Todd Rundgren at the Shubert Theater, New Haven, CT 8/6/03

Review by Dan Styklunas (Switch to

On a muggy midweek afternoon, three of us headed south from Boston for a three-hour tour of New England interstate in my newly acquired ’92 Volvo wagon (a.k.a. "the vulva.") It may have been the maiden voyage road trip for the vulva, but we’ve been down this road before. Memories include hitting the Shubert in 1989 for the Nearly Human tour, various shows at nearby Toad’s Place, and the spring fling at the dinny Wolf’s Den at Mohegan Sun. After a must-have dinner on pizza-from-heaven at Pepe’s, in New Haven’s Little Italy, we floated to the theatre district for the show.

This was Todd’s last solo stop on this summer tour, at surely one of the nicest venues, New Haven’s well-kept Shubert Theater. Hardly a rock-and-roll haven, it is more commonly used for your Rents, your Fames, and your Riverdances. Todd acknowledged this at the outset, saying it was a far cry from Toad’s Place (a well-traveled rock club Todd has often played through the years.) It seats 1500 and was mostly full, but not close to selling out. Uniformed ushers welcomed the somewhat mature crowd, and we were pleased to see our seats at sixth row center… a sweet spot for what would be a sweet show.

Gary Jules opened, and even had second billing on the marquee. Since I neglected to mention him last week, and having seen him twice now, let me say he was a worthy opener. With a voice that’s easy on the ears, polished guitar playing, a knack for arranging, and a grateful, disarming manner, Gary won fans each night. He’s a guy you want to root for, and seemed genuine when he stated that opening for Todd the past 3 weeks was "One of the highlights of my life." The one thing that remains to be seen is whether he’s got the goods… meaning, the songs. While he has some good lines, some good phrases, and some good attitude, he’ll need to come through with some complete and memorable songs before any sort of career is made.

Of course there is no such concern about Todd. Unless you’re a record exec thinking about signing him to a new publishing deal maybe… and even then, you wouldn’t be halfway through the set for you would have to admit that the Rundgren catalog holds its own as some of the best songwriting in the past 30 years.

The set was identical to the show at the Somerville Theater -- see my 7/31 review for the complete list. But the angels were in the details… lush acoustics, a focused performance, an attentive crowd, and an edgier Rundgren with something to say. While the clock time was the same at 2 hours, the experience was different, as this show just flew by. (That was never two hours just then! I’m afraid it was…)

At the start, Todd reached for his Takamine to kick off with "Lysistrata," and… the strap caught on, and then stuck to, the guitar stand. Uh oh… would this portend another night filled with broken strings, tangled wires, and assorted distractions? No, it would not. Todd simply kicked over the guitar stand, kicking off a set that focused solely on the music, a sweet spot indeed. Some highlights:

"I Don’t Want to Tie You Down"… remember the first time you heard this live? While no longer in the "I-can’t-believe-he-played-that" category, it still has a great impact with that soulful melody. And I do mean the melody, as opposed to stretching out with the improv "Ooo-ooo-ooo’s." It has a real dreamy quality, and reminds us that Todd’s utopian vision once included romantic ideals at its core. Perhaps it still does.

"Beloved Infidel" was my favorite of the night, and the song I think that has grown the most for Todd on this tour. A far cry from the In-The-Air-Tonight feel from the CD, this live version has much more heart, with Todd growling and struggling with the lyric. If he is still waiting for his beloved, he certainly has less hope of reconciliation.

Of course it is likely that world events have changed the meaning of the song for him along the way. Following the political pairing of "Lunatic Fringe" and "Infidel," Todd walked over to the piano, and the proximity to the Yale crowd gave him pause to reflect. "There are basically two kinds of psychologies," he started. "US… those of us who more or less can get along reasonably well, and… then there’s this whole other kind of psychology. The kind of people that… suit up 14-year-olds with machine guns, for instance." He rambled on a bit, a far cry from last week when one sentence sufficed: "So who do you fear more, our government or the terrorists?" Todd clearly was at a loss to explain the dark side of humanity that can rationalize war and killing for a better future. But he tried to make it clear that we often have far more in common with the people of distant cultures – Iraqis, for instance -- as compared with our own leaders who often have an agenda that couldn’t be more different.

