During the Age of Coronavirus, musicians have struggled to find the best way to get live music to fans across the world. Audiences have seen everything from blurry solo iPhone videos in living rooms to professional, multi-camera shot, full band concerts in empty theaters. But leave it to multimedia genius Todd Rundgren to perhaps figure out how Concert Tours of the Future will look with his upcoming virtual Clearly Human Tour.
“I didn’t do acoustic versions of songs in front of the fireplace because I didn’t want dumb down expectations for myself or my audience,” Rundgren says in a Zoom video interview from his home. “When I do a show, it’s a full on commitment. I didn’t want to just throw people a sop.”
The boundary-pusher and musical chameleon has a deep resumé at the forefront of the intersections between technology, computers, video, the internet, and music. Rundgren had been pondering how to pull off something like this for years. And it’s largely because of airports.
“I was terrorized in airports, trying to get to gigs and waiting for flights that would get delayed later and later and later. Then I have some weird game of tag with my travel agent going to different gates! And then the show is cancelled,” he says. “And the weather is just getting more and more relentless with hurricanes and floods and fires. Then when the pandemic hit, you have to think if the audience even make it to a gig!”
The Clearly Human Tour will consist of 25 “dates” running from February 14-March 22, with each show performed by Rundgren and his band live from a Chicago venue. The $35 ticket purchase will use computer “geofencing” to limit audiences to in and around the city (though multi-city packages open to all will also be available). To make things more localized, city-specific photos and graphics will show behind the band, and backstage catering will reflect local cuisine.
“Backstage, we’ll set clocks to the local time and put up posters of landmarks and get some local newspapers and catering shipped in from that town and encourage the audience to patronize the place,” he says. “The local component is very important to the performance.”
Add-on packages include a virtual Meet and Greet with Rundgren, the ability to choose different camera angles, and have themselves appear onscreen in a visible virtual audience. And a total of 19 tickets will be available for each date for audience members to physically attend the show in Chicago. The tour will also have a COVID protocol officer on hand to test band and crew daily.
The tour’s title takes its inspiration and partial title from Rundgren’s 1989 album Nearly Human, which the band will perform in its entirety, and is being reissued on CD and vinyl. Its themes of chasing love, seeking spiritual fulfillment and purpose, and how an individual person or incident can have wide-ranging consequences has only grow more prescient in the past 30 years.
It’s also an album of big sounds and many singers and instruments, something that Rundgren admits would be more difficult to take on the road with the amount of people and trucking for instruments and stage sets.
The original album was recorded live with no overdubs, and Rundgren admits at the time it had a specific goal in mind. “I wanted to reinvent myself as an R&B singer. I was a fan and could sing it, but I had never done a record where I was that in my head,” Rundgren says. “So everything was written to advance that objective. And we had gospel!”
He adds that while some of his current band also played on the Nearly Human, they’ll still be learning to do songs that haven’t been performed in more than three decades. “Hopefully, if their muscle memory is there, it will all come back!” Rundgren laughs. “But these are all top class musicians, and I’m pretty picky about who I hire.” In addition to the entirety of Nearly Human, Rundgren says there will be plenty of other material in the shows both from his long discography and the hit songs he knows people want to hear.
The band will include Kasim Sulton (bass), Prairie Prince (drums), Eliot Lewis (keys), Gil Assayas (synth), Bruce McDaniel (guitar), Bobby Strickland (sax), Steven Stanley (trombone), plus the erstwhile “Global Girls:” Michele Rundgren, Grace Yoo, and Ashle Worrick (background vocals).
There’s also some unexpected Sounds of the Season going on in Todd Rundgren news, as he recently released his first holiday-themed single. “Flappie—A Holiday Fable” is a cover of a 1978 novelty tune by Dutch comedian Youp van ’t Hek. It’s about a boy and a pet and a family Christmas tradition and…well…let’s just say the tale has more in common with the works of EC Comics than Clement Clarke Moore.
Rundgren explains that his label wanted him to do a Christmas song, but he’s the self-professed “least Christmassy guy in the world” and it’s his least favorite holiday. That led him down a rabbit hole on Google, until he came across the song. Further research uncovered only a live video to learn it from, and he also had to work a bit on the translation/interpretation to English.
Outside of his solo career, the lifelong Beatles fanatic has done several stints with Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band, including the last (and longest-serving) lineup that also included Greg Rolie (Santana/Journey), Steve Lukather (Toto), and Richard Page (Mr. Mister). Rolie and Lukather have both told the Houston Press how even after so many shows, they still couldn’t believe they were onstage playing Beatles songs with an actual Beatle.
“Ringo just fell in love with this band, so we just kept going out. One year, I was on the road for ten months between his band and my solo shows. But [the setlist] barely changed, and that drove me crazy. But to get to play ‘Yellow Submarine’ with Ringo? Wow," he offers. "It was a great bunch of guys, I got to go to places in the world I never would otherwise. There was no ‘weird guy’ that everyone had tiptoe around. Though I got a lot of back stories about other guys over the years that were like that!”
He also had some relationship with another Beatle, George Harrison, via his completely full companion career as a producer. Over the years, Rundgren has been behind the board for acts ranging from Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, Hall and Oates, and Cheap Trick to the Tubes, XTC, and Bad Religion.
In 1972, Rundgren was brought in to finish the Badfinger album Straight Up after Harrison’s own attentions turned to producing his Concert for Bangla Desh shows. But despite the amount of work Rundgren put into it both producing songs from scratch and working on others in various stages of completion, Harrison controversially retained sole named production credit when the album came out. It spawned two of the band’s biggest hits in “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue.”
The latter rose to prominence again in 2013 when, like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ for the Sopranos, it featured prominently at the end of the series finale of Breaking Bad.
“’Baby Blue’ was the first song I did with the band, and from scratch when I got to London. They had already been through the wringer and done a whole album with [engineer] Geoff Emerick [that was rejected by the label] and five or six songs with George,” Rundgren recalls. “I was hired because I had a reputation of no nonsense in the studio. They weren’t crazy about me, but we finished the record, I took the tapes back home and mixed it at Woodstock, then sent them back to England.”
When Rundgren was hired to do similar duties on the Badfinger’s follow-up record, the relationship only lasted to the second session. “I showed up, and they fired me! I think one thing they didn’t like is that I wasn’t English. And didn’t want to go out to the pub drinking with them,” he says.
As the Zoom interview winds down, Classic Rock Brother Jamie—a Todd Rundgren obsessive and audio-tech geek—asks a couple of deep dive gearhead and album questions that Rundgren clearly appreciates. There are also cameo appearances by Rundgren’s son Rebop and wife Michele in the background of his screen. But he has one piece of advice for us before shutting off his camera phone.
“Let’s do this again!” he says. “And get your vaccine!”
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