Legendary Rocker Discusses New Album, Modern Media, Producing Tal Wilkenfeld And Whether He Ever Drives The Tour Bus…
(Exclusive interview with BAMSouth.com Publisher—and longtime TR fan—Jack Criss)
The following story is from an interview conducted with Todd Rundgren from his Hawaii home in early April just days before he was to fly out and begin the “Global” tour.
Thanks to the vision and savvy of Jackson, MS-based concert promoter Arden Barnett and his production company, Ardenland, legendary rock musician/producer Todd Rundgren will be making his first appearance here in over 40 years at Duling Hall in historic Fondren, Saturday night, August 29. He has been touring behind his most recent solo release, “Global” (his 25th solo record) and the Jackson show will be one of the last before Rundgren goes back on the road with the Ringo Starr All-Starr band in the fall.
Rundgren will be receiving the official key to the City of Jackson, his first ever such accolade in his career spanning 47 years, from the Honorable Mayor Tony Yarber just prior to his concert in Jackson. The ceremony, taking place on the steps of Fondren Hall, is tentatively set to begin at approximately 6:30 p.m.
He is being honored for the philanthropic work with his Spirit Of Harmony Foundation (www.spiritofharmony.org) as well as for his innumerable contributions to the worlds of music, in famous productions of other artists, as a solo performer and as lead/founding member of the seminal band, Utopia.
While the “Global” album is one of Rundgren’s more musically accessible records in some time with its techno/dance theme, the overriding message of the record is a bit more pessimistic. Is Rundgren himself losing the optimistic faith his fans have come to love and admire him for for nearly 50 years now?
“I’m more skeptical now as opposed to being outright cynical,” Rundgren says, “although it’s certainly tempting to be cynical these days. At least skepticism implies that there’s still hope and that you can still recover.”
Rundgren blames the media for a lot of the pessimism in the world today.
“Perspective helps,” he clarifies. “We’re not involved in a global conflict similar to World War II now. It’s more a case of hearing about ISIS or Hillary’s emails,” he laughs. “I have to think that, with the drastic increase of media outlets we have available today, things can sometimes seem more hopeless than they are. Some stories are just simply beaten to death.”
So while “Global” does have its pessimistic moments it is also a refreshingly modern record. Known by diehard fans and observant critics to always stay ahead of the musical curve, Rundgren says the new record was influenced somewhat by the new influx of younger fans, many of them musical artists themselves.
“Over the past few years I have been contacted by a number of younger artists to do remixes of their work and, consequently, I began researching and listening to what was out there currently,” he says. “I found out that, apparently, I was and am an influence to a lot of these musicians because of my willingness to experiment and change throughout my career.”
Certainly those “changes” are continuing with the new tour. Accompanying Rundgren live on stage are two singer/dancers (The Global Girls, Ashle` and Grace) and DJ Reggie Bradley (who replaced Dam-Funk on the second leg of the tour). Rundgren saw an opportunity to collaborate with a DJ onstage in order to free him up to concentrate more on vocals and performance during the concert.
“This tour is definitely more of a show,” he notes, “with an elaborate lighting display, the dancers and the production. I’m more front and center.”
During his last performance in Mississippi, at Tunica’s Horseshoe Casino in late October, the “An Evening With Todd Rundgren” concert was the complete opposite of the new “Global” tour. In it, Rundgren combined originals with a wide, often bizarre, mix of cover songs. One of those was Clarence Carter’s big hit, the folksy/sentimental “Patches.”
“Yeah,” Rundgren laughs, “my guitarist Jesse (Gress) told me that he had heard Carter didn’t want to record that song originally but it became his biggest hit. Hopefully, with respect to him I performed it with the same passion that the record had.”
One interesting sidebar to the “Global” album is the inclusion of a few female backing vocalists on the feminist-anthem track “Earth Mother” one of whom is phenomenal bassist and frequent Jeff Beck band mate Tal Wilkenfeld. I asked Todd how that came to be.
“A few years back Tal came to Hawaii and we met,” Rundgren relates. “She contacted me because she was looking for someone to produce a solo album she wanted to record. We actually worked on a few tracks in Los Angeles later but she decided she was not quite ready to take the next step. Then, not long ago,” Rundgren continues, “I ran into her and she told me the record was actually finished.” Rundgren says his work on the record is confined to producer and co-producer on a couple of the tracks.
As far as rumors of a Utopia reunion and tour marking the band’s 40th anniversary, Rundgren says it’s a strong possibility—if approached and done right.
“Anything is possible,” he admits. “But we’re just not going to rehearse for a couple of days and then proceed to go out and play what everybody wants to hear. It’s got to sound as if we picked up from where we left off to the extent that’s possible. The material needs to be played well. I’m thinking at the minimum we would need a two-week preparation period to then hit the road for two to three months. The timing of all involved will be the only difficulty.”
Rundgren admits traveling is the toughest aspect of touring.
“It wears on you the most,” he confesses. “Playing the actual show is what your day is about. So, I enjoy performing and as I long as I have the physical capability I’ll certainly continue to do it. Of course, going out with Ringo (Starr and his All-Starr Band) is a different story: first class and chartered all the way,” Rundgren laughs. “I travel by bus, but I do enjoy it. We have all of the amenities, like video and television, but some trips are 10 hours at a time. At least you can pretend you’re in a hotel room while you’re on the road!”
And does Rundgren ever slip behind the wheel to take over the driving duties?
“Not anymore!” he laughs. “I did it a couple of times in the old days. You’d be surprised: get on a straight road with no traffic and it’s easy. But as soon as we’d hit the city I turned it over to the professional.”
Where will he be in five years from now? Rundgren paused before answering.
“That can be a long time in terms of life changes,” he responded. “The important thing for me is to try and keep an audience. My fans have come to expect to never know what to expect. They, I hope, appreciate that. They want a shot of a few of the old songs but are also interested in what’s going to happen next. I can’t predict what’s ahead for me, though. I may be writing for a marching band or something!”
That’s highly unlikely. As Todd Rundgren’s devoted fans know, the man is constantly innovating, exploring, pushing the envelope and remaining true to himself as an artist. There are few—if any—67 year-old “rock” musicians who can make that claim today.
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