The Walk Down Abbey Road: A Tribute to the Beatles played to a nearly full house at Mobileís Saenger Theatre Wednesday night. Alan Parsons, Ann Wilson of Heart, John Entwistle of The Who, and Todd Rundgren performed with backup musicians, showcasing their own material and a range of Beatles classics. Each musician contributed fully to an amazing display of talent, but Rundgren emerged early in the evening as the powerhouse performer and the primary reason the audience was there.
Ann Wilson opened doing the lead vocals on "Magical Mystery Tour." The group then followed with a rotation of each musicianís own materials. Wilson delivered "Crazy on You," "Dreamboat Annie," and "Barracuda" with her usual dazzling vocal range. Entwistle performed "My Wife," and the group joined in energetically for "My Generation." Alan Parsons and the group did note-perfect renditions of "Sirius/Eye in the Sky," "Donít Answer Me," and "Games People Play." Rundgren performed some of his better known songs. The musicians interacted well, singing and playing each otherís songs as if theyíd been a group for years. Only one obvious miscue occurred, and Rundgren gracefully apologized to the crowd, noting that "It was a long bus ride last night." (They had played in Houston Tuesday night.)
After the break, the artists began the bulk of the Beatles material. Ann Wilson offered a refreshing new lead vocal sound to "Maybe Iím Amazed" and "Hey Jude", and she and other group members performed more than credible covers of various Beatles hits, including "Blackbird," "Back in the USSR," and "Here Comes the Sun," among others. The audience, comprising mainly those in their 40ís and 50ís, was on a roll with the music and gave standing ovations to many of the songs. Even more so than in the first set, Rundgren stole the show during the second set. His delivery of "Lady Madonna" energized an already charged audience even more, and his phenomenal vocals and guitar work on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" brought the crowd to its feet for one of several standing ovations. He sang lead exquisitely on many other songs, such as "Hide Your Love Away." He played the lead singer role during the second set to the point that his voice was a little strained on the last couple of efforts. (Maybe it was just feedback from the microphone.) He clowned around enough during "Fool on the Hill" that a group member designated Rundgren as the official fool on the hill. Those antics were just part of his ongoing interaction with the audience.
Rundgren displayed a total mastery of the lyrics and chords for the music he played, from the Beatles material to the works by the Alan Parsons Project, Heart, and The Who. He gained energy and momentum during the concert; as the evening progressed, he moved vigorously all over the stage. He interacted well with the audience, joking with them and occasionally exhorting them to buy the merchandise, and was comfortable enough with the material to play around with it a bit instead of trying to sound like a Beatles clone. Rundgrenís guitar work was perfect and his vocal range is still incredible. His voice just seduced the audience into listening intently to every note. Rundgren was by far the most versatile musician of the group. While each of the musicians on stage achieved a standard of excellence, Rundgren manifested genius every time he became attuned to the music. When he was playing some of the more technically difficult passages, his facial expression was that of a man attaining nirvana, and the crowd showed its appreciation of both his expertise and his obvious love of the music.
It was only when performing his own music that Rundgren seemed slightly ill at ease. He went out of his way to characterize "Bang the Drum" as stupid, but the sentient beings in the audience already knew that the song is stupid. Yes, itís a mindless little song, but it captures perfectly Rundgrenís propensity to clown around. Nor is it a requirement that every song in an artistís canon convey the profundity of Faust. However, it was almost painful to watch Todd sing "Hello Itís Me." At least for this performance, he clearly endured performing the song rather than deriving the slightest bit of pleasure from playing it. The delivery captured the feel of the original, but it was obvious from his face that Rundgren no longer connects emotionally to the song. I have no complaints about his performanceówithout exception, he gave an incredible performanceóbut I wish that he didnít feel compelled to sing the song if it makes him uncomfortable. I know that for a long time he refused requests to play it. With the vast majority of the audience being diehard TR fans, we would all have understood if he had simply said that he preferred not to perform it. The song remains a classic and one of my personal favorites for a variety of reasons, but Iíd rather see TR perform more of his own favorites and continue to illuminate our understanding of his work. His ability to convey human sensibilities and frailties has enriched those fortunate enough to listen.