Saturday, October 31, 2009

Concert Review-Todd At The Spectrum

Philly pop stars rock hard at the Spectrum
By David Hiltbrand


The best deal in town? Friday night's triple bill at the Spectrum: The Hooters, Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates for an admission fee that maxxed out at $6. The deep discount reflected ticket prices in 1967 when the Spectrum first staged concerts.

This concert was billed as "Last Call," as a triumvirate of locally bred pop pastmasters bade an affectionate farewell to the soon-to-be shuttered venue.

The only way this show could have been more Philly-centric was if roaming PennDot crews had been blocking access to the concession stands.

The Hooters set a vibrant tone, from a coiled "Day by Day" to the gyrating tilt-a-whirl of "And We Danced". Frontman Eric Bazilian got a big reaction, during an earnest cover of Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer," when he announced, "This one's for the Phillies."

The night represented the end of an era not just for the building (which will close after four Pearl Jam shows next week) but for the performers as well, all of them in the autumn of their careers.

This could be one of the last times any of them play in a vaunted arena setting. So the stage theatrics were dialed up appropriately with lots of hair tossing and fist pumping.

The real revelation was Rundgren who delivered a screaming, squalling broadside of acid rock. It was a thrilling aural flashback.

On songs like "Love in Action", "Strike" and "Couldn't I Just Tell You", he evoked a range of rockers, from Spirit to AC/DC to Robin Trower.

Performing in a two-tone poodle cut and pipe-stem black pants, Rundgren reminisced about his only previous appearance at the Spectrum, opening for Jeff Beck more than a quarter century ago.

Oddly, Rundgren's often brilliant chime-and-thunder set drew the most muted crowd response of the night. Maybe the audience was just pacing itself, saving its huzzahs for the headliners.

What can you say about the Hall & Oates revue? The hits just kept coming, from the puma prowl of "Maneater" to the jump-and-shout syncopation of "You Make My Dreams."

The simpler songs, like "She's Gone" and "Sara Smile" were the best showcases for Hall's supple and appealing voice.

But the group also sounded good when allowed some elbow room, as on a sprawling "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)". It featured an extended sax solo from Charlie DeChant who, even in an eye-popping cranberry suit, looks like Pierre Robert's father.

Unfortunately, the volume for Hall & Oates performance, particularly on the microphones, was boosted beyond the amplifiers' capacity. It saddled their sound with a stridency that belied the sweetness of the material.

After a brief intermission, the headliners returned with a remarkable bonus round, a stroll down the city's musical heritage trail.

First they brought our Charlie and Richie Ingui of the Soul Survivors for a raucous cover of their 1967 classic "Expressway to Your Heart".

After Bazilian and Rob Hyman of the Hooters joined the merrymakers, Hall enlisted Rundgren's help for a soul cavalcade, made up of "Back Stabbers", "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" and "Love Train".

Apparently drunk with its own power, the all-star band swung into "Disco Inferno" for a final encore. Maybe you had to be there.

Maybe you should have been there for this spirited revival meeting.

For many people in this city, the Spectrum wasn't a sports palace as much as it was rock n' roll church. On Friday, the high priests of Philly pop conducted some righteous last rites.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Q&A With Todd Rundgren

From article by Jonathan L. Fischer.

Todd Rundgren, you may be surprised to learn, doesn’t own a cell phone.

This fact might be unremarkable, except that an embrace of new technologies is the only unifier of this pop eccentric’s winding, four-decade career. As a prolific recording artist and producer, Rundgren was an early adapter of the synthesizer, and one of the first to realize its pop-music possibilities. On his mid-’70s solo albums and with his prog outfit Utopia, he pushed the limits of how much music an LP could hold. His Dali-loving 1981 video for “Time Heals” was the first to employ computer graphics; several of his mid-’90s albums were CD-ROMs; and he was an innovator of the internet as a music-distribution tool.

“I’m kind of selective about the technology I adapt for my lifestyle,” Rundgren said in a phone interview last week (he borrowed a friend’s). He was in Cleveland, rehearsing for his current tour, on which he’s reproducing in full his 1973 magnum opus A Wizard, A True Star. Rundgren and his band will perform the album at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night.

“I suppose the first thing that caused me to make such a decision,” he said with a booming chuckle, “was observing the way people behave with cell phones—in dangerous ways, in anti-social ways. Cellphones can lead to a sort of self-importance, and I’m self-important enough already.”

At the very least, the man has chutzpah.

