Todd Rundgren Raises Virtual-Concert Bar: Show Review
Nearly a year into the pandemic, artists are continuing to present ambitious live streams. But leave it to noted technology innovator Todd Rundgren to raise the quality bar considerably with his series of virtual concerts.
Dubbed the Clearly Human tour, the 25-date trek resembles an extended residency, as the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee and his band are anchored at a space in Chicago for the duration. The set list's focus is Rundgren's 1989 solo album Nearly Human, an LP with a heavy R&B influence.
However, each show is positioned as being in a different city, which is why on Monday night, the banter skewed toward Cleveland: "Hello, Cleveland!" Rundgren said gleefully by way of introduction, and threw in a "Cleveland rocks," too, for good measure, while referencing all the friends and family from Ohio watching. "Remember fun? Let's have some freaking fun!"
During a two-hour-plus concert, the group of musicians — including a horn section, a trio of backing vocalists and longtime Rundgren collaborators such as guitarist Bruce McDaniel, bassist Kasim Sulton and drummer Prairie Prince — indeed all looked like they were having a blast. Performing on a stage arranged like a classic variety show, complete with a giant video screen and full lights and production, the troupe tore through a dynamic set.
To add to the fancy ambience, Rundgren sported a suit with a silvery-metallic pattern, while other performers wore glittery rainbow coats. The background singers, meanwhile, at one point wore colorful print dresses with Rundgren's face on them before changing into light-turquoise dresses with matching gloves.
The night opened with "Real Man," the lead-off track from Rundgren's 1975 album Initiation and (as it happens) the song that opened the original 1989 Nearly Human tour dates. That was followed by 1976's "Love of the Common Man," featuring a smoldering McDaniel guitar solo, and Utopia's "Secret Society," which found Rundgren adding some smoking riffs of his own.
Wisely, Rundgren sequenced the nuanced and soulful Nearly Human songs throughout the night, which gave the show emotional ebbs and flows and illustrated the R&B influence that's permeated his entire career. "Let's sing something depressing," he quipped before a midtempo "Parallel Lines," which segued into the saxophone-heavy psychedelic rock boogie "Unloved Children" and then a vivacious version of Utopia's "Love in Action" with some particularly robust tambourine playing.
"There ain't enough booty-shaking funk music in the world today," he later prefaced a particularly colorful "Love Science," which was sandwiched between a meditative "God Said" and the prog-kissed blue-eyed soul of "Feel It."
You can always count on Rundgren to throw a curveball or two into his sets, and on Monday this came in the form of "The Smell of Money," a theatrical orchestral song originally written for a never-produced musical called Up Against It. Rundgren got into character as the song's greedy protagonist, belted the song with a vaguely pompous accent and pirouetting on the stage.
The streaming platform used offered a clear connection and steady sound, although the occasional sonic glitch led to the stream cutting out during "Can We Still Be Friends." (In the accompanying stream chat, an admin from the platform noted, "The venue has identified the issue with a faulty cable at the venue" and offered to give codes to an upcoming show to fans.)
Still, the night ended on strong notes, with a pair of Nearly Human songs (a striking, powerful "Hawking" and forceful, upbeat "The Want of a Nail") and the encore-opening "Hello It's Me," which had a jaunty and irreverent feel.
To close the night, the backup singers gleefully took off their heels as Rundgren went offstage and returned wearing what looked like a blue church-choir robe for a set-ending, gospel-influenced "I Love My Life."
During the lengthy song, Rundgren also improvised some stage banter in response to audience members — who were beamed in on video screens that were located in the venue seats — who had their dogs watching the show with them.
"How can you be sad in a world with dogs?" he quipped. It's a solid point — and going by the entertaining and life-affirming virtual concert, one might also add, "How can you be sad in a world with Todd Rundgren?"
Todd Rundgren, Clearly Human Tour, Cleveland, 2/22/21
Love of the Common Man
Secret Society (Utopia)
Something to Fall Back On
Love in Action (Utopia)
Can't Stop Running
The Waiting Game
The Smell of Money
Can We Still Be Friends
Rock Love (Utopia)
The Want of a Nail
Hello It's Me
I Love My Life