Todd Rundgren has long been known as an innovator within the music world. Savvy in technology, he designed the first-ever graphics tablet for Apple in 1979, staged the first live interactive television concert in 1978 and the first live national cablecast of a rock concert in 1982. He also offered the first commercial music downloads in 1992, the first online direct artist subscription service, PatroNet, in 1998, and the first full-length concert shot with multiple virtual reality 360-degree cameras in 2016.
His latest venture is into a different kind of livestreaming event — a virtual tour in which he and his band will play shows “in” 25 cities — by designating each performance for a specific city.
Rundgren is actually not the first act to roll out a virtual tour. Jim Brickman did a virtual holiday tour at the end of 2020 and Steve Wynn (of the Dream Syndicate) is currently doing a similar outing. But those tours weren’t as long or the shows weren’t as elaborate as what Rundgren is doing. That makes Rundgren’s Clearly Human virtual tour a step into the unknown, and Rundgren, during a video conference interview in late January, admitted his venture has significant risks.
“Since nobody’s attempted to do this particular thing before, we’re still learning a lot about all of these issues,” he said. “In the traditional touring environment, you have local promoters who guarantee the events. They send you like half of the guarantee to ensure that you’ll show up, and this becomes your financing to develop your show. And you kind of know how many tickets you’ve sold well before the gigs.
“For these online things, ticket sales start out really slow because people know it’s not actually a physical seat they’re fighting for,” Rundgren said. “I was talking to Joe Bonamassa, who did a big event. It wasn’t a tour. It was just a singular online event. He said it wasn’t until 72 hours before the event that the ticket sales started to actually happen. So we’re in that kind of situation right now. By the time the first show starts, I’ll probably be in for about a million dollars, all my own resources, because I’ve got no promoters. I’m the promoter of the shows. And … it’s pretty scary. We don’t know exactly what kind of response we’re going to get.”
Rundgren will have a good sense of how his “tour” is faring by the time the March 12 date designated for Denver and Boulder arrives. But he did his part to make his livestreamed shows bona fide events. For one thing, he’s assembled a 10-piece band that includes horns and backup singers — a much larger unit than he could usually afford to take out on an actual tour.
He’s also making a tangible effort to make it feel like he’s actually playing in each city on the tour route, even though every show will actually emanate from the same venue in Chicago. Rundgren is using specifically tailored video to highlight landmarks and other signature places and things for each city, and the menu for the band and crew will feature food associated specifically with the city in which Rundgren and his band are playing that evening.
The set list for the current virtual tour is different than Rundgren would bring out on a normal tour. The show will focus on material from his 1989 album Nearly Human, while leaving room for songs from across his solo career, spanning back to his 1970 debut solo album, Runt. He quickly cemented his status as one of rock’s most talented songwriters with the 1972 album Something/Anything, followed a year later by A Wizard, a True Star. During the early 1970s, he also formed his long-running band Utopia, and between his solo and Utopia albums, he went on to pursue a diverse, innovative and occasionally experimental musical path that has seen him touch upon most every type of pop music, as well as progressive rock, electronic music and more. Along the way, he’s notched several hit singles, including “Hello, It’s Me,” “Can We Still Be Friends?” and “Bang on the Drum All Day,” and also developed a prolific and successful career producing albums for other artists.
Nearly Human stands as one of Rundgren’s most notable — and innovative — solo efforts. It was recorded in an era when digital technology was new and popular, and albums were commonly recorded one instrument at a time, using upwards of 72 tracks. Rundgren decided to buck the trends and record Nearly Human as a band live in the studio, using as many musicians as needed to get the instrumental parts he envisioned for the songs. Few of the musicians involved had recorded live as a band in the studio, and the excitement of that experience worked to the album’s benefit.
“You’re performing the record, but you also realize that everything that’s in the record is in your ear and you’re hearing the record that people are going to hear when it’s finished at the same time that you’re actually performing it,” Rundgren explained. “So it puts you in this weird, euphoric, kind of mystical space.”
Musically, Nearly Human brought out a soul influence in Rundgren’s music that had shown up only on occasion on his previous albums. That style, coupled with a collection of consistently well crafted songs, helped make Nearly Human one of his most distinctive and best solo albums. The emphasis on soul was very much by plan, Rundgren said.
“I did make a conscious decision that I wanted to take being an R&B singer more seriously,” he said. “There were so many R&B influences in my singing, I mean, most notably Stevie Wonder, but also R&B singers like Eddie Levert of the O’Jays, innumerable great R&B singers. So I, in a certain way, bit the bullet by writing material that required me to do that. That was probably the greater challenge, or at least equal challenge, was coming up with material that a white guy can sing, but doesn’t attempt to go outside of my legitimate experience. I can’t suddenly pretend that I grew up in Harlem or something like that, you know.
“I have to say that I learned so much during the course of the production of the record, and then learned even more when we had to take it out on the road and do it,” Rundgren added. “I had to build the stamina for that kind of thing, that it’s not simply hitting the notes and having the stamina to be able to get through the show, but being able to abandon yourself in a certain way to the material so that it doesn’t come out the same way all of the time. [I think part of the appeal of] R&B is that you want to constantly explore the material as much as you can. You don’t ever sing it exactly the same way because that’s when it starts to lose its meaning for you. You’re just like doing the work, but you’re not feeling it. Yeah, it was a great period in my life, especially because that’s the kind of commitment I made and I felt very… well, something changed, I guess, in me as a singer. Previous to that I always had a certain apprehension about it, and also my technique was kind of spotty. So I would be in the position of occasionally losing my voice. But I think the long-term end product of that process of me trying to re-learn singing and stuff like that (is) my voice today is as good as it’s ever been. I have stamina. I can sing those two hours with ease. But more importantly, I really enjoy it.”
ON THE BILL: Todd Rundgren ‘Clearly Human’ virtual tour. March 12, Denver. A limited amount of 19 socially distant in-person tickets are available per show. Tickets start at $35,