How else to account for A Wizard, A True Star, a sprawling, iconoclastic stream of consciousness that detonated Rundgren’s career as “the male Carole King?” With 19 tracks over 55 minutes—some songs are only a minute long; the longest is 10—the 1973 album more or less earned Rundgren mainstream excommunication, but it also attracted a devoted fanbase. “I was coming off the most successful recordings of my career, and there were a lot of people anxious to put me into a certain niche,” he said. “That was only because [my radio singles] were piano-oriented in an age that Carole King and Elton John were becoming successful.”

So when he entered his New York studio in 1972, he swore his next album would be “anti-formal”—not just a rejection of his fans’ expectations, but of prevailing notions of pop music, as well. “I was producing records for a number of people”—albums by The Band, Badfinger, and The New York Dolls—“and I wanted to do as much as I could do in the studio.” That didn’t just mean synthesizers. A Wizard, A True Star has tracks that seem to start without a beginning and finish without an end; a song lifted from Peter Pan and a medley of bubblegum-soul standards; finicky, operatic metal; and between it all, a generous helping of Brill Building-style pop.

Part of Rundgren’s strategy, he said, was looking to pop’s past, as well as its future. “ I think all musicians have a wider range of interest in music than what they exhibit,” he said. “So it’s just as legitimate to pay homage to the Marx Brothers and Gilbert and Sullivan and Maurice Ravel and Stephen Sondheim as Carole King and Elton John.” Rundgren grew up in Upper Darby, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, and that city’s soul music also is integral to the album’s musical DNA.

As for pop’s future? “I came to the realization that we should look at the LP as completely unmapped space you can fill in any way you want,” he said. “Each song doesn’t have to be three minutes. It can be one minute, it can be five minutes, it can be eight minutes. And it doesn’t have to have a chorus and a verse; it can start abruptly, it can have found sounds. So the whole exercise for me was trying to map the—I won’t call it disorder—a more colorful range that comes from your head.” The point was to re-create on record the process of thinking about music—or how it feels, as Rundgren said, to “remember songs in pieces and then figure them out.”

For all its tight sequencing, the album was recorded quickly, Rundgren said. And although he was using the studio as an instrument, Rundgren said, he never let the electronics take over. Part of his approach to technology, then and now, “is trying to find a way that you can get a handle on it and use it to advance a nontechnological agenda,” he said. “You’re not using technology for its own sake. Kraftwerk discovered synths and said, ‘let’s sound like robots now.’ But I came from being a guitar player—I was always preferential to the organic nature of the guitar.”

Rundgren declined to reveal too much about the current set of shows, save that he’s restored the costumes from the album’s original tour—think Ziggy Stardust, but more neurotic—and beefed up the visual components. “It’s what I would have done at the time if there had been the demand,” he said. In other words, expect strange and theatrical.

Rundgren put it much better: “This is a cross between Las Vegas and a party.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Wizard, A True Star Live After 35 Years

Todd Rundgren's wildly eclectic career is such that even his devoted fans may only know part of what the man has achieved over the years, from his days with the Nazz, to producing everyone from the New York Dolls to Grand Funk Railroad to Meatloaf to Patti Smith to XTC, to blowing lots of progressive minds with the group Utopia, to foreseeing massive technological changes in the music business before just about anyone else.

On Todd's latest project, he's brought one of his finest and most completely trippy album A Wizard, A True Star to theatrical life for an ambitious series of shows in five states, with a DVD and CD release scheduled for next year.

I was one of the faithful who was there for the "tour" opener in Akron, Ohio. A good time was had by all. If you haven't listened to Todd lately, pick up his latest release, "Arena" and turn it up LOUD.

Rundgren took a few minutes out of his busy rehearsal schedule to chat with Gimme Noise, and I'm posting the brief interview here (and hopefully not violating any copyright laws in the process).

On your current tour, you are playing your record A Wizard, A True Star from start to finish at each show. Where did you get the idea for this project?

It was actually an idea of my British promoter, who was noting the fact that some younger artists, particularly electronic and turntable artists in Europe had discovered the record and were citing it as an influence and using samples off of it. So he thought that mounting an event around the record would be a good way to induce a younger crowd to come check it out.

You just performed the entire album live for the first time last week in Ohio. What was that experience like?

It was more than just doing the record, or the show that now accompanies the music. It was more like some sort of homecoming. Apparently they haven't had this many people show up in Akron in the last 30 years for any sort of event. We almost completely took over the town. [laughs] There was so much good will behind the whole thing that we almost could do wrong, regardless of what actually did go wrong -- and there were a lot of things that went wrong. It's one of those things that by the time we've got it all right, it's going to be nearly done. We'll be technically proficient at it for the next time that we go out. For this tour we have so many aspects to address that aren't usually in my productions -- we've got video projection, special effects lighting, things like that, as well as the dozen or so costume changes that I have to undergo under the course of an hour's worth of music.

