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Stage Buzz Review and Photo Gallery: Todd Rundgren Clearly Human Livestream from Chicago

| March 1, 2021

Todd Rundgren February 26th (Photo: Jim Snyder)

Todd Rundgren

Clearly Human Virtual Tour

Private Venue, Chicago, IL

Friday, February 26, 2021

Review by Jeff Elbel

Photos by Jim Snyder


Celebrated innovator and musical polymath Todd Rundgren is conducting his 25-date “Clearly Human” tour entirely from an unnamed theater in Chicago. Each show has featured all of the songs from 1989’s Nearly Human album (featuring single “For the Want of a Nail”) and has been specifically targeted to the audience in a different city, with a geo-fenced internet feed. Tonight’s show was dedicated to the tour’s host city.

Rundgren took the stage in a black and shimmering gold suit, flanked by a 10-piece band. Michele Rundgren was present on background vocal alongside other longtime partners including drummer Prairie Prince of the Tubes and Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton.

The set emphasized emotive R&B-pop crooners like “Parallel Lines,” whether drawn from Nearly Human or elsewhere. The show opened with the blue-eyed soul of the 1975 album Initiation’s “Real Man,” spiced with trumpet and Bobby Strickland’s saxophone.

Rundgren thanked the local and virtual audience in the City of Big Shoulders. “My kind of town,” he added. “Let’s not waste any time,” said Rundgren, calling for more joyful noise as the band launched Utopia’s “Secret Society.” Rundgren took the first of several deft solos on his familiar seafoam green guitar dubbed “Foamy.”

Next came the sublime R&B pop of A Capella single “Something to Fall Back On.” Rundgren delivered a spirited performance and hit soulful high notes despite a rough throat during some of the earlier numbers. There were a few pesky vocal cracks during the soulful “Compassion” and elsewhere, but the singer’s voice gained power and finesse as the show progressed.

Audience shots revealed a limited and socially distanced crowd of 19 fans physically present who were separated by dedicated monitors showing a scattering of virtual audience members. Most of the virtual participants could be glimpsed singing along vivaciously from home, although some made the odd attempt to draw special attention. “Somebody’s got a nice bagel,” noted Rundgren at one point, in response to a fan who had indeed been waving his snack throughout the previous song. A dazzling light show and John Deeney’s sharp camera direction made for a polished presentation throughout the generous 23-song set.

Although he spent much of the show as a stage-prowling frontman in command of his top-notch ensemble, Rundgren also took regular opportunities to display his own instrumental prowess. “Foamy is an essential part of the show,” he said. “We will attempt to justify his presence right now,” he said introducing the urgent “Unloved Children.” The song also featured Eliot Lewis’ chugging piano and a hot Bobby Strickland saxophone solo.

“We haven’t done a whole lot of rocking, so we’re going to bundle all of the rocking into one song,” Rundgren said, launching a rowdy version of Utopia’s “Love in Action.” The band stopped for a freeze-frame pose late in the song, defying one of the “you can’t stop it” lyrical hooks.

During “Can’t Stop Running,” Rundgren kept pace while dancing laps around the stage. He returned the guitar chores to longtime sideman Bruce McDaniel for a skyscraping solo.

Befitting the tour’s virtual stop in its host city, Rundgren announced a very special guest and welcomed Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “Since we don’t often get an opportunity like this, we’re going to call an audible in the show,” said Rundgren. “We don’t know how long we have her.” The band then deviated from the standard tour set list for an uplifting version of “Just One Victory” from landmark album A Wizard, A True Star. During the song, the camera swung to show the masked Lightfoot swaying and clapping along. The mayor wore a Rundgren concert t-shirt beneath her sport jacket.

Next came a sonic curveball with the theatrical musical number “The Smell of Money” from unproduced stage musical project Up Against It. After dancing a one-man tango across the stage, Rundgren dedicated his avaricious character’s song to Texas senator Ted Cruz.

Sulton’s reliable but understated bass propelled the pensive “God Said.” “There’s no anger in me, you must mean someone else,” sang Rundgren as the reprimanding Creator. “I don’t play favorites, just get over yourself.”

The atmosphere became festive again during “Scientist of Love.” “There is not enough booty-shaking funk music in the world right now,” said Rundgren. The celebratory song featured James Brown-styled shouts, brass-led punctuation, another big sax break from Strickland, and Prince’s taut beat. The sound was reminiscent of Talking Heads’ “The Great Curve” from the Stop Making Sense film.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Todd Rundren (Photo Danielle Dolan)

Rundgren made another pensive turn with “Change Myself” from 1991’s 2nd Wind. The song was recast to reflect the troubles of modern times. “I want to change the world, I want to make it well,” he sang. “How can I change the world if I can’t change myself?”

“Can We Still Be Friends” and Utopia’s “Rock Love” marked additional fan favorites. “Choose your heroes, choose them well,” warned Rundgren in the latter.

Fog bathed stage during “Hawking,” an idealistic song expressing desire to know the unknown and see beyond the veil, only to conclude that the meaning of life is manifested in how well we take care of each other. “Let’s dream together, people,” Rundgren sang.

Nearly Human’s signature track “For the Want of a Nail” brought the main set to conclusion with bristling R&B pop. Rundgren was capably abetted by Sulton’s background vocals in addition to the three women shimmying in sparkling mini-dresses and singing on their riser behind the bassist.

Rundgren returned for an encore in a custom-made Blackhawks jersey with his name on the back. “One of the great benefits of going on tour is the swag you get,” he quipped. After band introductions, the group played the Nazz hit “Hello, It’s Me Again.” “In a world of uncertainty, I’m certain you know the words to this one,” Rundgren said, coaxing the willing crowd and fans at home to sing along with the song’s familiar “It’s important to me” bridge.

Rundgren darted offstage and reappeared in a spangled church choir robe to lead the rousing positivity of “I Love My Life.” He ad-libbed a sermon that discouraged indulging in hatred and negativity. “Every time I see your face, I get more happy,” he exclaimed. “There is beauty in the world!”

In a lengthy season typified by division and isolation, the parting message was well-placed. While many people wait for their literal shot in the arm, Rundgren’s “Clearly Human” tour provides a spiritual inoculation that encourages us to reclaim our humanity. Rundgren and his excellent band circumvented trying circumstances for touring artists and tapped into the power of music to exceed mere entertainment. It was an exemplary night of artful expression and community.

As for the host city’s busy Mayor, Lightfoot was glimpsed celebrating the final notes of the show alongside everyone else in attendance. Rundgren had her until the very end.


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