Concert Review: Todd Rundgren (Agnes McDonald Music Haven Stage, Schenectady, New York, July 22, 2001)

Pop titan Todd Rundgren has spent most of this summer indulging his love for those other pop titans, the ones from Liverpool, as part of the traveling, big theatre nostalgia show A Walk Down Abbey Road: A Tribute to the Beatles. He had one of his Beatles shows Sunday night, in fact, which required Central Park concert promoters Second Wind Productions to bump scheduled opener Lisa McCormick, so that the Hermit of Mink Hollow could get through his Schenectady set and scoot over to Connecticut for the evening’s main attraction.

Said Connecticut attraction was to include such luminaries as Ann Wilson, John Entwistle and Alan Parsons, but for his Central Park show, Todd (a wizard, a true star, conventionally referenced by his first name, a la Marilyn, Madonna and Cher) spent most of his time onstage alone, only occasionally aided and abetted by Woodstock-based guitar hero Jesse Gress. Which could have been a daunting proposition on some plane, since Todd has been known to follow his stage muse to strange and wondrous places (from his perspective), leaving his audiences searching for something, anything faithful to their expectations, but struggling instead with initiation by fire into the arcane world of a true musical individualist.

No such issues Sunday, though. While I can’t report that Todd was exactly eager to please, he was certainly willing to do so, offering a casual, low octane set that focused almost entirely upon studio material released between 1972 and 1981, before the ever popular tortured artist effect pushed Todd into some more experimental, less accessible, sometimes even less musical directions. He was nearly human on Sunday, in other words, and that’s good enough for me — as it certainly seemed to be good enough for happy hundreds who endured a scorching, brutal afternoon, just for the chance to watch Todd take it back to the bars.

Which he did, opening with a furry version of Utopia’s “Hammer in My Heart,” closing 90-minutes later with emotional readings of “One World” and “The Wheel” (both numbers also, interestingly, ones culled from the Utopia canon). Gress joined Todd for nine numbers, spread over two sets, all of them arranged in the bossa nova style offered on the 1997 reinterpretation album With A Twist; “I Saw the Light” and “Can We Still Be Friends” benefited the most from their new(ish) zesty tropical trappings.

Todd also offered three numbers mid-set from behind his electric piano, apologizing in advance for what he labeled “the inept part of the show.” While I wouldn’t use that word, exactly, I will note that “Song of the Viking” was a bit rough, although the enthusiastic “Free, Male and 21” and the lovely “Compassion” more than covered for its inadequacies. The set’s surprises (and it wouldn’t be a Todd Rundgren show without them) included a spunky cover of the Beatles “Lady Madonna” (Todd had obviously practiced that one recently) and two numbers culled from Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, “West Virginia Gals” and “The House Carpenter,” the latter standing as one of the show’s highlights — with a single chord electric guitar figure simulating a bagpipe drone, and Todd’s voice dripping with all the drama that the dismally themed song deserved. It was a moment that proved how scary good Todd Rundgren can be, when he wants to.

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