Todd Rundgren rarely goes backwards. In fact, he's usually years ahead of everyone else, whether it's interactivity with fans (on his 1973 A Wizard/A True Star album, he asked fans to send him their name to be included in a poster. They did, and the poster was contained in his next record, Todd) or marketing his music through the Internet, which he was doing back in 1997.
But on Saturday night at Clowes Hall, he set the Wayback Machine for 1974 and 1981, returning to a time when concerts were equal parts music and spectacle, artists could tap into multiple genres without losing audience support and musicianship mattered.
Oh, and just so we don't get overly nostalgic, those also were times when self-indulgence was a natural part of the program and shows ran past midnight.
For this current small tour, Rundgren is playing the Todd (1974) and Healing (1981) albums in their entirety. This is tough work – these are intricate, demanding songs – but he pulls it off beautifully, augmented by a bright, tight five-man band that includes Prairie Prince (ex-Tubes) on drums, Greg Hawkes (ex-Cars) on keyboards and longtime Rundgren bassist Kasim Sulton), a choir-for-hire (Butler University's Jordan Jazz filled the bill admirably), laser lights, costumes and more.
Both records are good, for different reasons. Todd mixes the blue-eyed soul that would become Hall and Oates' trademark ("A Dream Goes On Forever," "Useless Begging," "Izzat Love?"), driving riffs taken from the Yardbirds ("Everybody's Going to Heaven") or later to be swiped by Ted Nugent ("Heavy Metal Kids"), the Zappa-esque ("No. 1 Lowest Common Denominator") and the playfully silly ("An Elpee's Worth of Toons," Gilbert and Sullivan's "Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song"). There are also a couple of meandering instrumentals ("The Spark of Life," "Sidewalk Café"), but you come to appreciate Rundgren's range.
Having so many different styles makes Todd seem like a timepiece – and given the like-something-out-of-Yellow-Submarine outfits he and the band wore, maybe it is. Still, it felt good to hear the fiery guitar solos by Rundgren and Jesse Gress, lovely mixes of piano and power like "Don't You Ever Learn?" and Rundgren hitting every high note.
Healing, which comprised the second half of the show, is more like a rock opera. The songs of faith and redemption are not only more thematic but more textured, built upon layers of keyboards, guitars, church-like choruses and lyrics that may be more relevant today than they were when Rundgren wrote them.
"If you want to be healed/then you know you got to feel/compassion," he sang on "Compassion," a song that takes on new meaning when you hear it on 9/11.
This presentation of Healing felt like a dry run for a Broadway show. Traversing the stage, singing about commercialism ("Golden Goose"), change and moving on ("Pulse") and visions ("Healer"), Rundgren, dressed in a long, Nehru-style top, took on the aura of a spiritual leader. Although portions of the album drag – "Healing" parts 1, 2 and 3 do a lot of repeating, and the tone and approach of Bobby Strickland's sax solo made me think of Kenny G – by the end, the show had turned into a sing-along.
The final song was "Sons of 1984" (which actually was on the Todd album), which urges the next generation to fix what the previous one had failed to do. To send the audience into the streets (after 12:30 a.m.) singing of "worlds of tomorrow/life without sorrow" made an excellent concert feel like an important event too.