Todd Rundgren has been eligible for enshrinement into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1995, but don’t expect his name to land among the nominees anytime soon. In his own words, Jann Wenner’s house of horrors has become “a very political thing that will one day run out of legitimate artists to induct,” a dystopian possibility that appears to be drawing closer with each passing year. Alan Freed’s definition of rock ‘n’ roll has been diluted to the point that we’ll be listening to Kanye West prattle his way through Beyonce’s induction speech before the man responsible for some of the most far-reaching DIY productions of the 1970s and beyond even gets on the ballot.
The fact that Rundgren couldn’t care less about ever receiving the “honor” only heightens his greatness, because he has far too much going on in the present to worry about what a group of corporately-controlled suits thinks is cool. He tours relentlessly, continues to release new music, and has always known that the act of creating isn’t about whatever fortune or fame one might amass along the way. Besides, Wenner himself was once accused of siding with the establishment when he canned critic Jim DeRogatis for writing a negative review of multi-platinum selling band Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1996 album “Fairweather Johnson,” so it’s not as if his opinion really matters all that much.
Sure, Hootie might have crafted the sixteenth-best-selling album of all time in the United States once upon a time, but, compared to Rundgren’s inimitable catalog, whose career would you rather have?
I had the honor of speaking with Rundgren recently to promote his upcoming show at The Riviera Theatre on May 19 and his past WNY shows suggest that it will surely be one for the books. He promises to churn out all the hits you remember exactly the way you remember them, which, in this ever-changing world we live in, may never happen again.
MNOD: Because you have so many amazing songs in your catalog, deciding what gets played live on a nightly basis must be a difficult task. How do you construct the setlist each night?
TR: I actually have a master list of 50 songs that I look at prior to every show and construct the set from there. It usually ends up covering about half of the list, because I often try to guess what people would like to hear. Sometimes it depends on what we played last night or what type of mood I’m in at the time. We do a lot of repeat appearances in certain cities, so we never want anyone to see the same show twice. This is a ‘Greatest Hits’ tour, which means that everyone will get to hear the songs they grew up with played exactly the way they remember.
MNOD: Your career has gone through so many diverse phases that fans are constantly guessing what your next record will sound like. Is there a particular period that you’re partial to?
TR: I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly partial to any of them, really. Of course, there were a couple of records I did near the end of the 1980s, “Second Wind” and “Nearly Human,” that were really fun to do, because they were essentially done live right in the studio. They were made in a very old-fashioned Big Band style without a week of overdubs, so it was a great feeling to go home at the end of the day with a completed song.
MNOD: “Nearly Human” is actually my favorite album of yours. What do you remember about the making of that record specifically?
TR: We had a pretty solid routine back then. We would work on Saturday or Sunday, because I would often spend a week working on a particular arrangement. I would come into the studio with scores of music on actual sheets of paper and we’d rehearse with the band beginning at 10 or 11 in the morning. Then, I would come in later on and work with the singers for a while. Sometimes we’d have certain takes where we’d pick up in the middle of a song, but, for the most part, we finished songs with minimal takes or overdubs. It was a peculiar feeling to be in the position of singing along with the headphones knowing that the version you’re working on will be the version that appears on the album, but it was definitely an exciting time.
DH: You’ve been touring more frequently than you ever did back in 1970s. How do you go about keeping things fresh for both you and the audience?
TR: I’m usually touring behind a new album, so I’ll devise a show to fit around the new material. The reason that I’m out of the road a lot more is that I’m a member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band in addition to doing my own thing. This current lineup of Ringo’s All Starrs has become his ideal combination, so we’re constantly getting back out there year after year. My own tour will wrap up at the end of May and then I’ll immediately head out with them. I’ve been touring nearly 10 months a year for several years now, but now I’m anxious to get my life back. I’ve kind of demanded it back, because, while I can’t control what Ringo does, I can control what I do. I’m also planning to release a new record next year, which is another reason why I’m going to cut back on the tour schedule.
DH: One of the things you’re known to do during shows is take classic songs and rearrange them to fit whatever style your current album happens to be in. How do audiences tend to respond to the change?
TR: Some people love it and some people only want to hear them played the way they were originally recorded. I’d be perfectly happy if I never played “Hello, it’s Me” or “Bang the Drum All Day” again, but that’s why I’m doing this Greatest Hits tour. People will get to hear them played exactly the way they remember without the material being altered to suit the theme of a new record. Once this tour is over, I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever play a lot of these songs again, because I’ll be focusing on the new record.
DH: I’ve seen you quite a bit during the last few years and your voice has only gotten stronger. How have you managed to keep your voice in such prime form?
TR: There’s nothing specific I do, really, because I just go out there and perform. Performing and singing isn’t like riding a bicycle, so you can’t expect to just walk out there after a layoff expecting to be in top condition. I think my voice is still solid and sustainable, because I never quit or went into semi-retirement. Tony Bennett is still at the peak of his powers and has never stopping touring either. Age has brought out a lot of interesting qualities to his voice and made him sound even more convincing, which is something that inspires me all the time. It helps to have heroes like that, because getting out there and doing it is the best method for staying sharp.
Todd Rundgren plays The Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, NY on May 19. Showtime is 8:00 p.m.