Todd Rundgren Turns Atlantic City Borgata Into His Personal Hard Rock Arena

Review by Jeff Bruno (Switch to

Imagine my surprise when the opportunity to see Todd Rundgren live presented itself! Upon learning of the gig through his premiere fan site The TRConnection, I learned that this was a pre-release promotional tour for his upcoming album Arena, featuring songs written in a hard-rock context. What I was not expecting from this show was the ENTRIRE song list from the Arena album. I was able to fall in love with the songs before I plunk out the cash for the download or CD (in my rabid fan state, I will buy both, I am still waiting for my Todd Rundgren bobblehead to show up!).

Thanks go to a couple of people for making this show (and hence this review) possible. First mad props go to Mr. Valiant Vehiclemeister for getting us to the show literally minutes before curtain up (my seat hadn’t even warmed up and the lights came down!), and thanks go to Greg X for allowing us to take some photos of the set list in order to learn the names of the new songs. There was slated to be a download release of this album in July and it never materialized. So I have no frame of reference for these songs, much less their names. Throughout the new album Rundgren only announced the names of a couple of the new songs. Saying they were all mentioned repeatedly throughout the choruses of the songs.

A mix of old and new players accompanied Rundgren on stage, familiar faces Jesse Gress (Tony Levin Band, transcriber of many Beatles songbooks) on guitar and guitar synth, Prairie La’Emperor Prince (The Tubes, Jefferson Starship, John Fogerty) on Drums, newcomers Rachel Hayden on Bass and Vocals, and Matt Bolton (no relation to Michael other than hair) on Keyboards, Guitar and Vocals.

Rundgren himself was in a fairly jovial mood, Mr. X had informed us after the show that his mother and sister were at the show. Usually, when Ruth (Rundgren’s Mom) is in the audience, Rundgren is curt, runs the set fast and gets out of Dodge. He usually blasts through Philadelphia area gigs. Perhaps he has made peace with his former hometown and family.

Once onstage, the assault began. The main weapon? Tinnitus inducing guitars set at arena volume in a large hall setting, a low end that gave everyone cardiac arrhythmia, and drums loud and plentiful.

Starting the war on silence and quiet was the familiar “Love In Action” from Utopia’s Oops Wrong Planet. The old and unfamiliar attendees were yelling for songs that had no place in an arena rock concert, yet the drunkards continued to yell until Rundgren gave his famous speech (The one that alienated artist Mark Mulcahy who attended a Rundgren show where the speech was given;) about how if you have come to his show for a trip down nostalgia lane, you may as well head for the door and ask for your money back cause they aren’t going be played, he didn’t even consider doing them and the band no longer rehearses them unless there is a specific need to play one. For example, when Rundgren appeared on Late Show with David Letterman, Letterman asked him if he still liked performing those songs from Something/Anything and Rundgren’s reply was “After 30 years?” The song was performed flawlessly even with an extended break in the middle which many of the old and out-of-touch took for the end of the song, so imagine their surprise when there was a chorus or two more. By this time the impish Rachel Hayden has proven she can play and sing, but she seems to have some difficulty with the subtleties of the lines Kasim Sulton wrote/played before her. But then Sulton’s playing in no way, shape or form resembled John Seigler’s unique style and sound. Other wise, Hayden played well, locked in with Rundgren vet Prince, and carried some of the high-end backing vocals with a clear, distinctly female tone which is welcomed with Rundgren, remember, Letterman stole his back-up singers for a week after the Nearly Human tour, and anytime you see three female singers with the Paul Schaeffer band, a nod to Rundgren.

There were only 7 previously released songs in this show, and two of those were covers! This tour IS all about the new album. The second song in the list is the first of those covers, The Call’s “Walls Come Down” was done for reasons only known to Todd. Usually Rundgren picks songs that have some form of social or political relevance. While his own tune, much like his tenure with the New Cars (re-incarnation of an Ocasek-less Cars) he injects passion into each song, his or not.

Seeming to almost cater to the older, less adventurous audience, Rundgren whips out “Black Maria” also from 1972’s Something/Anything. As it is a guitar-oriented song, perhaps it was one that fit in with his guitar rock theme. He has been playing this song a lot lately in live performances, with Ringo Starr, the Abbey Road Tribute, and so on. He then addressed his own comment about no-memory lane songs, by saying he won’t play requested songs, but he will play old songs, like “Black Maria” and this one: Quickly the band starts the all too familiar quarter chords of the psychedelic favorite “Open My Eyes”. By this time the band are in a good groove, the mix has worked itself out, and Matt Bolton brings youthful energy to the stage by an animated presence that, while entertaining, did not upstage Rundgren. At 60, Rundgren worked up quite a sweat. But that didn’t stop him from being the consummate showman that he is. It was delightful to see a stage full of comrades enjoying what they are doing. Even for a few select songs, choreography!