Wow, a dozen costumes?

Well it wouldn't really work to simply play the music. Most of the people who are familiar with the record have sort of a mental movie that accompanies it. It's not the same for everybody, but the music evokes imagery, just naturally. And so I have to theatricalize it, in order to meet those expectations. If all we did was play it, it would be far less entertaining than if it's acted out as well.

Is it true that some of the costumes are from the original 1973 tour?

Yeah, we had some in our possession, and then we put out a call to the fans -- I had an estate sale a couple years ago when I moved away from Woodstock, and a lot of costumes were bought by fans. So we essentially put out a call and recovered some of them, and refurbished the ones that we had. So some of them are original costumes from back in the mid-'70s. And some don't fit anymore, and I can't possibly wear them. [laughs]

I read a review of the Akron show that said that you also played an opening set with your Utopia bandmates. Will you be playing Utopia songs at the Minneapolis show?

We're not calling it Utopia -- we don't want to raise people's expectations to that point. It's just because Roger [Powell] and Kasim [Sulton] are in the A Wizard, A True Star orchestra, and the A Wizard, A True Star album is only an hour's worth of music, so we had to have some sort of opening act. And since the three of us were there, we thought well, we know this music, it's music we don't have to learn from scratch, let's be our own opening act and play some Utopia songs because people like to hear those songs.

In the process of revisiting an album that was made over 35 years ago, are you tempted to tweak the songs, or do you try to stay faithful to the recording?

We've tried to remain as faithful as possible. I went back and essentially deconstructed the original master tapes so that we could see what all was going on in the chaos. And discovered a lot of stuff. Now it isn't possible for us, with only six people in the band, to cover every single sound that was made, but we have covered all the significant aspects of it. There was never any concept of rearranging them or anything like that. They're difficult enough to learn in their original form. And that's been the challenge for the week of rehearsal that we had before the first gig.

You were quoted recently as saying that A Wizard, A True Star was the beginning of your "real career as a musician." Can you explain that further?

I was always something of an experimentalist in the studio, and included some of these weird little asides even on my previous records, but most of the content of my previous records was me trying to find myself as a songwriter and singer, and it involved a lot of imitation of other artists, in a way. But mostly of the kind of popular song form that everyone was working in. I began to realize that this was an arbitrary limitation, and that I wasn't taking advantage of the other possibilities of, first of all, what could be placed on an LP, on a vinyl record, and also what could be done in the studio. So I determined that I was going to build my own studio to record this record, and then I consciously started deconstructing all of my habits, my songwriting habits and such. So what the album eventually represented was a more accurate view of who I really was, musically. I was no longer attempting to imitate other people all the time. I was certainly paying homage to a lot of my influences still during that record, but basically I felt that I had made some sort of a breakthrough in getting my personality down into the grooves. From that point on, I felt like I was more on my own path and less on the path that everyone else was on. And anyone who was my fan from that point on, they were more truly familiar with me and what I was trying to do.

That seems like it could be a rough transition, venturing out on your own. Were you nervous to make such a big change?

No, I never thought about that. The advantage that I had was that I was producing a lot of records for other people, and that was my living. So when I made my own records, I didn't have to have the same sort of economic considerations that a lot of other artists had to factor into their records. A lot of the artists would have to fear that the record would not sell enough or would not have a single on it to promote it. And those things never occurred to me. [laughs] I didn't have to be afraid of [my records] failing. I only had to be afraid of them failing in terms of my own vision.

As your music has evolved over the years, I imagine that critics have labeled you a lot of different things.

No. Because it's so confusing, what I do, that the critics don't bother to keep up with it. Critics don't really like to have to review my records. They don't have the measuring tools they need. Most of my records are pretty much ignored, critically. And that doesn't bother me either. I realize that I've got my audience, and the way that I'm going to increase my audience is to continue to play to my audience. And they'll go out and do the work of finding other listeners. The same way that you've been indoctrinated by your dad. [laughs] Now it's become trans-generational. There's a lot of younger fans showing up because they've been infected by their parents.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Stryper have always been a little too over the top eighties metal for me. While I have all of their albums, and "Honestly" (from To Hell With The Devil) and "Always There For You" (from In God We Trust) are two of my favorite songs ever, I could never really say I liked the albums from start to finish. Then they released Against The Law which for me was a solid album all the way through and became my favorite album by the band.

On Reborn (their 2007 comeback album), Stryper became one of the few "hair metal" bands that credibly updated their sound. A solid effort, but it was still a little harder than I'd have preferred. In 2009 the band offers us Murder By Pride.

