The Saban Theater

Beverly Hills, California | Wednesday,  November 26, 2014

By Chris Epting
Photos by Charles Epting

For the last couple of years, rock Renaissance man Todd Rundgren has billed his solo tours under the banner of “Unpredictable.” It’s an interesting word when you consider how much it defines the artist’s career. Since the late 1960s, he has delighted, confused, confounded, frustrated and dazzled legions of fans and critics alike. As both an artist and producer he has juggled a seemingly endless, kaleidoscopic array of projects that span a myriad of genres and styles.

But it’s as a master pop craftsman that most of the mainstream recognizes Rundgren, on the strength of radio hits such as “Hello, It’s Me” and “Can We Still Be Friends.”

That said, most of the mainstream has never been a concern for this self-styled provocateur, whose prodigious talents and curiosity have always seemed to drive him away from what most people expect of him.

And for all of the rigidly (sometimes brilliantly) themed tours over the years, “Unpredictable” shows seem to represent a natural, unplanned sweet spot for the mercurial maestro.

After all, what could possibly go wrong when Rundgren plays fast and loose with the spontaneous and fluid set list each night, touching upon all the most popular phases of his career while also folding in layers of strange and wondrous musical moments that give his set incongruous flashes of blinding, almost hallucinogenic detours?

Ramsey and Fen’s (popularized by Captain and Tennille) “Muskrat love?”

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown‘s “Fire?”

Clarence Carter‘s angsty southern ode, “Patches?

Check, check and check. Every night, something different, weird and usually wonderful.

At the tour’s final show, Rundgren and company opened with a careening cover of Cheap Trick’s “Hello there.”

And there was no looking back.

Since the early 1970s, Rundgren has peppered his shows with clever, ironic sometimes-acerbic monologs. “Unpredictable” shows allow him to expand his stories, given their open-ended nature. Like Frank Zappa and a handful of others, Rundgren has always been particularly adept at skewering the whole nature of what it is to be a rock star while also letting the audience in on his own personal jokes. At this stage of his career, he seems especially comfortable with his raps, taking time to set the tone of the show while also wandering off in ways that no scripted set would ever allow.

Not unlike his solo shows in the early 1980s, Rundgren pulls plenty of gems from solo albums including “Something/Anything?,” “A Wizard, a True Star, “Faithful,” “Initiation,” “Healing” and “Liars.” A few tunes from his old band Utopia are also incorporated, but Rundgren seemed to have the most fun when tackling some of the rarities mentioned above, along with the old? And the Mysterians nugget “96 Tears (which Utopia used to cover) and the weirdly charming Soviet pop tune “Trololo” which found fame as a meme earlier this year.

Rundgren also reinvents some of his own classics. “I Saw the Light” is played bossa nova style as performed on his album “With a Twist.” And “Born to Synthesize,” originally realized as a stark bit of futuristic a cappella, now swings to life as a jazzy, beatnik-inspired vamp.

To make a show like this work requires a number of special elements. First of which, you’ve got a have a band that you trust and Rundgren’s reliable lineup of former Utopian Kasim Sulton on bass, the TubesPrairie Prince on the drums and the infinitely inventive Jesse Gress on guitar form the perfect musical foundation that allows Rundgren to run wild.

The next thing you need is a performer who’s not afraid to take chances, and risk a little bit of dignity by throwing himself into potentially silly situations. Rundgren is more than up to the challenge.

But perhaps the most necessary ingredient is the well-honed performance skills and savvy showbiz chops of a Todd Rundgren. His feel for theatrics and the ability to deliver with a seasoned voice that still evokes an almost indescribable blend of soul, empathy, humanity and is why all of this hangs together as well as it does. For all the fun he has, rakishly riffing through an oddball hit parade, it’s when he sits at the piano to wend his way through emotionally tinged epics like “Compassion,” “Past” and “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” that you get a true sense of just how deep his musical skill set is.

He makes all the songs in the night sound right and feel right not just because he is crafty and conditioned, but because he is Todd Rundgren. And goof as he might when deconstructing “Muskrat Love” in his longest rap of the night, there’s a reason many in the theater felt a goosebump here and there when he wrapped himself around it.

No matter what the material, it’s just what he does. That, thankfully, is all quite predictable.

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Anything But Predictable | Todd Rundgren
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