There are more than a dozen Todd Rundgrens, and the majority of them showed up to perform an at times transcendent set before a throng at Canalside on Thursday.
Since emerging at the tail-end of the ’60s, Rundgren has been guitar hero; producer extraordinaire; singer/songwriter of considerable repute; progressive rock icon; audiovisual maverick; power-pop wizard; one-man band; hard rocker; R&B singer; electronic music iconoclast; and even a rapper. Never content to stay in one place, Rundgren’s restless creativity has earned him the respect of his peers and a worldwide cult following. It has also ensured that he would never really conquer the mainstream: a price Rundgren has always appeared ready and willing to pay.
Thursday’s show, which found Rundgren joined by longtime compatriots Kasim Sulton (bass, vocals), Prairie Prince (drums, vocals), and Jessie Gress (guitar,vocals) and John Faranscyk (keyboards) was billed as “An Evening With Todd Rundgren,” and the set list reflected this theme.
He culled tunes from just about every period of his storied and incredibly variegated career, save his face-melting prog-rock workouts with Utopia. He took to the stage to the prog-pop tones of “Real Man,” his late ’70s manifesto from the “Initiation” album. This is a tough tune, with beaucoup chord changes and tons of high notes in the vocal melody. Typical Todd to open with this – he was rough at first, but by the second chorus, he’d nailed it.
Rundgren is an incredibly soulful vocalist, but he’s also a man for whom a classical sense of pitch is important. So second tune “Love of the Common Man” found Todd narrowing in on the sweet spots in his voice, while Sulton and Gress delivered spot-on vocal harmony.
The crowd by this point realized that Rundgren was playing the first two tunes from his epic and epochal “Back to the Bars” album in order and responded with enthusiasm.
Rundgren then started digging deep, pulling out the anthemic “Buffalo Grass” – after which he quipped, “Yeah, I wrote that one earlier today, just for you guys” – before digging into the deep cut “Determination,” a power pop/new wave chestnut from his “The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect” album.
A tender, crowd sing-along “Can We Still Be Friends,” a jet-fueled calypso in the form of “Espresso (All Jacked Up),” and a gorgeous, gospel-tinged “Love Is the Answer” followed, and by this point, Rundgren’s voice was in full virtuoso force, his deep vibrato and elegant falsetto doing battle for the hearts of the crowd.
A trilogy of Motown-era tunes gave Rundgren a chance to strut his considerable R&B chops, and when the singer tore into his life-affirming and career-defining “Hawking,” well, if there was a dry eye in the house, it wasn’t behind my glasses. Wow. This song is a tour de force, and on Thursday, Rundgren embodied this description of artistic visitation with a mind-blowing blend of emotion and virtuosity.
Rundgren’s set at Canalside knows one rival among the shows I’ve seen this summer concert season – the Flaming Lips gig at Artpark. Hats off to anyone capable of topping this. Fans are fond of saying, “Todd is god.” I don’t know about that. But he’s a constellation worth steering by.
Opener Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds did what they do every time they come to Buffalo – they tore it up and then tore it down, bringing New Orleans funk and dirty South blues to bear on some seriously well-crafted tunes.
Front woman Arleigh Kinicheloe brought elegance, soulfulness and raw sensuality to the stage and sang beautifully throughout.