"Hello, it's me." Todd Rundgren can never escape that greeting and song title. Nor would he want to, I imagine. It's a signature song for him, one that was transcendent for American radio.
Between that 1973 "Midnight Special" performance and the show I covered a few months back at BB King's NYC, Rundgren has traveled a long, winding road well and with grace.
His bands, Nazz and Utopia with his eponymous, "Todd Rundgren" band and solo career displayed his talents as a musician but were in my opinion overshadowed by his strong artistic ability as a producer of other musicians' records.
Rundgren worked with Robbie Robertson and The Band (spending a lot of time in Woodstock), Janis Joplin (on what would be taken over by another producer ultimately, to become the album "Pearl"), Jesse Winchester, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, New York Dolls, The New Cars, Hall & Oates, Badfinger, Sparks, Rick Derringer, Grand Funk Railroad, James Cotton Blues Band, Patti Smith Group and many others.
But whether producing, writing or making his own music, Rundgren has that multifaceted talent base that makes him excel at all these and more.
Candidly, I was never that much into Todd Rundgren, although his Utopia was super-progressive. I was just into heavier kinds of music. But he won me over with his most recent show at BB King's in NYC. I definitely, saw the light.
Todd Rundgren is the real deal. He's a real person with serious talent. From songwriting to producing to playing all instruments, this man is a rare musician indeed.
Let me interject, before I share my chat with him later in this piece, my observations about Todd as a person. And please don't think for a minute, that I don't realize how blessed and privileged I am to meet these great artists I do.
He's very solidly grounded. I never got the feeling he was the tiniest bit judgmental--though, aren't we all? He's like a Buddhist monk; seemingly in love with everything good and just in the world. And he's a pleasure to talk to, not giving you any chatter by rote but that which always feels genuine.
As I allude to above, Rundgren's journey, much like Eric Clapton's I imagine, has been cathartic and ever-changing. He's a changeling. Look at the different faces he's worn corresponding with where he's been in his life. From the androgynous-alien character singing on Midnight Special above, to the earthly, down-home naturist singing with Darryl Hall in Hawaii. He's been through the mill, no doubt. But like the fortunate few of us, he's emerged on the other side, wiser, kinder and hopefully, wealthier.
Beside all the musical ability and brilliance he obviously possesses, this is the side of Todd Rundgren which I think needs to be told.
Another side of the ever-changing Todd ... "Vegas Todd" in Tokyo with "Love in Action"
I've seen Sulton play bass guitar for Utopia and Blue Oyster Cult more recently and now of course with Todd Rundgren. I've never seen a more methodical and fastidious bassist. I don't know, but he may well be one of the finest musicians I've had the pleasure to hear play the bass guitar. His vocals are solid too, with Sulton singing lead vocals on Utopia's only Top 40 hit in the USA, "Set Me Free."
For my money, Prairie Prince is one of the most enigmatic, interesting and funky musicians imaginable.
Having provided such a strong and unique drumming background for such bands as the quintessentially bizarre and fun troupe, The Tubes, Jefferson Starship, The New Cars and worked with diverse artists such as Chris Isaak (on his first four albums), Tom Waits, Brian Eno, David Byrne, George Harrison, Phil Lesh, Glenn Frey and John Fogerty.
Additionally, and I didn't know this, Prince is a founding member of Journey. Who knew?
Also in the 'Who knew?' category for Prince is the fact that he's been the set designer for artists such as Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, N'Sync, Shania Twain, Styx, the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta and Super Bowl XXX halftime show. Prince is literally omnipresent and must always be on the go.
Jesse Gress is the greatest guitarist you may have never heard. That you knew you heard anyway.
In addition to Gress being in Todd Rundren's band, he also plays in the Tony Levin Band with one of the greatest bass players around. Levin, formerly of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, is a bass stud nonpareil.
Gress was also the Music Editor for Guitar Player magazine and at his heart, seems to be a rabbi-type teacher for others--a serious music educator. Gress's achievements in the transcription of music cannot be ignored.
You can hear Jesse Gress on Todd's blog-talk-radio site, "Rundgren Radio."
Jesse Gress's Strats
Kasim's killer basses
About these four and five-string versions of these Kasim Sulton Signature K S3 Archer bass guitars, Kasim told me, "I designed this guitar," he told me proudly, "I picked out the wood and inlays and designed the electronics. I kept improving it as I used it on the road and in the studio, so it's on version three now. When I sat down and designed it, I wanted to design a bass that when a kid said to himself he wanted to learn how to play bass guitar and asked his parents for one, they didn't have to take out a second mortgage. This bass is $499 and is the same bass guitar I play onstage."
