LAST time (at Nola's in Rochester), Todd and his band of mercenaries were throwing it all down and leaving it all on the stage. The sound was great, the show was energized, and the fans were believers. I was so enraptured by the music that I just let myself go, a whirling dervish, a tiny little dust devil spinning and bouncing.
So, I got to thinking. . . that's one mode of enjoyment, maybe it's time to switch to another mode. Analytical rather than emotional. So, I promised myself I'd stand as still as possible this time around and try to absorb the goings-on from a different perspective. So, THIS time, I was _ready_to_receive_. And what better place than Bearsville Theatre, next-door-neighbor to the building in which Todd spent countless hours crafting his musical/video masterpieces more than two decades ago.
The short-form results are these (details later, for those interested in long reads):
 For the first time, I was able to hear distinctly ALL of the vocals, and the vocal arrangements are among the best Todd has ever written. Think of the best Utopia vocals, and the best harmony parts from Bat Out of Hell, and then imagine vocals like those behind these 'arena'-style songs. After the show, when I had a quick moment with TR, I told him how good the harmonies had sounded, and he said something like, "There are more of those that we haven't even started to learn yet,"
 Those who have commented about the concentration they've seen on Rachel's face are simply admitting that they were looking at her face more than the others (probably 'cause she's so easy on the eyes). I'm here to tell you that _everyone_ on that stage is in a higher state of consciousness. This ensemble of players is working toward that seldom-achieved goal of playing as one entity. The songs and the arrangements may be the most complex Todd has every written. The players, must, therefore, remain dispassionate in order to be fully focused on the technical and style elements of the performance. In this case, to feel is to fail. _This_ is why displays of happiness are seen sparingly, and why they seem to happen at strange times. These players are in a place where the joy comes mostly from precise performance of the material, not so much from the material itself,
 Having heard how this show is coming together, and having listened at length to "MAD" (the only track presently available from the new album at http://myspace.com/toddrundgrenmusic), I am expecting Arena to be the best work of Todd's career. There are some amazing subtleties in these songs, a facility with rhyme and meter and harmonic relationships that, simultaneously:
[a] are like a collection of the best "tricks of the trade" that Todd has conceived and used throughout his career, and
[b] transcend the aggregation, becoming more than the sum of the parts.
 Todd seems to have chosen his stage-mates well. The mature, experienced ones provide a stable foundation for the young, energetic talents to build upon. It's almost like there's a competition between the two "old hands" and the two "new bloods" to determine which faction can be most accurate and effective. With virtually ageless Todd at the helm, it seems to be a well-balanced team.
 For the faithful, decades-long fans, this album and this tour are our reward for staying the course. Like _all_ things Todd, it is a beautiful new blossom on an impossibly diverse flowering plant, which is only here for a little while. Like the Liars tour, when it's over, it's over. DON'T MISS IT!!
AND NOW, THE DETAILS, for those unfortunates who haven't had an opportunity to attend ANY of these incredible shows:
"Opening act for Todd Rundgren" is a difficult task at best, and over the decades I've seen many try and few succeed. Whether Todd fans realize it or not, they've learned quite a bit of music theory, a lot about wordsmithing, a great deal about presentation and control of AADD (Audience Attention Deficit Disorder), and they have little patience for generic, rubber-stamp performers who merely milk a genre only to process what's already been done to create something derivative and only mildly satisfying. Or, Todd fans are just rude and self-centered. I prefer to think the former rather than the latter.
To successfully open for Todd requires a performer who has his or her own CNL - Chambered Nautilus License. Those who haven't seen Todd's "The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect" video won't get this reference, but those who have will remember: You take what the CN gives; you wait until the CN offers; when the CN gives you something you frequently don't know what you've got or how it may be useful; and you learn early on NEVER to demand anything of the CN on your terms or in your own time. . . that way lurk DEMONS! It's a difficult way to live, but it's the way of the true artist, and if approached with discipline will frequently yield something startlingly unique and powerfully engaging.
