By Jack Firneno
Todd Rundgren’s calling his string of fall and winter shows this year the Unpredictable Tour. The same could be said of his career.
Originally from Upper Darby, Rundgren went into producing in the late ’60s because he wasn’t satisfied with the sound his first band, The Nazz, got on their records. Then after making a couple of bona fide hit pop songs — 1972’s solo outings “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me” — he built his own studio so he could explore more spontaneous and “evolutionary” ways of writing and recording, rather than just showing up with some hopefully-chart-topping songs ready to record.
He spent nearly a decade creating experimental and progressive rock songs with the band Utopia while also producing blockbuster albums like Meat Loaf’s 1977 Bat Out of Hell. Then in 1983, he banged out (ahem) a hit novelty song while branching out into computer software programming.
(The early ’80s anthem was, of course, Bang on the Drum All Day).
Party songs aside, Rundgren’s behind-the-scenes programming work made him the guy in the ’90s who went to major-label execs with a plan to upload their music onto servers for consumers.
(They all declined the offer just before it happened anyway).
More recently, Rundgren’s track “International Feel” was featured in Electroma, the 2006 film by the electronic music duo Daft Punk. Rundgren occasionally plays their 2013 hit “Get Lucky” in concert, referencing last year’s Grammy night when he stood between that group and Macklemore on the red carpet.
Last year also saw the release of his own ambient electronica album, State, that managed to not make him sound like an old fart trying to keep up with the kids — mostly because he’s making the kids’ new records while they listen to his old ones.
That brings us to just this month, which kicked off with Rundgren’s demented version of the theme song for an only-slightly-more-demented Cartoon Network show airing on Oct. 5. Then, he’ll be just a few days off the road with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band before arriving at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside tonight for the second show of his own tour.
For these shows, he’s got a master list of nearly 50 songs — some his own, some by other artists — that he can pick and choose from in the moment, every night, to make each performance unique.
Unpredictable? Sure. It’s been working out well for the producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, software programmer and performer, and his audiences don’t seem to mind, either. Especially at the so-named shows.
“People come wanting to hear a particular song, and in my other shows there’s never a guarantee they’ll hear it,” said Rundgren. But with no fixed setlists, “They have a chance to hear a song I haven’t bothered to play.”
The Unpredictable Tour took root when Rundgren had a few dates to fill in between tours a few years ago. “I got this idea to start playing not just my material but other people’s material as well that I found interesting or curious,” he recalled.
The audience liked it, and so it was added to his bag of tricks, which now holds five distinct kinds of concerts. Along with these shows, he’s got regular “greatest-hits” tours, album promotional tours where he plays mostly new material, and specialty one-off shows like the one he did with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2012.
Then there’s the All-Starr Band, which has been on the road for the better part of three years with excursions to South America and the Pacific Rim. Rundgren gets to play a few of his own hits there, and said it’s an “acrobatic” show, where he’s covering a lot of ground on stage amidst a small army of classic rock heavyweights.
That’s in contrast to the Unpredictable Tour, where he’s less mobile and more musical. Here, Rundgren draws from songs with often personal stories behind them even those by other artists, and divining on the spot which ones he thinks the crowd wants to hear.
“You have to get used to adapting to different presentations and putting on different musical hats,” said Rundgren.
Immediately, the comment applies to the two-day transition between the All-Starr Band and Unpredictable Tour. It’s also about what he’s been up to for the last few decades.
“I take my leads from other people, from the way that other people are reacting to things and what’s happening in the business,” he noted.
It’s what led him to last year’s State album, for instance: before starting it, he’d carved out another “sideline” business doing remixes for the likes of Trent Reznor and Elephant Entertainment.
“I got wed into a contemporary musical thing, where these younger artists working in that, they were going back and discovering the early records where I started using synthesizers,” he noted. “I got to study what was happening, and kind of apply that to my own [album].”
That ear-to-the-ground approach also informed the bizarre theme song he delivered to Cartoon Network. It was for Squidbillies, an anarchic show about anamorphic sea creatures living in a small backwoods town (yes, you read that right). The content is all over the map, but the theme song itself is a traditional-sounding country number.
Rundgren, a fan of the show, assumed the other artists doing their own renditions of the theme for this season would stick close to the format. “I figured I could do a genre mash-up, sort of half drum-and-bass and suddenly it goes into a J-pop thing for no particular reason,” he laughed.
But if the genre mash-ups and electronica albums find Rundgren at the future of music, he’ll never stray far from the tried-and-true place onstage
“It’s part of the whole evolution of music away from that commoditized model of albums and things like that,” he noted. This from the guy who saw what happened when the bigwigs at places like Warner Brothers declined to move to online-based distribution: “Napster came and ate their lunch.”
In the early ’70s, Rundgren used his hit records to provide the funding for his more experimental work. Now, with shows like the one at the Keswick, he gets to play what he wants — and ensure he can keep doing so.
“On the longer arc of musicianship, the way people have always made the most money was by performing live. Smart artists realized the records are promotion for the live shows where you really make the money,” he said.
“It’s my living.”