Friday night. 6:30 PM. At the Columbia College Music Center, a hearty soul dressed in a uniform shirt with the name “Rundgren” in bold letters on the back, stands in line surrounded by friends. He’s hugging a framed photograph, which shows Todd Rundgren standing on a ball field, with an arm around his professional shortstop son, Rex. He wanted desperately to give the shot to the older Rundgren tonight. “That’s what he really wants a picture of,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Not some rock concert shot.”

Although the concert hall is smaller than expected, it turns out to be fantastic space for anyone lucky enough to attend the one-off event. Rundren’s got a change of clothes and attitude – shades and a dinner jacket. Color scheme – what else? Black.

Watching him in the studio was fascinating but a little like watching any other professional who truly cares about his product: the fast food king of the kiosk, the efficient bagger at the supermarket or the discreet private eye at a forensics site. He was fully engrossed in his work and in serving his client. But now Rundgren looked relaxed and carefree, ready to face an atypical but eager audience.

“This is a part of Chicago that I rarely get to – I’m more of an ‘uptown guy,” he confesses, surveying the anxious rows of parents and fans from the stage.

“It’s been an inspirational week,” he added. And locking eyes with beaming parents, he said, “There’s a tremendous amount of talent in this little room.” With Pop Rock Ensemble: Showcase, he sang three selections including ‘Love is the Answer,’ written for his band Utopia and recorded on their 1977 album, ‘Oops! Wrong Planet’.

“Name your price, A ticket to paradise, I can’t stay here anymore…” The students onstage added a keen luster and velvety tones to Rundgren’s classic, which soared to number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979 when covered by England Dan and John Ford Coley. Said Coley, “Of all the songs we released as singles, that was my favourite.” In an incredibly short amount of rehearsal time, students had developed striking choreographic moves, searing harmonies and heartfelt solos. Another golden moment happened when the next ensemble worked with the rocker on ‘I Saw the Light.’ The well-articulated minor seventh chords performed by an enthusiastic player highlighted the upbeat chorus.

When a few minor technical difficulties occurred, the headliner joked: “After a couple weeks on the road, we’ll get this all figured out.” After a slew of searing ballads, Rundgren, grabbing the mic, declared. “We came to rock!” With the R & B Showcase, he performed the introspective ‘Parallel Lines’, an eloquent and heartfelt ballad about a crumbling relationship and the class smashing ‘Unloved Children’ from 1989’s ‘Nearly Human’, as well as his formidable signature ‘Hello It’s Me.’

The Pop Orchestra section also included selections from that album: the palpable ‘Feel It’ and the closer, the fierce ‘The Want of a Nail,’ which found the ensemble writhing with instrumental and choral call and response. Stephen Thomas Erlewine (Allmusic) said about that album: “Nearly Human’ finds Rundgren at the top of the game as a performer, producer and songwriter.” The songs selected really suited the talent pool onstage. There was plenty of opportunity for vocal call and response, throbbing brass arrangements as well as time to trade licks and exhibit showmanship.

In suits and sequins, bow ties and heels, students paid rapt attention to subtle cues. Their keyboard solos, riff-heavy guitar and dreamy vocals made each song unique. With them, his classic material took on eloquent shades and, even though the repertoire was drawn from distinctly different eras, all dissolved into a contemporary focused extravaganza.

That he had a relatively small stage area in which to roam, didn’t pose a problem. Rundgren’s onstage movements ranged from relatively hypnotic to catatonic. At times he appeared to be carrying on a private conversation, and other times his hands and arms melted into a vertigo-inducing mirage. Rundgren’s voice is as powerful and expressive now as when he first forged Nazz or experimented with Utopia. The only thing missing was an encore, but that might have been complicated with so many different ensembles focusing their energies on specific material and goals.

When Rundgren used the word “bitchin’” to describe a ballad, a woman in one of the back rows, under her breath, made a clucking sound and sighed, “Isn’t he supposed to be a role model?”

“Role model?” Who better to fit the bill? A father of three creative and hard-working sons, a producer whose CV is explosive and whose career never flailed or had to be resurrected. He’s known as a technological wizard and even comprehends the erratic pulse of a younger generation. He has embraced the beauty of the past, and retained an acute awareness of what makes a song exciting.

I picked up my 12-year-old from school and threw ‘State’ into the player. I expected her to tune out, which is what she often does when I listen to my “old people’s music.” But after hearing a few bars of Rundgren’s evocative Sam Cooke-like falsetto against brash, aggressive bro-step beats, she smiled.

“Hey, he’s a young guy. He must be about twenty, right? I like this.”

“Oh, really? What makes you say that,” I said, suppressing a smile.

“Yeah, his voice. He’s got a young voice. I like that cool beat, too, mom.”

