Perennial wunderkind Todd Rundgren revisits his 1989 album “Nearly Human” for his latest tour. With an expanded band that features longtime musical associates Kasim Sulton, Gil Assayas, Prairie Prince, Rundgren’s wife Michele and five others, the “Clearly Human” virtual outing represents the latest in a long line of crowd-pleasing tours from the genre-spanning musical hero. But the twenty-five-city tour is taking place, start to finish, right here in Chicago.
Rundgren has a long history with our town. “I remember one of the first times I played here,” he says, likely referring to a November 1973 gig with his band Utopia at the Arie Crown Theater. “I was walking toward the gig and a guy stopped me and said, ‘Hey, my name’s Jerry Mickelson, and I’m promoting your show.’” Mickelson had launched JAM Productions with partner Arny Granat; the team would go on to produce thousands of concerts in and around Chicago. “I remember that because it was the first time I’d ever met one of the promoters,” Rundgren says. “He was really young, and I was really young, and he was just so excited.”
The show was a success for both performer and promoter. Rundgren would play more than fifty live dates in Chicago in the coming years, and that’s not counting shows as a member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band.
Rundgren is a critically revered artist who enjoys outsider status, but his career has still been peppered with Top Forty hits. Those include “We Gotta Get You a Woman” in 1970, “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me” (both 1973), “Can We Still Be Friends” from 1978, “Set Me Free” with Utopia in 1980, the MTV hit “Time Heals” (1981), “Bang the Drum All Day” in 1983 and “The Want of a Nail” from his landmark 1989 “Nearly Human” LP. Even as styles changed and changed again, Rundgren’s status as an innovator and popular concert draw never flagged.
Live shows have always been a part of Rundgren’s life. He has toured as a solo artist, with his different bands and as part of revival and reunion tours with both the seven-man progressive configuration of Utopia and its streamlined, new-wave-leaning quartet lineup. As 2020 began, he had scheduled a tour dubbed “The Individualist, A True Star,” revisiting two classic albums from his extensive back catalog. That fifteen-city run would have included three nights in May at the Athenaeum Theatre. But the pandemic put an end to the tour before it began.
Yet Rundgren’s innovative inclinations meant that he remained determined to bring his music—live in concert, after a fashion—to his audience. And Chicago came to mind as Rundgren developed the concept for his 2021 tour. With traditional live shows and touring unavailable, he sought to develop an alternative, one that would not only be practical and safe, but creatively fulfilling for the musicians involved and—most of all—entertaining for the audiences.
As it happens, Rundgren had already been thinking along these lines long ago. Several years ago, he began to schedule shows only in major markets, flying from city to city and skipping the grueling bus or van approach. But he took note of the ways in which climate change was wreaking havoc with his travel schedule. “I found myself ever more often waiting for a delayed flight, wondering if I’m going to make it in time or suddenly having a flight canceled,” he says. “Mostly because the number of storms in the Atlantic had started to spike.”
He remains convinced that things won’t improve. “If you had wanted to tour this past summer in California, the whole state was on fire,” he says. “And if you wanted to go to Texas, half of the state was underwater. The climate can’t be ignored. And it’s a factor in terms of delivering the service that I deliver.”
Faced with that challenge, Rundgren asked himself, “What if you could book a tour where you essentially set up in one place, and then you sent the show [via video] out to a specific venue in a particular city, just like a regular tour?” The idea had distinct advantages: “Say you wanted to tour in the dead of winter,” he says. “You could still do a virtual tour.”
The idea sparked some interest, but nothing took shape. Then the pandemic happened. “And that brought in that additional factor of the audience not being able to get to the venue,” Rundgren says with a rueful laugh. “So what do we do now?” Suddenly, his virtual tour concept started to make more sense.
But then Rundgren has long been known as the sort of artist who comes up with innovative ideas, and the infrastructure to implement them, well ahead of the pack. After years of tinkering with music videos behind the scenes, he opened Utopia Video Studio in 1979, more than a year before MTV launched. His Utopia Graphics Tablet System was proposed as a groundbreaking accessory for Apple computers in 1980. He worked with Time Warner Interactive Cable Network in the early nineties on a project that was a forerunner of on-demand music and video streaming. Also in the nineties, Rundgren’s championing of interactivity manifested itself in his “No World Order” tour and his embrace of the CD-i music format. His PatroNet artist-to-fan concept presaged Kickstarter, Patreon and other twenty-first-century interactive models.
Not all of those endeavors worked. One could argue that none of them was ultimately successful in the ways Rundgren might have envisioned. But as part of his larger body of work—and as part of the creativity-meets-technology landscape—his insistence upon being on the cutting edge has paved the way for others to follow. By being less innovative, those artists charted a less risky path, took lessons from Rundgren’s occasional missteps and then capitalized on his ideas for their own gain.
