Live review: Todd Rundgren at the Orpheum Theatre [UPDATED]
If soul-prog-glam maestro Todd Rundgren would play his cards right, he could be enjoying a revival. Daft Punk set him up by using “International Feel,” the opening track from Rundgren’s 1973 opus, “A Wizard, a True Star,” in their robot road movie from 2006, “Electroma,” but whatever currency he gained there, he squandered in Friday's show at the Orpheum.
The problems started with his opening set, nearly 45 minutes of rote Robert Johnson covers. Though technically proficient, Rundgren and his four-piece band wrung nothing new out of these blues rags that have been passed around so many times, from Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton, there’s nothing left but tatters.
It’s understandable why Rundgren might think some straight-ahead jams would provide clean contrast with the luscious psychedelia of “A Wizard,” but there are so many rarely heard gems in Rundgren’s back catalog, why not air one of those, as he has at other recent dates?
Things picked up once Rundgren and a six-piece band, including Utopia bassist and multi-instrumentalist Kasim Sulton and Jefferson Starship drummer Prairie Prince, launched into the main focus of the evening.
UPDATED: The original version of this post incorrectly identified Rundgren as the singer on "Does Anybody Love You?" It was Kasim Sulton.
For the opening number, our hero gamely staggered out in a spacesuit and the excited crowd -- comprising office denizens by day, prog nerds by night -- was on its feet. A soul medley, with songs by Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson, found Rundgren doing some of his best crooner vocal work of the evening in an incongruously awful pumpkin-colored suit. “Flamingo” was righteously campy and Sulton, stepping in on vocals, played the incorrigible flirt for the playful “Does Anybody Love You?”
All in all, Rundgren’s energy flitted between interstellar guitar god and fairy sprite, an entertaining combination, but the anticipated moments of true inspiration never seemed to arrive.
Unfortunately, the poor quality of the stage show was a big distraction. Billed as an “elaborate extravaganza” in press materials, it was anything but: The band stood on circular platforms covered in what looked like conference room tablecloths. The video projections above their heads looked amateur and perhaps made on an 8-year-old Mac. And though Rundgren’s costume changes were fun, some looked cheap and shoddily made. With tickets going for $48 to $78 a pop, the crowd deserved better.
Rundgren might still be a true star, but his status as a wizard should be downgraded, at least temporarily, by whomever currently controls such things.
Photo: Rundgren touches down on planet Earth. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times