Well move over, Against The Law , I've got a new favorite Stryper record!

This is a fine record that sees the band incorporating the updated sound of the last record with classic elements from their heyday. Sweet's voice is in excellent form, and the songwriting is excellent, with enough stylistic diversity that should please fans old and new. A cover of "Peace Of Mind" (Boston) gives a little insight into Michael's side project from last summer.

The production is a little rawer than on Reborn, but the songs are more accessible. If there were such a thing as rock radio, there are a couple of tracks that would get rotation.

A solid album with plenty to enjoy. For those of you who do not know, Stryper is a Christian metal band, so lyrically there is a message of faith here. What makes that especially meaningful to me is that one of the band lost his wife of 23 years during the making of this album. If there was ever a time one might question faith it would be now, and yet there is no hesitation in the message of faith here. For inspiration or just to rock the house, I'd encourage giving this album a listen.

Friday, June 26, 2009


The man behind “Green Onions” serves up his first release under his own name in some three decades, and does it with a backing band made up of Neil Young and members of the Drive-By Truckers. After hearing Bettye LaVette’s comeback album (with heavy DBT influence-if you don’t have you really need to buy it), I was really excited by the prospect of this disc.

Truth be told, it doesn’t hold up as well for me, but I think that’s only because I’m so much of a lyric guy. While perhaps not as strong as Booker’s 60’s material, this is a solid collection of funky grooves, and I would recommend it for Booker T fans as well as DBT completists.


You can never go wrong with a concept album!

Five years after their successful “American Idiot” opus made Green Day relevant again, they’re back with another sprawling album full of arena-ready anthems and fiery sing-alongs. Although the lyrics paint a gloomy picture of a harsh reality, there is also an undercurrent of hope runs through as well.

Combining the punk rock energy from “Dookie” and the political awareness of “American Idiot,” Green Day has created an ambitious tale of social dissatisfaction that is a call to arms for the iPod generation.


Once you’ve finished laughing at the name, you can get excited about this super-group featuring a pair of ex-Halen bandmates (Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony), a guitar wizard (Joe Satriani) and a Red Hot Chili Pepper (Chad Smith).

This release features straight ahead rockers with a lot of influences, as you’d expect with the combined resumes of this bunch. The production by Andy Johns captures the loose, raw energy of a bunch of rock’s all stars getting together to jam. With Sammy at the mic, the tunes are arena-ready.

My one complaint is that there’s no obvious single, but does not stop the album from rocking hard and making for a very satisfying listen. A must for fans of Hagar-era Van Halen and recommended for rockers of all ages.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


My prejudice towards covers albums has been fairly well documented in my blogs. Imagine how I feel about the Smithereens, one of my favorite bands, pretty much becoming a covers band? They’ve done two Beatles covers albums, Pat DiNizio did a Buddy Holly covers solo album, and now the band is back with a Who covers album. Talking about losing your muse!

All that ranting aside, this is not bad, but there’s not enough of a Smithereens’ spin on the material to warrant listening to this over the original album. Not a bad listen, mind you, but don’t pawn your copy of the original.

And guys-can you please write some original material?

Thursday, May 28, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, Green Day dropped their new CD, "21st Century Breakdown," an arena-ready record that uses the "concept album" structure to weave a story of social dissatisfaction that echoes the political awareness of "American Idiot," the band's concept album released five years ago.

So before this turns into a review of the Green Day album (although I'll get to that at some point), let me define what a concept album is.

My purpose for this blog and the one on My Space is to hopefully get readers interested enough in the albums I rant about that they may actually go out and buy them. Not download them, but actually buy the physical release (either LP or CD).

Artists spend a lot of time putting together an album. They write twice as many songs as will fit. They agonize over which tracks to leave off. They spend days coming up with a track order. A good album is meant to be listened to as a complete work, and one of the unfortunate side effects of iTunes is that the idea of listening to the album as a complete work is being lost.

I've said often that I am not a fan of a covers album. One of the reasons is that it really does not fit in well with my vision of an album as a complete work-it's a collection of pieces of other artists' work.

A concept album, then, is my opposite end of the spectrum-not only is it a collection of songs that are meant to be listened to as a complete work, the songs themselves either share a theme or tell a story. Listen to "Tommy," or "Operation: Mindcrime," or almost any progressive rock album for that matter and you'll see what I mean.

The concept album usually has a clear plot, and makes use of interwoven and consistent lyrical themes and instrumental motifs that result in some of the best albums of the last four decades.

And that, in a nutshell, is why "21st Century Breakdown" has been in a pretty constant rotation on my CD players since May 15.