"These days, guitar players tend to use a lot of effects and I find when bass players try to use a lot of pedals, reverb and other effects it complicates things tremendously. I don't use any effects. For me, Euphonic Audio makes the best amp heads and cabinets. The other important things is the strings--it ALL starts with the strings. So I use Elixir Strings."
Prairie Prince's absolutely unique 'cocktail drum-set' played standing up; I'd never seen one before
Prairie Prince told me, "It's a little challenging to stand playing drums for a few hours. It was great though, being out in front with the guys like I was at BB King's, instead of being buried in the back like most drummers. The cocktail drum kit is more casual."
Jesse Gress's effects rack
No depiction of the Rundgren instrument inventory would be complete without a short detour into my hero, Eric Clapton's guitar, "The Fool" which was played on Cream's "Wheels of Fire" and "Disraeli Gears" albums. It was on this guitar, that Clapton developed his unique "woman tone."
Photo Credit: Unknown
Somehow by a twist of fate I would imagine, Todd ended up possessing this iconic Gibson SG guitar for the better part of three decades. As the story goes, Rundgren bought it for $500 in Woodstock, NY then sold it many years later after extensive, painstaking renovations at auction for $150,000. The Fool was finally purchased by a private collector for a reported $500,000.
To see The Fool in action, played by Todd's hands, watch this video. Interestingly, it is from that middle period in Todd's trip through Music and is one of my favorite songs in his repertory, "One World."
BB King's is a small, but not too small, subterranean venue under Times Square. Its central location is very convenient and the seating proximity to the stage offers an up-close experience for concertgoers.
The food and drink flows during shows and I must say that the servers at BB King's are amongst the nicest I've encountered. Seeing to your every need while navigating extremely close quarters with loaded down trays is an art they've mastered beautifully.
It being Todd's second night at BB King's, there was no soundcheck held.
THE ARTIST COMMENTARY
Todd's an easy-going guy, super nice and fun to chat to, and he's passionate about most things that concern him. Especially music. But in this case, Todd wanted to discuss a charitable pursuit instead.
You see, Todd Rundgren truly cares about the world and other people.
"I'll get home from this tour for Thanksgiving and then I have to deliver an album by the first of 2015. So my next couple of months are committed in one of two ways: either finishing this tour or getting my record done. But we have layers of things going on over that."
"Our non-profit foundation got its IRS 501(C)(3) certification, got it in record time too. It's called the Spirit of Harmony Foundation and it's actually kind of a roots-up thing. We were having a fan camp a year and some months ago on a plantation outside of New Orleans, you know, and I have this very peculiar fan base. They're not just like, 'play 'Hello It's Me' ... 'play 'Hello It's Me.' They have a more complete worldview, I guess."
"And they (the fans) decided they wanted to do something for New Orleans, since we were down there and something in particular which would assist a music program that had been affected by Katrina."
"And so we found this little program down in the Lower Ninth Ward and the fans all collected money without any exhortation from me; in fact I didn't know anything about it. They came up with more than $10,000 and we went down and the kids did a recital for us and then we presented them with the big check. And everybody had so much fun doing that and got good feeling from doing that I was approached later by some fan representatives and they said, 'we want to make this a permanent thing and you have to be the figurehead.' So we came up with the concept of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. Our website is about to go live and our holiday fundraising letter is about to go out."
Ed Vigdor and Jean Lachowicz are those "fan representatives" who raised the money for New Orleans' Katrina victims, organizing three buses for the trip to the Lower Ninth Ward and so many other logistics. And then, these two impresarios pitched Todd on the foundation idea moving forward. Vigdor is now Chairman and Lachowicz is Executive Director of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation.
As Lachowicz told me, the whole foundation concept came about somewhat fortuitously and organically before the New Orleans' initiative. "I'd been doing non-profit work for 30 years," Lachowicz related, "when the earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, I was a little Todd fan on Facebook and put up a post about 'who's willing to help?' Then I wrote to Ed, who'd been a friend of Todd's for years and said, 'I can set-up a website.'" Apparently, it snowballed from there.
Vigdor had no experience whatsoever in the non-profit world, only the entertainment industry. So he and Lachowicz were a mismatched pair indeed. "What music education can do for our kids and our society is now a moral imperative," Vidor told me with certainty. "Not just to educate kids but to help make them better people and improve society. We are a grass-roots movement to make sure kids get to receive an education in music."