As usual, he used camp and humor to transition out of it. "So, come away with me now, to a time when we could rape and pillage at will!" into "Song of the Viking," followed by "Compassion," his "solutions" song, as he alluded back in Somerville.

Truth be told, "Free, Male and 21" -- the song we love to hate -- was a true barometer of how the evening went. I had prepped my comrades on how Todd thoughtfully placed a bathroom-break song mid-set, and suggested that they count the number of times Todd sang the title words. And, damn if I didn’t find myself amused by the song! Go figure. (Plus, it turns out he only said it 20 times… last week I thought it was 200.) He gave it quite the theatrical reading, and it served as a pleasant stylistic diversion.

"Bang the Drum" was fun, if nothing special to those who had seen it before. Todd even blew off his usual shtick introduction. "Raise your hand if you have NOT heard this introduction before." Three or four hands went up. So he plowed through it, and a well-oiled fan close to stage right raises his arms and shouts out "That is THE GREATEST song I have EVER heard!!!" Todd stared at him for a moment, and deadpanned "See people? THIS is why we need to continue to fund musical education."

He then went on a brief rant about why we should fund the arts in general: "So we don’t look like idiots to the rest of the world, that’s why!" At this point came the most inane audience comment of the evening. "Come on Todd, I gotta go to work in the morning!" Riiiiighhhhhhttt. So don’t I buddy, only I have to drive 3 hours after the show and still be at work at 9! Didn’t you just pay to see Todd at work NOW? Please.

The rest of the evening progressed beautifully, as Todd clearly had the set down. There is a reason the set list was identical… it works. From chorusey acoustic guitar, to amp-farmed fuzztone, to piano, to ukelele, and back again, Todd knows how to mix things up, and the digital band sets his voice against a new background. While some bemoan the mp3 set – one fan yelled "No!" when he took the player in hand – it does keep things fresh with its tonal variation. He donned a fan’s beret and got big laughs with a French verse in "I Saw the Light," and overall what seemed like self-mocking in the mp3 set last week came off much more genuine here. Maybe it was our seats… up close and personal, you could see through all the gesturing that he was still playing around with phrases, trying new things, savoring notes. He said in one recent interview that touring does a lot to exercise his voice, and it was evident on this night.

And thinking back to his Jetsons-themed musings, maybe Todd has no bubble car, no mechanical maid, no dog with a floating collar… but he DOES have a crack band to sing with at the push of a button. (Touring is tough… I had to push the button twice tonight.) It is clear that Todd did watch the Jetsons with wonder in the 60’s… and some of it came true.

With another push of a button, the controversial band left him to end the night with just voice, guitar, and killer songs – "One World," "The Wheel," "What’s Going On." Once again, "A Dream Goes On Forever" provided a thoughtful close.

Thoughtful, for me at least, as in precisely how will this dream go on? Remember the game Todd made up on side 2 of Something/Anything, "Sounds of the Studio?" Whoever found the most flubs wins. No, I’m not suggesting we count the clams on a similar "Sounds of the Stage" game. I’m wondering, as usual, what will he do next? Will the futurist technocrat in him continue to drive his new recordings, or will he resort to a more organic, human approach? Probably somewhere in between, as usual, but there really is no "as usual" with this man.

Still, I sense a change a-comin’, a calm before the storm. No new material previewed… but a new CD planned this year. And when you think about it, he hasn’t had a really new CD in 8 years. One Long Year, while it had moments, was a hodgepodge holdover. (A Todd record with no underlying concept? What a concept!) With A Twist was a creative reworking of his hits, but there were no new songs. Before that we had The Individualist, and even that was a second-coat-of-paint following up No World Order in 1992.

So what will he think of next? "Come away with him"… and find out.

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8/6/2003 - Shubert Theater - New Haven, CT

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