On the Skrillex inspired recording, Rundgren parodied the popular video game, ‘Angry Bird’, and explored the complexities of faith in ‘Something for Nothing,’ the sole song that included guest vocals – in this case, from the smoky Rachel Haden. The creative word play in ‘Ping Me’ could fill an urban dictionary. The ballad ‘Smoke’ is underscored by simmering philosophy and a heartfelt hunger for coming to terms with tough times. That said, Rundgren’s world collides effortlessly with a new generation on this recording and, clearly, with tonight’s student body.

After the show, Rundgren signed albums and posed happily for photos. He even made that friendly guy’s day when he shook his free hand, and then liberated the family photo from his other one. It became increasingly clear that Rundgren made quite an impression on many fans as well as students.

Chris Kaczmarek, 19, is getting his Bachelors of Music in Contemporary, Urban and Popular Music for Electric Bass. After graduation he hopes to gig frequently around the city and to enter into the session musician scene. He explained how the rock icon’s visit affected him.

“I wasn’t too familiar with Todd’s work prior to him coming to Columbia, but I started listening to his work when I found out in December that I’d be working with him. My band mates and I were all incredibly excited when we learned we were working with him. To find out we would work with someone of that calibre was just such an incredible feeling. The band is called Upsin Hounds, and it’s part of a class at Columbia called Recording and Performance Ensemble (RPE). Upsin Hounds has been performing and writing material together since the beginning of the school year back in September. As for rehearsal time, we had a three-hour songwriting session with Todd the first day, and then spent about twelve hours with him in the studio over the course of the week.”

“We had a one-hour sound check with him before the show, too. Todd also played with another one of my groups, Pop Orchestra. We spent about three hours throughout the week rehearsing as well as another one-hour sound check before the show.”

“I was incredibly satisfied with the recording we did, I can honestly say it’s the best sounding recording that I have of my own work. Todd did an amazing job producing it. He’s the biggest producer we’ve ever worked with.”

“He didn’t waste time in the studio. We got an amazing mix from him by the end of the twelve hours. He was really easy to work with because his ideas were great and his sound engineering skills were just phenomenal.”

“One thing that really surprised me about him, though, was how much he opened up to us in the studio. He was very professional and strict during rehearsals for Pop Orchestra, but in the studio he was really nice and easy going, and treated us like friends. He taught us a lot about songwriting, focusing specifically on the lyrics and the words incorporated with them.”

Kaczmarek’s favourite album is ‘The Ballad of Todd Rundgren’, because, he says, “the level of songwriting in that album was just so incredibly ahead of its time.”

Joe Cerqua also detected transformations within the student body by the end of the week.
“Todd isn’t as well known with 19 and 20-year-olds as he was back in the day so in the weeks before they have to start doing their homework – who this resident artist is who is coming in. There were a couple of bands that Todd walked into that first rehearsal and those songs already sounded great, and then it was just about him getting himself into the group and fine tuning some things: tempos, dynamics and things like that.”

“Then there was another couple of groups where a lot of work had to be done in those rehearsals. Those are the groups that were transformed because it didn’t matter how far away the song was when he first walked in. Don’t get me wrong. Nothing sounded horrible. They can read a lot about the artist – there is a lot of stuff out there about Todd. But until he gets there, you just don’t know how the artist is actually going to interact with the students. My assistant kept saying to me that Todd got funnier and funnier as the day went on and he did - as he got more and more comfortable. The man has a great sense of humour. He is absolutely hysterical.”

“But in those rehearsals, he was all business. He did not talk to them or in anyway treat them like they were students. He treated them like they were pros. It’s a pro gig. Here’s where we are with it. Here’s where it’s got to get. So those groups that had to do homework – I have to say that they did a really great job.”

But besides being the man in charge of a growing, exhilarating program, Joe Cerqua can’t help but admit he’s a huge fan. When asked what the name Todd Rundgren triggers, he is quick to respond:

“He’s one of the greatest and most prolific songwriters ever to live. And then, are there better albums out there than ‘Something Anything?’”

“I have the album, I have the CD, I have the cassette…and then ‘Hello, It’s Me’ is probably one of my favourite songs in the world,” Cerqua exclaims.

To further connect with fans, Rundgren will travel to Louisiana this spring for his annual Toddfest. There he’ll be barbecuing by the lake, hobnobbing with friends, old and new, and, of course, sharing music. He’ll also support ‘State’ by touring the U.S. and Europe. Or perhaps he will take the talented Upsin Hounds on the road – the final mix of ‘Rain Fall Blue’ was superb.

If Todd Rundgren’s hectic schedule seems mind boggling, it’s not just your imagination. Seriously twenty-four hours per day seems inadequate for a Darby-raised crooner with a restless streak and a truckload of ideas. But then the adage “all’s fair” applies to love and war, not roving rock professors…


Lisa Torem would like to express thanks to the following individuals for their help in this article: Rick Barnes, Joe Cerqua, Paul Crisanti, Christopher Kaczmarek and Gary Yerkins.

The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Paul Crisanti, PhotoGetGo.















Related Links:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Rundgren
http://www.tr-i.com/
https://twitter.com/toddrundgren
https://www.facebook.com/toddrundgren


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