New? Old? Well, it works

Todd Rundgren revisits his greatest hits in a style both fresh and retro

By Jane Ganahl

ADMIT IT. You've had the guilty pleasure of hearing one of your favorite songs done by a cheesy lounge act -- complete with rhythm machine, Hammond B-3 organ and a singer who can croon the birds off the trees.

And you really, really loved it. Maybe it even brought a tear to your eye.

What made it so good? Because it was done with respect for the music, and with a fresh approach that brought it life all over again.

Hail, then, to mischievous tunesmith Todd Rundgren, who served up a splendid evening of time travel. His Wednesday night show at Slim's (which will repeat Thursday) opened his national "Welcome to the Tiki Lounge" tour, and was both a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air. It was Rundgren at his eccentric best, playing to promote his new CD, "With a Twist" -- "lounge" versions of his greatest hits.

Such an approach could be kitschy at best, but from tune one on the CD, and from the opening number Wednesday night, Rundgren proved that while he was after some yuks, he was also quite serious about the new arrangements.

Striding out in a gold silk suit, wearing ant-eye sunglasses, Rundgren launched into a tenderly swinging version of "I Saw the Light," with subtle bossa nova underpinnings and delicate backing harmonies. The crowd was immediately enraptured.

This seems to be the year where dinosaurs are serving notice to the young: We can still do it, and maybe even better than you. While youth icons like Beck vamp satirically with the genre (a high point of Beck's act is his classic "Rocking the Catskills"), nothing in recent memory can touch Rundgren's new show for sheer devotion -- not just to the style of music, but to the lounge culture.

The stage at Slim's had been transformed into a mini tiki club, with poles holding up a thatched roof, tables for patrons (invited up from the audience), a cocktail waitress (who resembled Pebbles from "The Flintstones"), a working bar and bartender (Rundgren was ordering gimlets), even pictures of lounge stars on the wall. The lighting veered from orange to lime green.

Amusing, yes, but it was the music that made it magic.

Rundgren's material lends itself well to the conversion, because what does it take to make a great crooning tune? A simple melody and poignant lyrics, which have always been Rundgren's forte. For example, "Can We Still Be Friends," transformed with a soft and sexy bossa nova beat and acoustic guitar, was divine. And "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," spiffed up with a salsa arrangement, was dance material.

The sound was polished but loose, as befits an airport cocktail band. (In the case of keyboardist John Ferenzik, at times a bit too loose.) As drummer Prairie Prince (the Tubes, Vince Welnick's Missing Man Formation) noted during intermission: "This is our first night doing this! We have no idea what we're doing, but we're having fun!"

Prince definitely appeared to be having fun, as the acclaimed percussionist turned out in mid-'60s polyester and Hawaiian patterns, to pound the skins standing up and program the rhythm box. Guitarist Jesse Gress and bassist Kasim Sulton amiably and ably played along.

But as always, the charismatic Rundgren stole the show. Visually striking (his long, dark hair topped by a thatch of blond that looked like a spider atop his head) Rundgren was having a field day with the new arrangements. He is lucky to have a voice that has improved wit age; his supple, honey-smooth baritone can still slip easily to falsetto. One true highlight was not a Rundgren original at all, but a gorgeous version of the children's classic, "Never Neverland" from "Peter Pan," in which his voice arched and soared high above the shush-ing percussion.

Between songs, Rundgren engaged in lounge-style stage patter, asking "patrons" where they were from. "Wow! A lot of people her tonight from the Bay Area!" he joked.

The act faltered a bit during the band's intermission, when it brought on an intentionally unfunny comic (replete with orange tux shirt) to azz the crowd Catskills-style. It was amusing for about 10 minutes; 20 was too long. And after the intermission, Rundgren's subtlety also faltered. He returned wearing a sarong, striped vest and inexplicable warrior makeup, and ripped into an animated version of the hip-hoppy "The Individualist." And for a while the charm threatened to dissolve into kitsch.

But all in all, it was a surprisingly effective night of music. So effective it's tempting to drag all my alt-rock friends and force them to listen to how touching music can be when delivered in a new-but-retro way.

Is it too soon to predict this is a bona fide trend? A backlash to atonal techno-pop or angst-ridden thrash-rock? Probably, but we can always hope.

Todd Rundgren's "Welcome to the Tiki Lounge" plays Slim's again Thursday at 8 p.m. For tickets, call Slim's at (415) 255-0333, or BASS at (510) 762-2277.