For the tight chord hits, for the most part, the band played tight, Hayden did anticipate a couple of notes, but she isn’t midi either.

The second cover is Red Rider’s Lunatic Fringe. Rundgren has played this song in his solo shows before. Those solo shows where it is JUST Rundgren and maybe some backing tapes. This reviewer distinctly recalls his solo acoustic guitar rendition as being powerful, so imagine that power with a full band. After a few more drunken catcalls of “Can We Still Be Friends, Todd?” Rundgren gave the white haired crowd something to chew on; every old-school-never-change-just-go-back-to-writing-more-of-those-Something/Anything-songs-as-a-best-career-move-old gomer in the place threw up their Geritol when the opening chords of “I Saw The Light” poured out of the PA. Surprisingly, they were able to recreate that moldy oldie nearly record perfect.

Right about here is where the GGGG (Geriatric Geritol Grey Grandfathers) lose all interest and it was audible. The booby gomer to my right was braggarding that he thinks “Wailing Wall is the most beautiful song he has every written”. In case you are reading this Mr. Uninformed Loudster Booby with Bleach-Blond arm-candy, how can you have any perspective on a career you know nothing about save for those first precious three albums. “God Said” from Liars, “Feel It” from Nearly Human and others, “Parallel Lines” from Nearly Human but more importantly, the version from “Up Against It” is far more moving and poignant. As if the object of desire were in the room and not paying any attention, Rundgren’s voice reflects that anguish.

“Wailing Wall” is a beautiful song, but in reality, Rundgren was just cutting his teeth with the two Runt albums featuring Hunt and Tony Sales (sons of comedian Soupy Sales, remember “Send all those funny green pieces of paper you find in mommy’s purse or daddy’s wallet to Uncle Soupy…”). Then there was that atrocity Something/Anything. I am NOT one of those who think this album is his best. It is merely his most accessible of that period. As Hermit Of Mink Hollow was for it’s time, and The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (TEPTAE) was and still remains accessible as it contains the worst song Rundgren has written to date, “Bang On The Drum”. The only redeeming feature would be the countless hundreds of people who bought that album for the sports theme that “Bang…” became, but they would find themselves with absolutely NO USE for the rest of the songs on the disc. There is a cover but the rest of the songs are decent quality Rundgren, and one became an anthem during the Pod tours promoting No World Order and the subsequent tours throughout 1993-1994 to promote the CD, the interactive CD or CDi (Phillips format) and to promote the CDi player.

What drove the gomers from the venue? The arena rock of Rundgren’s new album called Arena (excuse me, TR? Uh, the single word titles? Yeah, they’re played my friend.). The songs from Arena have a hard edge to them, yet melody is not lost within the power. Neither are the romantic chord voices Rundgren laid trademark to, they just have more bottom end and distortion to them. But since they weren’t all happy lovey-dovey S/A-type songs, the elderly were on their way to hit the slots as they heard all the oldies they were going to hear, for the most part.

Now the issue with reviewing the songs from Arena is this: The album will not be out until September due to foreign distribution issues (Sanctuary UK R.I.P.), and a download of the album that was scheduled for July never materialized. So until the album comes out and I know what the songs are supposed to sound like, I can then make an informed comparison as we barely knew the titles of the songs, much less which song featured Jessie on the guitar synth, what song featured that catchy riff in the middle and so on. I can assure you that I review the album when it comes out (or as early as I can get it) and at that point we will have that frame of reference. But from the performances of these songs, I can tell they are not far off the mark in terms of reproduction. At the very least here is the song list that, from what was said, is the album front to back:

After a brief break, the band returned to the stage for some more moldy oldies, starting with one more dip in the S/A well, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”. Missing were the choreographed kicks that Utopia used to do on the chorus rejoinder. This was one of those bass parts Sulton made his own and Hayden could not uphold. How intriguing that I have learned that Kasim Sulton will be part of the post release tour, but replacing guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Matt Bolton, NOT Rachel Hayden. Hopefully he can impart some wisdom.

Finally, all the guessing could be quelled as Mr. Uninformed Loudster Booby was explaining to Ms. Bleach-Blond Arm-Candy that if the show were over, they would bring the house lights up. Just One Victory is the dead giveaway for the end of a Todd or Utopia concert. Or at least the majority I have seen, and I am in the low thirties as far as how many times I have seen him live. At age 60, he is only freshly 60 since June 22 2008, he still had some of that famous showmanship energy that I have enjoyed since 1978. Regardless of the line-up, this album-ender from A Wizard A True Star maintains its anthemic, regal feel. It is typical Rundgren to leave a show with an optimistic message hanging in the air.

That and the overwhelming odor of Ben Gay…

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8/02/2008 - Borgata Spa & Resort - Music Box - Atlantic City, NJ

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