Other essential concept albums (in no particular order and certainly not all inclusive):

Pink Floyd "The Dark Side Of The Moon"
The Who "Tommy"
Jethro Tull "Thick As A Brick"
David Bowie "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars"
David Bowie "Diamond Dogs"
Rush "2112" (with apologies to Stephen T. McCarthy)
Alan Parsons Project "I Robot"
Radiohead "OK Computer"
Dream Theater "Scenes From A Memory"
Saga "Generation 13"
Spock's Beard "Snow"
Queensryche "Operation Mindcrime" and "Operation Mindcrime II"
Alice Cooper "Along Came A Spider"
Marillion "Misplaced Childhood"
Marillion "Brave"
Todd Rundgren "Healing" (as if I was going to have a list and not mention Todd)

Go buy one of the above titles on CD or LP...put on some good headphones (not those iPod earbuds) and listen to the music the way it was meant for you to listen to it!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The cast of characters that form the line-up of the new power-pop “supergroup” that is Tinted Windows spans several generations. There’s Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick along with Taylor Hanson (the middle Hanson brother), former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha and pop guru Adam Schlesinger (Fountains Of Wayne along with sever pop soundtrack gems).

Sounds odd? Bear with them, because the disc is a slice of pop genius, full of radio-ready songs that will sadly probably not get radio play, with sing-along choruses laden with hooks that will echo in your brain long after you turn the CD player off.

This is a perfect summer record, and if there is any fairness in the universe, it will get recognized as such. Buy it. Play it. Tell your friends.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


If I have one criticism of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, the optimistic, Obama-hope-infused “Working On A Dream,” it’s this-he just too damn happy.

Bruce needs to be singing about getting screwed by the factory boss while trying to get your ’65 Chevy started when you’re down by the river with Crazy Janey on your way to a pink Cadillac in the darkness of the edge of town. Don’t ask me what the hell that’s supposed to mean-Bruce’ll sing it and it will make sense.

It’s been a prolific decade for the Boss-five studio albums, three live albums, a 30th anniversary reissue (with one planned for later this year), four DVD releases and two retrospective compilations. But Bruce is at his best when he’s wrestling with the dark side of the American dream, and there’s just too much optimism flowing through the lyrics on this album. The music follows suit, with classic pop and folk derived melody deftly woven together by Brendan O’Brien’s heavily layered production.

Sadly, the lyrics do not live up to the music in many cases, often bordering on banal (“Queen Of The Supermarket?”). There a few exceptions, and a standout cut for me is “The Wrestler.” I love the lyric, and the simplistic arrangement.

Now let me say a few words to assuage the Bruce faithful before they seek me out and bury me up in the Meadowlands. A bad album from Bruce is still better than most great albums by other artists.

Living in Arizona, I miss the hoopla that a new Bruce album used to be (still is?). Out here, you’re lucky to find Bruce as all of the display space is reserved for Jordin Sparks and whoever the country sweetheart of the week is.

I’m sure back in Philadelphia, stores opened at midnight and people braved the elements at lunchtime to buy their copy.

Maybe I’m living in the past-heck, I bought a copy on vinyl-but I miss the days when a new Bruce record was an event.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


It’s been a long drought in postings, due to some malware (anyone know how to get rid of MicroAV?) and other commitments (work, school). I think it’s appropriate that I kick things off with a review of the latest CD by my favorite artist.

Anyone who purchases “Arena” expecting a disc full of “Hello It’s Me” or “Can We Still Be Friends” is going to be a little surprised. There is an obligatory ballad (“Courage”) but that manages to rock a bit, and the majority of the album rocks a lot!
The title, “Arena,” refers to the majority of the songs having loud guitars, sing-along choruses and lots of hooks, all blended nicely into an album of fist-pumping and cerebral anthems. It took three-quarters of 2004’s “Liars” for Todd to pick up a guitar, but he more than makes up for that here.

At 60, Todd probably won't convert many new fans with this disc, although it really is a return to form and (IMHO) his best album since 1989’s masterpiece, Nearly Human. Arena's baker's dozen, one-word-named tunes are expertly crafted rock songs that push the envelope of Rundgren’s best work, current musical trends be damned. There’s a little irony in the album title, as this style of music hasn't been an arena draw since the Reagan administration.

So crank it up, raise your fist and yell! Bombastic, guitar-driven tunes like 'Mountaintop', 'Strike' and 'Mad' will have you on your feet, while the anthemic song 'Mercenary', transports you to a stadium with its epic chorus, and you're going to be singing along with 'How Do You Like Me Now?' making your neighbors doubt your sanity. A must have for all rock fans.