The Lon Chaney of pop music appeared over the weekend in yet another incarnation, giving me pause to recollect on how many times I’ve seen him perform and how different each of the performances was. I guess you can lump Nearly Human and Second Wind together from a performance standpoint, and you can certainly say the solo tours were pretty much the same each time, but apart from that, the guy really is a chameleon when live. Having not been a fan in the arena days where Todd and especially Utopia played to mass audiences, I had not had the chance to see the “big production” version of Todd – until Saturday night. While my review will reveal not all was rosy on this night, it was quite satisfying to see one of the hardest working men in the show business center stage in a big (relatively speaking) venue.
Blondie opened the show and I thought did a very nice job. False started their first tune (“Call Me”), and it was then that I thought to myself, “Now we’re at a Todd show!” The band and especially the lead singer got on track after that and by the end had most of the crowd of 2,000+ up on their feet chanting along with the lyrics of “Heart of Glass.” I was surprised at how many of the crowd was really into this group, who I honestly could have taken or left before the show. But they deserved the love – they even converted “The Tide Is High,” an iffy proposition when it was a hit, into a decent rock song.
Cut to a closed curtain, an inordinately long stage change, and a crowd getting a little antsy. Ominously, a voice inadvertently comes over the PA asking “OK – are we working on the drums now, or the keyboards?” Yikes. And then finally, after more waiting, the drapes open to “Hello Again” and we see The New Cars in the flesh. The visual was very impressive; the set itself was a retro-cool design that allowed video snippets to be shown overhead and each performer had a high profile position. The videos that played were non-sensical cuts of retro footage – think Yes’ 9012LIVE concert directed by Steven Soderbergh if you ever saw that. They were not distracting and added another cool visual element, but halted about halfway into the show for some reason. As for the band, they looked very sharp. Todd looked quite fit, and Prairie’s outfit pretty much had to be seen to be believed. What a guy! And though the music was roaring, I found myself marveling at 2,000+ fans on their feet at the feet of Todd and how cool that must have felt for him to have the curtain open to that scene rather than the more modest crowds he’s been playing to for the better part of the past decade.
Take the set list as read – all of the Cars’ hits were covered. A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of “All Mixed Up” on the heels of “Moving In Stereo” just like on the original record. This is one of my personal Cars faves, so I really enjoyed that. But clearly, Todd was front and center as they would periodically jump into the “time machine” and plow through Todd’s solo stuff; “ISTL,” “Bang The Drum,” “Black Maria,” and “Open My Eyes” complemented the greatest Cars hits plus a couple of new collaboration tunes that were pretty good. Sound-wise, the show lost points in my eyes. Elliot Easton’s lead guitar was so over-the-top loud that it went from being funny to mildly annoying to flat out frustrating as the show went on. He simply blew everyone else away decibel-wise to the point where the keyboards and backing vocals were pretty much non-existent, which, if you know the music of the Cars, isn’t a good thing. Todd sounded good as the replacement singer, in some cases, sounding (or trying to sound) too much like Ocasek for his own good. Hard core Cars fans I was around had a bit of trouble buying into the new sound (read: singer), but suspension of disbelief allowed them to mostly enjoy it anyway.
To finish the thought on the sound, I’ll throw out an idea-starter that I’m sure will be reviled to some degree, but simply must be acknowledged. Recalling the brouhaha that surrounded the opening show of the last TR tour (which I admit I never heard after the fact and thus have no idea whether the criticism was valid or not), the fact that the mix was so painful for this “early” show got me to thinking. The consensus on the boards seems to be “take your chances” at a show early in a tour as the group doesn’t hit their stride until 9-10 shows in and you should go in with tempered expectations. And while I understand the physiology behind this, the fact remains that if you want to see them and can’t or won’t venture to a show outside your market, you go when the date rolls around on the calendar, whenever that may be. In this case, this was the only time (at least announced) that they would be anywhere near my neck of the woods, so it was pretty much see them now or never. Add the fact that the cheapest seat was $56 plus handling fee, with many in the $100-200+ range, and you see the problem. Maybe they should prorate ticket fees as the tour progresses, I don’t know, but it is almost punitive to the early crowds to have to endure something as simple as a prolonged mixing error. Todd acknowledged as much when introducing Easton to the crowd “as you’ve probably noticed, on lead guitar, Elliot Easton” which was tongue-in-cheek and genuinely funny in a way that only Todd is, but the problem didn’t get fixed and dragged the rest of the group and show down with it as a result. Again, when you can’t hear backing vocals or 60 percent of the keyboards, which are admittedly nuanced but critical in Cars songs, you simply can’t extract maximum value from the show. Easton certainly is a talent, and didn’t, thank goodness, hit any bum notes, but enough is enough. I was surprised that Todd didn’t take a stronger role in adjusting that problem. Other “early show” mis-steps were inconsequential – Todd flubbed some words but nothing that was terribly noticeable (unless you are a die-hard). I could go on here, but you get the point.
In summary, I think VH-1 Classic’s promo “Todd Rundgren was just what they needed…” speaks volumes about this effort: this was clearly Todd fronting a band and not the other way around. Justifiably, this caused some confusion in the crowd when they mined Rundgren’s catalog – many questions marks loomed over the crowd’s head halfway through “Black Maria.” “Hey, that’s not a Cars song!” And when they reverted to Cars stuff, he just doesn’t perfectly replicate Ocasek, which causes the die-hards consternation, but is just fine by me. Seeing and hearing Todd is always a treat and he more than held up his end of this thing. They will certainly gel as they keep plugging on, and despite the exorbitant ticket prices (I recall the sticker shock of the Fleetwood Mac reunion tour years ago and the Road Rage Tour prices make those almost seem pedestrian), I would recommend fans catch this. Which leads to the real issue: it really depends on your frame of reference going into this. If you’re assuming the viewpoint of a Todd fan, you’re going to really like if not love this. If you’re in the die-hard camp looking to relive the band you remember so well, well, it’s going to be a mixed bag for you. Most negative reviews, I suspect, will be borne of the fact that this doesn’t sound exactly like the Cars, but that’s missing the point. And the chicken-and-egg problem will invariably snowball as this tour chugs along – is this Todd + Cars songs or is this supposed to be the Cars? Honesty in advertising would suggest the former, but ticket sales would likely drop precipitously if it were billed as such. They will therefore have to endure the criticism from the masses accordingly. So the enigma of Todd lives on – I’m not surprised, and I’m happy I got to see it, plus there’s always more…