“We’re doing twenty-five shows specifically targeted to twenty-five markets,” Rundgren says. “And everything that we do will be in the pursuit of preserving the experience both for the audience and for the band.” The focus is squarely on making each show a unique event, in a manner as close as possible to the real thing. That means making use of geofencing technology, creation of a virtual perimeter that will restrict viewing of a particular show to audience members who live there. (Since the initial tour announcement—“due to overwhelming demand,” says Rundgren’s tour publicist—the geofencing restriction has been relaxed.)
And the character of each show is being constructed to reinforce that hometown feel, too. Every detail has been given serious thought. “From the time that the audience sees the stage—just like if you went to the venue and they open the doors a half an hour before the show—there’ll be the sound of murmuring people looking for their seats and stuff like that,” he says. “For every city that we’re in, I’ve made some effort, where such exists, to get a picture of the actual proscenium stage that we might’ve played in that city, and that’ll be on the video wall that’s behind us.”
Real-time video images of ticket holders who purchase a special package will be displayed on video screens in the front three rows of the venue, “so that we can see them, recognize them and interact with them,” Rundgren says. “And for every show, we localize it to the town that we’re playing. We dress the entire backstage with posters and local sports memorabilia.” They go so far as to set the stage clocks to the local time of the audience. “We’re in that time zone for as long as we’re in the building,” Rundgren says. And the food for the band and crew will be delivered from the target city. “And if we can’t get it delivered, at least we get the recipe” to be catered, Rundgren says.
“We’re fooling ourselves as much as we’re fooling the audience,” he says with a smile. “We’re self-hypnotizing that we’re in that town. From the time we get in the van until the time that we get back to the hotel, in our minds, we’re in Buffalo or Indianapolis or San Diego. Or wherever it is that we’re virtually playing.”
Thanks to the virtual nature, Rundgren could have staged the whole enterprise from the comfort of his home in Kauai, Hawaii. But from his perspective, Chicago makes a great deal more sense. “It had to be a major hub of some kind,” he says. “And we figured the central time zone is probably the best in terms of our making adjustments for local time zones.” That way, each of the geofenced shows can be scheduled to start at 8pm in its local market, and the crew and musicians in Chicago won’t find themselves working weird hours.
“If we’re playing an eight o’clock show on the East Coast, we’re playing a seven o’clock show in Chicago,” Rundgren says. “Which is not so bad; you often find yourself doing that on a Sunday night if you’re on tour.” And a show for a West Coast market would find the band taking the stage at 10pm. “That’s not awful, either,” says the seventy-two-year-old musician, “because there are places where they push the shows off really late.” So a Chicago venue works as a compromise.
But Rundgren’s virtual tour won’t broadcast (or narrowcast) from a concert hall. Instead, he’s chosen “a general-purpose event space that’s very well tricked out. There’s an industrial kitchen in it, so we can do all of our own catering. We don’t have to crack the bubble.” For the duration of the tour, musicians and crew will be set up in a residence hotel, with shuttles taking them between the venue and their temporary home. A testing compliance professional will be onsite, and everyone will undergo regular checks.
Rundgren even has a backup plan in the event that one of the members of his ten-person band is taken ill. “We have backup musicians ready to step in, in case someone becomes so sick they can’t perform,” he says. And if a musician were to be asymptomatic but infectious, there’s a plan for that as well. “We’ll have a little sterile room for them to play in,” he says. “We’ll have a camera on them; maybe we’ll put up a video panel on the stage where they’re supposed to be so you can see them.”
He appreciates the fact that he’s embracing the unknown. Though he’s upbeat about the venture, he’s realistic, and has considered some of the more disturbing possibilities. “We might have somebody try and crash the bubble,” he says. “And we may have someone try and get in and make a statement or try to purposely infect people. Who knows? It’s a pretty wild and woolly world out there.” But he believes that his team is staffed with hard-working, conscientious people. “I think we’ve got enough experience in the aspects of what we’re doing that we won’t be caught flat-footed,” he says.
Still, Rundgren knows that there’s risk inherent in an endeavor such as his “Clearly Human” tour. “The biggest peril,” he says with a chuckle, “is delivering something that, in the end, is manifestly unsatisfying so that nobody wants to do it again.” Considering the man’s innovative, creative track record, it doesn’t seem likely that will happen.
The “Clearly Human” tour includes February 26 as its Chicago date.
With a background in marketing and advertising, Bill Kopp got his professional start writing for Trouser Press. His more than 2,500 interviews, essays, and reviews reflect Bill’s keen interest in American musical forms, most notably rock, jazz and soul. His work features a special emphasis on reissues and vinyl. Bill’s work also appears in many other outlets both online and in print. He also researches and authors liner notes for album reissues, and co-produced a reissue of jazz legend Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s final album. His first book, “Reinventing Pink Floyd,” is due from Rowman & Littlefield in February 2018.