Photo Credit: Unknown
Todd continued, "The basic thrust though, is not to be raising money all the time and then be giving people piles of money. We're really in the synergy business in a way, and kind of like arming people who are trying to get music programs started in schools. Most of the programs we work with are independent from any school systems and therefore, they struggle for their funding all the time. And that's because, schools when there's something to be cut in the budget, Arts programs go first. We're not just talking about the conventional reasons of 'oh, it keeps kids out of trouble' or 'it gives them a reason to come to school' ... that's kind of the obvious, conventional wisdom. We're trying to leverage actual empirical data."
"We've got an association with Northwestern University, who's been doing studies of the effect of early music studies on the brain. And how it actually permanently changes the way that you think. So if you have two years of early musical education with an instrument and then you give it up after two years, you've already made your brain work differently and that will be useful to you for the rest of your life. Because people who understand music, listen to music and sound in a different way than other people do and sound is such an important part of our input. So if you have a different way of parsing sound, you're seeing the world in a different way. Or hearing the world in a different way."
"So what we want to do is arm people who have to go to school boards and things like that, either to start a program or because the program is facing cuts, we want them to have real ammunition, to say 'this is a critical part of education, especially early education.' This doesn't require us to raise gadzillions of dollars, it just requires us to package the data. We need to be slim, trim and as effective as possible, focusing away from constant fundraising and trying to build up our bank account, so we're just doling out the interest. We want to do whatever we can to start connecting people now; connect the need with the resource; monitor the results; and then hopefully, just stay out of the way of that."
Todd was obviously WAY into his Spirit of Harmony Foundation and was filled with hope and great expectations.
Photo Credit: Unknown
Todd has a new electronic dance album, "Global" that came out on April 7th and he is now touring to support it with a DJ and two back-up singers/dancers; no band. Jean Lachowicz told me about the difference in this Todd' album. "The reason 'Global' is so important is that every song is about activism. The lyrics from every song are such calls to action."
"I've been with Todd almost 40 years," Kasim Sulton started up, "and it's been a great time." Sulton has played, sung and consulted with many other artists including Meatloaf, Hall & Oates, Patty Smyth, Patti Smith, The Indigo Girls, The New Cars, Bon Jovi, Celine Dion and Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. He's one of the most respected musicians around. But most of his time in Rock music has been with Todd Rundgren.
I asked Sulton about "Set Me Free," the only Utopia song to chart in the Top 40 in America. "I wrote that song and then the band worked their magic on it; Todd put his production tricks into it. I like singing that song."
One story I came across and wanted to run by Kasim, was the one about Todd, Kasim and Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" album. As I heard it, Meatloaf and his partner, Jim Steinman had been shopping around a series of songs really, that had morphed into an album of sorts. Steinman and Meat Loaf had met while touring with National Lampoon and preparing for "Neverland," a "Peter Pan" treatment and found three songs they thought were great, "Bat Out of Hell," "Heaven Can Wait" and "All Revved Up with Nowhere To Go."
Steinman and Meat Loaf then pursued every record company in existence with no joy whatsoever. They were pathetically rejected by every person they pitched on the album idea. Until the met Todd somehow, who was purported to have said, "I've got to do this album. It's just so out there."
"I played bass on the whole 'Bat Out of Hell' album and sang on two songs," Kasim told me. "We went up to Bearsville (Studios in Woodstock, NY) for two weeks of rehearsal. Todd used his money to make the album and of course, he produced it too." This is how Kasim and Todd were deeply involved in one of the best-selling albums of all-time with 43 million copies sold, that went Platinum fourteen times over. Without Todd, it may never have happened.
Then, I asked Kasim if he had a story about Todd and himself he'd never told before. Very quickly, he offered up, "When we were on one of our first tours, for the album "Ra," I think, we were performing "Singring and the Glass Guitar" which is a 15-minute song. And for this number, Todd scales a 25-foot pyramid, there's all kinds of pyrotechnics and waterfalls. The idea was, that we all took solos and were supposed to represent the four elements, fire, water, earth and wind. Well I was to represent 'wind' and during my solo, there were all kinds of dry ice and fog machines which was to create a windy feel."
"We were in the Midwest, and the crew thought it would be funny to find a tumbleweed, put it in the storage area of the bus, bring it to the show and roll it out on stage during my wind solo. To surprise me. Now, I don't know how much you know about tumbleweeds but they're big, like four to five-feet around, they're heavy and they are full of thorns."
