Todd Rundgren Virtual in San Francisco (via Chicago)
As the pandemic moves into its second year, Chicago is a relative ghost town.
Downtown is essentially empty. Millennium park is wide open. Food and entertainment options are few. But Todd Rundgren has been there since Valentine’s Day beaming his virtual Clearly Human tour into 25 cities around the country.
On March 19, it was San Francisco. This meant a 10 p.m Central starting time – 8 in the West – and a 23-song concert that bled into the early-morning hours of March 20 in Chicago, where 30 lucky concertgoers from Ohio, Florida, Connecticut, New York and other states shared a 5,000-capacity venue that shan’t be named (shhhh, it’s secret) with tiles showing the faces of people streaming at home.
Negative COVID tests and masks were required for entry. Water and soda were free. Fans got a sticker – and their temperature taken – at the door as there were no ticket stubs and no T-shirts for souvenir seekers. And there were no beer sales, hence, no drunks.
Things being as out of whack as they are, entry for the show cost more than two nights in a locked-down-in-Chicago hotel room. But Rundgren and his outstanding, 10-piece band – two keyboardists; two horn players; three background singers dubbed the Goddesses on Mount Olympus, guitar, bass and drums – played as if the hall was packed with adoring fans.
Canned crowd noise helped with the illusion; however, the band wisely kept volumes below their typical eardrum-shredding levels.
Centered around 1989’s Nearly Human – eight of its 10 tracks were played – this big-band tour is reminiscent of the treks in support of that album and 2nd Wind.
What’s changed is the passage of three decades, some of the band – which featured long-time collaborators like drummer Prairie Prince, bassist Kasim Sulton, the two-saxes-at-once Bobby Strickland on woodwinds and percussion and Michelle Rundgren – Rundgren’s 72-year-old voice, which is deeper and less nimble and 21st-century songs like “Sweet” and “God Said,” that didn’t exist when those earlier tours took place.
“And you will kill in my name and heaven knows what else/when you can’t prove I exist, so get over yourself,” Rundgren sang on the latter.
Pandemic and social distancing – and Bay Area banter from a Chicago stage – notwithstanding, it seemed like a Rundgren concert from the long-ago before times. He hasn’t toured with a band this size since 1990 and is unlikely to do so again unless this type of thing becomes the norm.
The men wore gold, sequined jackets and ties; the women, silver, sequined skirts. There was choreography. And Rundgren prowled the stage in loose, brown clothing, occasionally playing his beloved sea-green Strat, “Foamy” – as on “Unloved Children” and Utopia’s “Love in Action” – and explaining the guitar’s moniker is gender-non-committal, like a Pat or a Chris.
Opening with 1975’s “Real Man,” Rundgren made the looking-back nature of the show clear at the outset. In keeping with that theme, he segued from “Secret Society” to “Something to Fall Back On” as in the days of yore.
There was Broadway – and a joke about the band being the San Francisco Symphony – on “The Smell of Money.” There was “booty-shaking funk music” – and a joke about streaming – on “Love Science.” And there were references to COVID-19 and masking in “Hello it’s Me.”
By the time the late-set “Hawking” rolled around, the stage was filled with smoke and the large screen behind the band that added glorious eye candy – such as waves moving backward during “Lost Horizon” – all evening, was showing images of a San Francisco venue. Rundgren’s ad-libbed vocals pleading for pity for all living creatures wrapped around Strickland’s saxophone to create ethereal sounds to match the otherworldly atmosphere in the theater.
For the encore, Rundgren donned a blue preacher’s robe and gave a sermon about time on the uplifting Baptist-church vamp that is “I Love My Love.” Fans were encouraged to stop obsessing on the news and love on their pets instead. The pandemic has given people time, Rundgren sermonized, and he encouraged them to use it wisely.
Catching a Clearly Human show, virtually or in person – and I did both, deciding to break a year in quarantine and head to Chicago after streaming the Feb. 19 “Virginia Beach” performance – certainly qualifies.