Albums. Remember those? I’m talking about a well thought-out and well put-together set of songs by a single artist or group, something worth listening to for an hour or so as a complete artistic statement, not something you just listen to (or download) a few songs from.
One album that has been on heavy rotation on my play list recently is A Wizard, A True Star, cult musician Todd Rundgren’s relatively obscure 1973 prog-psych masterpiece performed in its entirety Saturday night at the Majestic Ventura Theater.
Well, to say “performed” is an understatement. This was a playful “all-in” whirlwind trip through the album, complete with multiple costume changes and almost flawless playing by Rundgren and a stellar (interstellar?) white-tux-clad band consisting of Jesse Gress on guitar, Kasim Sulton on bass, Prairie Prince on drums, Greg Hawkes and Ralph Schuckett on keyboards, and Bobby Strickland on saxophone. In one word: Wow!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, there was an opening set by Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, a cleverly named project in which Rundgren, Gress, Sulton and Prince play electric covers of legendary soul-selling bluesman Robert Johnson’s classic songs. This highlighted the curious fact that the blues are a genre that the musically restless Rundgren has somehow managed to mostly avoid up to this point.
The set was enjoyable, and it allowed Rundgren to stretch out as a guitar hero as he jammed to the funky groove of “Dust My Broom” and conjured pentatonic bliss during “Walking Blues.” A highlight was the rocking “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Rundgren’s album of covers of Johnson’s songs apparently will be released soon.
Then, after a short break, the main event started.
Like the album version of A Wizard, A True Star, an opening synth buzz grew into the trippy groove of “International Feel,” to which the astronaut-suit-wearing Rundgren emerged from a magical mirror at the back of the stage to sing the fitting opening phrase “Here we are again.” The astronaut suit was an homage to the song’s lyrics about “interplanetary deals” and “interstellar appeal.”
After a rapid costume change while the band played — like the album, there were no musical pauses — Rundgren re-emerged in a black tux and white tie, waving a (true) star wand while singing “Never Never Land,” a song originally from the Broadway production of Peter Pan. This was followed by the mini prog-instrumental “Tic Tic Tic, It Wears Off” while Rundgren changed into a futuristic green get-up for the Zappa-esque (to my ears, at least) “You Need Your Head” and the heavy John Lennon-baiting “Rock & Roll Pussy.”
For those who missed the show or don’t know this album, it’s worth pausing for a moment to give a sense of the proceedings described so far. There have already been five distinctly different songs, Rundgren is on his third costume and only about eight minutes have transpired. Whew!
Next were the synth blips and noise of “Dogfight Giggle,” to which sped-up, looped footage of political figures and commentators such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, President Barack Obama and Dick Cheney was projected on a screen to hugely amusing effect. After a minute or so, Rundgren burst through the magical mirror in a red velvet jacket to ask, as on the album, “Don’t you think of anything but sex?”
Next was an extended “You Don’t Have to Camp Around” during which Rundgren reflected amusingly on his 1970s androgynous glam image that “brought out things I never knew were inside me — maybe they should’ve stayed inside me.” This segued into the instrumental “Flamingo,” after which Rundgren emerged in a glammy, feathery outfit for “Zen Archer,” appropriate for a tale of a “pretty bird.” This song closed with rousing saxophone by Strickland and guitar by Gress.
The audience quickly discovered that this was cover for Rundgren to change into yet another costume, namely an inflated fat suit that he amusingly pranced around stage in while singing “Just Another Onionhead” and “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel,” for which the fat suit seemed fittingly to deflate. (A Wizard, A True Star freaks will notice that a few songs were skipped here relative the the album’s sequencing — these showed up later in the set.)
Sultan took singing duties for the ballad “Does Anybody Love You?” Then Rundren came out in orange-suited crooner mode for the medley “I’m So Proud: Ooh Baby Baby / La La Means I Love You / Cool Jerk.” The latter was especially raucous, aided by an impassioned plea for everyone to stand up, followed by a “Cool Jerk” dance.
Next up was “Hungry for Love,” during which a dressed-as-a-mustachioed-chef Rundgren threw out candy for the people who splurged for the VIP section, followed by Rundgren-in-wizard-robe singing “I Don’t Want to Tie You Down.”
The main set ended with a bang with a futuristic silver-and-black-clad Rundgren rocking out to “Is It My Name?” with the brilliant call and response “you only love me / for my machine.” This segued into the previously skipped songs “When the Sh*t Hits the Fan / Sunset Blvd.” and “Le Feel Internacionale.” For the latter, which was accented by confetti shooting out into the audience, Rundgren somehow found time to change into a sparkly gold suit and black shirt.
For the encore, Rundgren — joined on background vocals by wife Michele, who designed the costumes and wore a “I Love TR’s Johnson” shirt — played the album’s hopeful closing track “Just One Victory.” Here he wore his last (12th, by my count) costume, looking like a red-skirted ancient warrior.
The evening was a showcase not only for Rundgren’s eclectic musical genius, but also his seemingly boundless energy and humor. While he might be unjustly relegated to cult musician status, Rundgren is a true star, indeed!
Click here to view and/or purchase a book showing photos from the concert, including Rundgren’s costumes.