At the beginning of On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn return to their summer home. It's an annual pilgrimage that is both warm and familiar, as well as cold and dispiriting. As each year passes, everything becomes a little less everything. Lots of dust and some cobwebs, a few more broken frames, both door and picture, and squeaks that come from machines that need oil. The look on Fonda's face when he first turns on the lights seems to ask, "Here again? What's the point?," as he gazes around at the same old furniture and musty books. Yet minutes after their arrival, the sound of the loons wakes them up to realize, they are home again. They fall right in as if they never left.
This describes my relationship with Todd Rundgren. I am now on my 34th year of seeing him in concert. Some years I'd see him 6-8 times. I've flown from NYC to San Francisco to New Orleans and back, with no other purpose than to see the man live. It's something that me and a few friends have done ritually for years, and the older we get, the more we resemble Henry Fonda & Katherine Hepburn. The memories and familiarity always seem to outweigh the cold hard fact that it just isn't the same anymore. But at the Tarrytown Music Hall, once we "turned on the lights," or more accurately, when the lights went down, Todd Rundgren launched into one of the most inspired performances I have seen in years. We were home.
Touring behind his brand new release "Arena," Todd was armed and ready. I've listened to "Arena" a dozen times and each time I've felt differently. I'm mostly disappointed by it's sound and not the content. Rundgren's a legendary producer who has made magic for everyone from Meatloaf and XTC to Patti Smith and the New York Dolls, yet his own records sound slapdash. As one friend so brilliantly put it, "His records sound like the example recordings that come with recording equipment. He seems to be up on all the new gear and gadgets, but it sounds like he keeps them at the factory setting and doesn't tweak them to make them sound like himself. Wasn't he supposed to be The Individualist?"
Last night, with a band that included Rachel Haden on bass, veteran Tubes drummer Prairie Prince and Todd's long time right hand man, Kasim Sulton on keyboards and vocals, the songs from "Arena" exploded with a mightiness that is missing from the studio recordings.
Everything was working during the 100 minute set. The patented Todd harmonies were there, as well as some of Todd's best guitar work since the mid-seventies. "Arena" was played from head to tail, flanked by such faves as "Love In Action," "I Saw The Light," "Couldn't I Just Tell You," and the traditional closer, "Just One Victory," aka the "Utopian National Anthem." It all seemed so right, like the classic shows from Wollman Rink in NYC's Central Park, or the Agora in Cleveland.
I must admit, right on up to showtime, I was questioning just why I'd come back here. The set lists haven't changed much since 1995. Todd has been known to not only phone it in live as of late, but to sometimes just barely give a crap at all. Did I need that from someone I've been so loyal to for so long? The answer is YES! Rundgren is a musician first and a legend for good reason. Take the word of someone who has seen Todd Rundgren live more times than he's visited his mother, if he comes to your town, go say hello and pick up "Arena," while you're at it. This is a show not to be missed.