And that's what we got at Bearsville Theatre. Joey Eppard brought a sizzling one-man musical adventure to The BT stage. A self-proclaimed "local", Joey was a man on a mission, and from start to finish I felt as if I was trapped in the torrent from a fire hose. Guitar technique and vocal style are hard to describe but Wikipedia gets a good handle on it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joey_Eppard. There are always a few hardy souls in an audience who can yakk through anything, but I heard very little chatter during Joey's set, and the audience applause and approbation after each song was quite vigorous.
Oh, and Joey's got a tongue that'd get him a job in KISS (heh).
Showtime. . . I'm about three feet to the right of stage-center, and about ten feet (4 rows of people) back from the stage. From there, I was getting a mix of house sound and stage wash, so I wasn't expecting to hear a good overall mix of vocals and instruments. I was mistaken. The sound was fabulous all night!
Todd, Prairie, Jesse, Rachel and Matt took the stage in a relaxed yet purposeful way, with TR once again tossing out a single acerbic remark to set the tone for the evening. Tonight it was something like, 'Hello-o-o-o Woodstock! Don't eat the brown acid!'
LOVE IN ACTION -- "Precision Past", right out of the gate, harmony vocals well-sung, up-front and perfectly mixed at my location, Todd's voice is in great shape after a night off. The room is already rockin', and we've not lifted off yet.
* Prairie is in a black Arena tee, * Jesse's wearing heart-shaped-lens-frame glasses with Red White & Blue flashing LED's on them, and a Black LIARS tank-top, * Matt's in a black tee-shirt with a white graphic of Todd's face about 20 inches high. * Rachel's wearing a modified black Arena tee with the sleeves removed, the neck vee'd and the sides split open and re-attached at 2-inch intervals up the sides with little loop-and-button gadgets. She's in her lacey wrap-skirt over what looks like dark, leotard bottom. That woman's got style.
WALLS CAME DOWN -- Jesse plays all leads, Todd is doing windmills.
TR: 'We're gonna settle into this reminiscent mode for while, but later we'll do an hour of music that's never been heard before in Bearsville.'
BLACK MARIA -- Matt Bolton's first use of keyboards.
OPEN MY EYES -- Jesse and Matt harmonies, Matt on keys.
TR: (sucking the blood from his left index finger) 'Mmmm-mm-mm. . . taste the iron!' (wiping the blood off with a white hand towel) (moments later, someone tries to sneak it off the edge of the stage), 'I might need that!' (and then) 'This town is full of EMT's, isn't it?'
LUNATIC FRINGE -- Jesse on first lead. The look on Todd's face as the song came to a precise and powerful conclusion was positively scary. . . while it may have simply been triggered by the pain of having to continue to play with a deep cut on one of the fingers used to hold his guitar pick, his face wore an expression that might be seen in a fierce battle, combining rage with the determination and desperation of a person driven to their extreme limits.
TR: 'We're almost on the cusp of that hour of unfamiliar music.' TR: 'By The Way, I own the DNA on that pick (he had just flung into the audience) so don't be clonin' me and shit!'
I SAW THE LIGHT -- 4-part harmony, TR, Jesse, Matt, Rachel. As another reviewer said, close your eyes and it's Utopia.
TR: (accepting a Bandaid (R) from an audience member, 'OK I am now made whole.)
MAD -- Wait a minute, where is all that harmony vocal action coming from? I didn't hear that in Kaua'i or Rochester! And Prairie is an ANIMAL on the skins! I used to love the way he fueled The New Cars into deep space, but on this material he is an irresistible force!
AFRAID -- One of my favorite songs, and the harmony vocals are really getting intense. There are places where the backing vocals are just "aaahs" that give the instruments more body. And, this amazing lyric, right in the middle:
"Why suffer for nothing? Suffer for something!"
There's an anthem in those seven words. If you have to BE in pain, you might as well GET your pain from trying to DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE PAIN!
MERCENARY -- Matt, Rachel and Jesse are all playing the same lead part in unison. It's a joy to watch them nail it. Todd is so focused on perfect performance that he's giving little thumb gestures to the sound guy with his right hand, even as he delivers one of the most searing vocals of the new set-list with his eyes closed.
