Hello, it’s Todd.
Todd Rundgren’s attire for his return to the Akron Civic reflected Saturday evening’s program: Colorful and loud.
Rock’s original Renaissance man sported a floral tuxedo jacket (with tails) for his August 31st show that looked as if it were clandestinely cut from the fabric of someone’s backyard cabana awning and surrendered to Todd’s tailor for custom fitting. His pants were likewise tropical, the pattern evoking kiwis, pineapples, and umbrella drinks.
But the ex-Utopia / Nazz front man wore it well, leading a “super orchestra” through two hour’s worth of string-and-brass laden tracks spanning Todd’s prolific, four-decade career. It was a night of firsts for the innovator—who’s either patented or done just about everything else in music at least once—as he teamed with two orchestras on a single stage for a symphonic survey of his repertoire.
The first set found Todd singing seven diverse—but equally intriguing—pieces accompanied by his longtime rock quartet and the Akron Youth Symphony. The second offered another dozen selections with Todd, band, and the “official” Akron Symphony Orchestra.
If teaming with a bona fide rock icon nudged conductor Levi Hammer outside his comfort zone, it certainly didn’t show. Akron’s Assistant Conductor / Music Director wielded the baton effortlessly for both sets, occasionally glancing over his left shoulder and smiling at whatever Maestro Rundgren was up to at the microphone.
Hammer—a gifted pianist and composer—had the necessary chops for interpreting some of Todd’s most eclectic work into fresh aural experiences that stretched the recorded studio versions without unmooring from their emotive roots. The Salzburg-educated Hammer cut his teeth on productions of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, Puccini’s Trittoco, and Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins and crossed paths with Cleveland Orchestra’s Lorin Maazel during his three seasons at the annual Castleton Festival in Virginia. The Zander Fellow has also collaborated with other renowned orchestras in Boston, Atlanta, and Houston.
Resume notwithstanding, it must’ve aided Hammer that the musical charts for “Symphonic Todd” were donated by the kind folks at the Dutch Metropole, whose groundbreaking 2011 show with Rundgren served as the blueprint for Akron’s event. Todd’s DJ/journalist friend Co DeKloet suggested playing with an orchestra a few years back after arranging a symphonic event with hot-shot guitarist Steve Vai.
Another “Rundgren Pops” concert was staged with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra in Illinois last year. Fan-produced video of the Metropole show is available for free online at www.keezer.nl./trmo.html .
Possession of said scores—and logistics—meant the August 31st itinerary was identical to those earlier performances, but Ohio’s “Toddhead” constituency didn’t mind; everyone seemed glad to just witness the magic.
Hammer took to the pulpit at 7:30pm sharp, but Rundgren started singing opener “Mary and The Holy Ghost” from an opera box up in the balcony. North Coast concert regulars Jeff and Marlena Weaver caught the star sneaking into the theatre from the outside—via fire escape—to accomplish the stunt.
“There’s a boy child comin’!” Todd blurted over wireless mic to the gospel strains from his internet-based 2000 album, One Long Year.
Radio hit “Hello, It’s Me” was an expected—practically obligatory—offering, but “Pretending to Care” was one of several surprising cuts from left field. Todd’s voice was a bit creaky on the 1985 A Cappella number, along with “Property” (from 1993’s No World Order), but the humorous “Frog” allowed him to settle his pipes in a lower register. These tunes aren’t softballs, and each boasts “landmine” high notes that would rattle the most capable singer in his prime.
“Who came up with this set list?” the sexagenarian Rundgren joked, dabbing his perspiration.
To be fair, it was sweltering inside the venue; one can only imagine how hot the performers felt under the lights. Toweling off and wetting his throat with bottled water, Rundgren was immaculate on the progressive title song from 1991’s 2nd Wind, which achieved stunning crescendo before collapsing into a quiet keyboard passage. Then Hammer and contingent built the music up again into a spine-tingling climax whereon Todd screamed earnestly. 1978 Hermit of Mink Hollow gem “All the Children Sing” was a fitting finale to the first act.
A twenty-minute intermission afforded Rundgren and his players time to cool down and regroup. Meanwhile, members of the Youth Symphony received a well-deserved ovation as they filed down the aisles into the theatre lobby.
Rundgren reemerged onstage wearing a long-sleeved psychedelic Tee instead of his jacket. Strapping on his aquamarine P-Project guitar, he steered the Akron Symphony proper through the quirky, Zappa-esqe instrumental “Flamingo” (from 1973’s acclaimed A Wizard, A True Star). Then came another helping of 2nd Wind, with the dramatic one-two punch of the poignant “If I Have to be Alone” and eloquent “Love in Disguise” highlighted by Todd’s duet with his vocalist wife, Michele.
Rundgren’s stalwart band kept the material rooted firmly in the rock vernacular, with former Tubes percussionist Prairie Prince (David Byrne, Glenn Fry) keeping time behind his drum kit and splashing his Paiste cymbals. Utopia alum Kasim Sulton (Blue Oyster Cult, Hall & Oates) thumped a five-string bass while seated alongside Michele and fellow backup singer Mary Lou Arnold. John Ferenznik (Jefferson Starship) manned keyboards, tinkling away on a Kurzweil PC-361 and PC 2x at stage right—far enough from Todd’s vantage point that Rundgren nearly overlooked him during band intros.
Guitarist (and noted transcriber/educator) Jesse Gress picked away on a lavender Strat while seated behind Todd. The six-stringer enjoyed several solos, but the night’s most memorable guitar moments came when he doubled or harmonized with Rundgren’s own licks.
“Wailing Wall” brought fans back to 1971’s Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. The upbeat “Love Science” and sinister “Fascist Christ” provided slices of the big guy’s ‘90s output. “Mammon” arrived courtesy Todd’s 18th studio album, Liars.
Something / Anything smash “I Saw the Light” brought most of the audience to its feet, and “Fade Away” had everybody singing along so enthusiastically that their voices carried over Todd’s calibrated pauses. 1978 character study “Bag Lady” primed folks for the rousing “We Gotta Get You a Woman” and phenomenal “Can We Still Be Friends” encore.
Promotions for the Akron show invited ticket holders to dress for a black tie affair. Many complied: Gents in suits escorted lovely ladies in evening gowns to their seats, and the crowd respectfully adhered to orchestra protocol by holding their applause until each selection ended (save a few solos spots whereon individual singers / musicians truly shined).
The symphonic event was one of two Ohio stops for Rundgren this weekend; Todd played a more conventional “hits” set with his band at Kent Stage on Sunday.