Over two nights in Clearwater, Todd Rundgren proved that he’s truly a wizard and still one of rock and roll’s brightest stars

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Todd Rundgren has never been one to stick to conventions. His approach and his ambitiousness for the many musical projects and recordings he’s been involved with for the last fifty years truly set him apart from about all of his contemporaries. And at 73 years old, the Philadelphia-bred singer-songwriter and producer shows no signs of waning from his own idiosyncrasies. 

As witnessed by the two-night stand he led at downtown Clearwater’s Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, Rundgren isn’t the typical rock and roll frontman. His quirky, unconventional approach to his art is a huge reason why his ardent, adoring, and dedicated fanbase has supported and rallied behind him for so many years. For the two back-to-back performances, occurring on Sunday and Monday night, Rundgren gave each and every patron who attended either (or both) shows plenty of reasons to continue to sing his praises.

While postponed due to COVID lockdowns and cancellations, these makeup shows followed the pattern that finds Rundgren performing one of his entire classic albums in its entirely, albeit split up into two separate performances. This jaunt, dubbed “The Individualist/a True Star Tour,” targeted the singer’s 1973 sonic masterwork A Wizard, A True Star which is easily one of the most unorthodox recordings in his vast catalog but, leave it to Todd Rundgren, to tackle this type of project and to pull it off brilliantly. 

Both performances followed the same program: an opening set made up of hits and fan-favorite songs, followed by an intermission and then a second act that highlighted the particular album side being played on that designated night. A flashy intro that included dozens of photos documenting Rundgren’s long career beamed on a projection screen at the rear of the stage set the mood for the jam packed 95-minute set that would follow. Clad in all black as was the dynamic five-piece band that backed him, Rundgren wasted no time in getting things off to a rousing start. Opening with the one-two punch of the dreamy balladry of 1974’s “I Think You Know” followed by the garage rock nugget “Open My Eyes” from his days with his 1960s band The Nazz, Rundgren set the tone for the barrage of superb numbers that would make up the first portion of the show. 

Inserting plenty of comical anecdotes between songs in reference to his 2018 autobiography, “The Individualist: Digressions Dreams and Dissertations,” Rundgren recalled plenty of events from his musical and personal upbringing. His deadpan but always entertaining delivery was present as he led the audience through his adventures as a young musician looking for a hippie crash pad to sleep at, getting his heart broken in high school, his dilemmas with writing rock songs on a guitar versus penning “sappy ballads” (as he referred to them) on a piano, and an around the world trip he embarked on at a particular crossroads of his young life. 

Weaving those yarns carefully and strategically throughout the program helped give many of the songs performed a lot more context. The inspirations for classics like “Hello It’s Me,” “Can We Still Be Friends?” and “We Gotta Get You A Woman” could easily be connected to the life events Rundgren referenced throughout his spoken passages which effectively added more color and substance to the compositions. A particular highlight from the 17-song set was the inclusion of the bouncy, oddball tune “An Elpee’s Worth of Tunes” from 1974’s Todd album. Throughout the delivery, the images appearing on the projection screen flashed a chronological montage of the albums Rundgren has released either as a soloist or with his band Utopia as well as those albums he’s produced for other artists. The dizzying array featured classics like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, the debut album by glam rock pioneers New York Dolls, XTC’s Skylarking, among so many more. Rundgren’s musical trajectory is one that boasts his own triumphs as well as the flavor he’s added to so many great records through his sharp production acumen as well as the visual presentation clearly proved. 

While the opening sets were identical for both shows, the second night found Rundgren a little looser and in stronger vocal terrain. A more energized vibe exuded from the audience members, too; for many numbers, they felt inspired to stand up and dance and to broadcast their vocal approval a little more heartily than the night one crowd did. Rundgren hit more of his high notes a little more effectively during the Monday performance and overall seemed to be more in control of his vocal abilities. 

His band, including multi-talented bassist Kasim Sulton and veteran drummer Prairie Prince perfectly supported Rundgren’s musical rollercoaster of songs and bolstered them by adding perfect, accompanying harmonies for added texture. Multi-faceted keyboardist and horn player Bobby Strickland added plenty of color and depth to the shows and gave the ballad “A Dream Goes on Forever” an added layer of texture thanks to the fancy flute work he added to it. 

The night’s second half dedicated to the tour namesake album somehow eclipsed the opening set. Two very different halves of the featured album showed off all the subtleties and flashes of musical genius that comprise A Wizard, A True Star. Adding to the aural overload was the visual spectacle Rundgren threw in throughout both performances; an array of costume changes added an almost Vaudevillian tone to the presentation. While side one (featured on the first night) is made up of many short, almost fragmented song snippets, Rundgren and his band kept pace perfectly and delivered a faithful recreation of the suite of songs. The standout however was “Zen Archer,” a sweeping mid-tempo tune that strays from the overall short, sharp tone of the album side. 

For side two on night two, the soul medley of cover songs that truly show off Rundgren’s vocal prowess and his reverence for the genre was the crown jewel of the night. Soulfully sailing through Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” and Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby” is no easy feat, but Rundgren pulled them off flawlessly. The medley’s closer, “Cool Jerk,” originally released by R&B group The Capitols in 1966, got the entire theater up on its feet and bopping along. 

Lucky for the audience, one of Rundgren’s lengthier costume changes afforded bassist Kasim Sulton to take the vocal lead on “Does Anybody Love You?” which earned him a hearty and well-deserved ovation from the crowd. 

Ending the set with what’s arguably the best song from the album, “Just One Victory” was the ideal way to wrap up this spectacular two-night stint. The message and the tone of the song was the perfect way to end this ambitious, dynamic run of concerts. 

While this type of multi-performance stint might be daunting or difficult for many artists to pull off in such grand and audacious style, Todd Rundgren made it happen naturally, comfortably and with plenty of style and panache. The artist hasn’t lost a single thing in terms of performance, delivery, and impressive guitar chops and these two shows more than proved he’s still a rock and roll force. 

A wizard and a true star indeed.—Gabe Echazabal

| Photos by Caesar Carbajal