TR: 'One of the keys to Arena Rock, find your hook and DRIVE IT HOME!' TR: tells story about hunters getting an early start, and the conversation they might have had. . . includes the word "Kaa-BOOOM!!" a few times. You get the idea TR didn't get much sleep last night. A good introduction to:
GUN -- Really tight and well-mixed, this song is rapidly transforming itself from a song I could just as easily do without into an "anti-anthem" that gets into the mind of young, gun-wielding punks. The harmonies from the ensemble are riveting!
TR: 'Never had an actual "gig" in Woodstock. . .'
COURAGE -- I really love the lyrics to this one. . . it's about being a person of conviction, but sometimes not being able to act on those convictions. Each of us is confronted with situations like this, and the song captures the ambivalence implicit in the experience. . . you KNOW what you should be doing, and you WANT to be doing it, but somehow TIME STOPS, you lose control over your muscles, and things that SHOULD be said aren't said, things that SHOULD be done aren't done, and when the moment has passed, and the dizziness fades, you wonder, "What just happened THERE?"
TR: (re-tells the sharecropper story about how he and a few friends invented the blues back in his younger days in Philadelphia, Mississippi) '. . .signed to Bearsville Records as a roots artist. . .'
WEAKNESS -- has this incredible, tempo-shifty thing going on in the simultaneous-leads that Jesse and Todd are playing; every other phrase has one note that's either advanced or retarded by a sixteenth-note (or something like that); I can usually count through anything, and this twitchy little bit is challenging. Oh, wait, challenges are what I LIKE about Todd's music. I remember TR turning to sing this song to Michele at the dress rehearsal, and it's got its tender moments, but MAN does this thing MOVE! More great harmony vocals.
STRIKE -- We received our instructions about how to fist-pump, and off we go! What a great audience-participation number! During this song, the audience morphs into an insane mob, advancing on Dr. Frankenstein's house to kill the monster! If we'd had pitchforks, there'd've been BLOOD!
TR: 'In case you haven't heard, the time for fuckin' around is OVER!' . . . 'Meet Dick Cheney in a dark alley' . . . 'I'm sorry, Mr. Cheney, here's your teeth -- you big, fat, fuckin' prick!!'
PISSIN' -- Jesse is playin' the same lead as Todd, an octave removed. MAN has TR got this arena-rock genre nailed!
TODAY -- (Today's the day, Today's the day, Today's the day!!) I finally lost my composure during this one. The mark of a great album is that my favorite song changes every four or five listens. First it was MAD, then it was AFRAID, but now its TODAY! OMT is this thing powerful. You feel like you MUST get up off your ASS and DO SOMETHING ---- ANYTHING to try to fix the stuff that's WRONG right now!!
BARDO -- Several have noted the similarity of this song to "Bridge of Sighs" by one of my second-tier favorite artists, Robin Trower. I'm here to tell you that this is not a rip-off. . . when you listen to the lyrics and the way they seem to fit this style of guitar, the song really works. Uh-oh, two favorites in a row.
MOUNTAINTOP -- Todd's attempt to actually write a sports-anthem song purposefully. Another great audience participation number, with fingers pointed skyward.
TR: (plays the "whammy bar" gently, with thumb and index finger. . . another example of precision performance in the midst of apparent chaos)
PANIC -- The frenetic energy in this one attacks with the first notes. . . all stringed instruments on the stage playing the same incredible lead at breakneck pace. it's like a stampeding herd of buffalo racing right at you, and there's no escape! The players have chosen the tempo for this one in a very practical way: it's the fastest they can succesfully play it!!
MANUP -- What a great way to end the album. . . these lyrics are chilling:
"Listen to me my friend. . . what you will not defend. . . Somebody else will end up taking! And when the famine comes. . . you think they'll just give you some. . . But if you believe that, your mistaken!"
You know, that Todd guy loves to challenge his fans. . . so many great songs in one album. . . my favorite song frequently is THE ONE HE'S PLAYING NOW!!
----- ENCORE -----
COULDN'T I JUST TELL YOU -- Jesse sings harmony on all verses, Matt joins on choruses. This tune literally jumps the decades and takes the stage as if it was the fourteenth song of the new ones.
JUST ONE VICTORY -- Great 3-part harmony throughout, and the entire room joins in with the signature claps during the chorus.