, "Let my people go," which was baffling coming from a 64-year-old white guy.
Indeed, there were times when Rundgren's musings on materialism, which somewhat inevitably were aimed at youth culture, felt a little too much like the critiques of a father -- or perhaps even grandfather. Mantras aside, the moral seemed clear: No matter how hard you try, age will inevitably catch up with you.
In the end, though, Rundgren gave the people what they wanted -- or at least, sort of. For the encore, he returned by himself, and ripped through a medley of his best-known songs, starting off with "Can We Still Be Friends." But even these old hits were transmogrified, re-imagined as dance songs, and blended into one indefinite shape. You could sing along to the words, if you knew them. But all the same, you couldn't quite be sure just where they were going.
Critics Bias: Having gone through a Something/Anything? bender in the middle of winter, I opted to review this show rather than the buzzed-about Foals-Surfer Blood bill. And I'm not even 50! (Or 40. Or 30...)
The Crowd: Is this what Mystic Lake is like?
Overheard in the Crowd: "I read in Rolling Stone magazine that there were more LPs sold in 2012 than in any year since 1991."
By the Way: There could have been a much different tone at the Varsity last night, given some of the events in local music over the past several days. This was the room, after all, where just last winter young Zach Sobiech stood onstage and performed at his own benefit show. And even the tickets for Monday's performance had the name of Sue McLean written on them, it being her company who brought Rundgren to town.
Random Notebook Dump: It was just Todd, guys. No openers.
No World Order
Nothing to Lose
Can We Still Be Friends
I Saw the Light
Hello, It's Me
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.