"So they roll this gigantic tumbleweed out on stage; and I can't see anything. So the damn thing attached itself to my leg for the whole rest of the song. I was pissed off. But finally, I laughed about it."
Kasim had a new solo album come out late last year, entitled "3."
"It has Todd, Roger Powell and Willie Wilcox all appear on it together, for the first time I think since 1991," Sulton told me. "It also has Greg Hawkes from The Cars and Andy Timmons on it as well." (Andy Timmons is someone well-known to me as a Dallas-based Stratocaster blaster of great repute.)
"I grew up listening to a lot of Jazz with my Dad. He was a Big Band guy; Harry James and the others, then Krupa came along. I had older sisters who got me into Rock 'n Roll, then I got into Surf music. Finally, I got into Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham and others. I still love Mitchell because of my love for Jimi Hendrix. I loved that Mitchell was a Jazz drummer who could play behind Hendrix."
"I got my first snare drum, a blue-sparkle Ludwig, when I was 10 and started building a set until I was 13. I mowed lawns for a long time to build that first set," Prince laughed heartily and somewhat wearily still.
Photo Credit: Unknown
Though he quickly offered up, "I work with people who have a lot of energy and just seem to keep going, like Todd and Fee Waybill from The Tubes."
The multi-talented Prince doesn't just play drums, oh no. He paints, designs sets for big artists' tours and participates in many aspects of stage design. Much of his artistic pursuits can be seen on his website.
"I met Todd in 1973 when I was painting some of his outfits for his stage performances," Prince began. "We kept in touch after that. In 1978, my band The Tubes were playing at the big concert at Knebworth, England and Todd was there too. Keith Moon of The Who had just died the day before and we wanted to do a tribute to Moon. So we talked to Todd and he ended up coming up to sing 'Baba O'Reilly' into 'The Kids Are Alright' with us. It was so great, The Tubes continued doing those songs occasionally in our future shows." Just to drive home the point as to how unique The Tubes truly are, see this video of them doing 'Baba/Kids' at Winterland in 1978.
Prairie continued, "After Knebworth, Todd produced our Tubes' album 'Remote Control' in 1979 and asked me to come record 'Nearly Human' (1989) with him but I couldn't. He asked me again for his '2nd Wind' album (1991) and that was my first album and tour with Todd."
This Todd tour was deemed "An Unpredictible Evening" tour and as such, Todd selected the songs from the list below at his whim and on the fly.
His setlist for the previous night ended up being this:
Vocalise (Trololo song)
(Eduard Parma, Jr. cover)
Love of the Common Man
I Don't Want to Tie You Down
(Johnny Preston cover)
Black and White
Born to Synthesize
(Ramsey & Fen cover)
Are You Havin' Any Fun
(Tony Bennett cover)
It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference
Song of the Viking
(The Crazy World of Arthur Brown cover)
Kind Hearted Woman Blues
(Robert Johnson cover)
(Lorne Greene cover)
Hello It's Me
Love in Action
The crowd at BB King's was filled with 'True Todd Believers.' These are Rundgren fans who as Todd said above, do not cry out for him to play "Hello, It's Me." They're much more sophisticated than that and typically, I think, are very concerned with big picture issues such as homelessness, world hunger and the weightiest of the planet's problems. Just as Todd is too.
And similarly to other convicted music fans but perhaps to an even greater extent, the Todd' fans I sat with were so up on Todd, all his music and recent activities. They monitor him closely. Their intelligence was impressive.
When Todd hits the stage, first thing is to get the iPad set up.
Once that's done ... he's off to the races.
Some burning Jesse Gress' leads
Kasim's vocals are often underestimated--they shouldn't be
It was very hard to get a decent photo of Prince; he was always in motion
The Sulton-Prince rhythm section lays down the backbone
Jesse Gress takes a lead to the crowd's delight
Todd reciprocates with a few leads of his own
Todd holds court on strategy with his troops
And then decides, that yes, the crowd is right ... he should take a turn behind the keys
Todd played all of his most popular songs during the show, even punctuating the festivities with the sickly, sweet ballad "Muskrat Love" and the jazzy, Mel Torme-ish stylings of other songs that added a definite element of comedy to the proceedings. The diversity of his set was palpable.
Rundgren's stoical sense of humor and dry sense of wit keeps his bandmates riveted and the audience laughing
I was so glad to have seen Todd Rundgren live for the first time that evening. It truly opened my eyes--where they had been shut before--to what an astounding musician ... and truly caring person he is.
All Photo Credits are Bill Robinson except as otherwise noted