In 1978, Todd Rundgren was moving fast. Between his work as a producer, a member of Utopia and his work as a solo act, it’s remarkable to think about all the projects he had on the go. And that year, he went on a small tour to look back on a decade or so of music.
With a small backing band, and rotating cast of friends, Rundgren hit a series of smaller venues, working through his back pages and recording everything. Shows at New York’s Bottom Line, Cleveland’s Agora and Los Angeles’ Roxy were edited down to a double LP, Back to the Bars. Essentially a “greatest hits live” sort of release – shades of Frampton Comes Alive – the record covers all the bases: sizzling guitar rockers, piano ballads, and even a helping of Philly soul. Back to the Bars has always been a high-water mark in Rundgren’s crowded discography.
The new Cherry Red/Esoteric Records release All Sides of the Roxy goes back to these shows, taking a focused look at one part of these shows.
The complete May 23rd show and another hour of outtakes from the rest of his week-long residency at the LA club. It’s a fascinating and entertaining look into the making of Back to the Bars and also a fun concert on it’s own.
The set opens with Rundgren’s backing band of John Wilcox, Moogy Klingman and John Sedita launching into “Real Man,” with Rundgren sounding a little horse as he works himself into a groove, but it’s fun throughout. Indeed, fun’s a good word to describe a lot of the music here. By this point, Utopia had gone from progressive rock to power-pop. “Love In Action” and “Love of the Common Man” leap with energy, harmony vocals and Rundgren’s jangling guitar. When the guy wanted to, he made pop every bit as good as Alex Chilton was.
Rundgren makes some interesting choices on the first disc, too.
He covers “Lady Face,” a song written by Klingman (and featuring his piano flourishes) which doesn’t appear on any of his studio records from the time. He also launches into a tense, wiry version of “Bread,” off Hermit of Mink Hollow, which kind of deviates from his “best of” formatting. And the first of a few special guests show up too: Spencer Davis plays harmonica on “Range War,” while Wolfman Jack shares his distinct vocals for “You Cried Wolf.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a killer version of “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel.” Here, Rundgren’s stab at psychedelic soul replicates A True Wizard’s complex production with clever background vocals and dueling keyboards. Oh, did I mention Hall and Oates make a cameo here, too?
The back half of the show gets even wilder.
Rundgren busts out his piano chops for a solo rendition of “A Dream Goes on Forever,” creating a vibe similar to that on his first few solo records. Then the band launches into a medley of Philly soul, with a deft segue into a double-time version of “I Saw the Light.” By the set’s end, a handful of LA stars pop out for a cameo appearance: Davis, Darryl Hall, John Oates, and Stevie Nicks contribute harmony vocals on “Hello It’s Me,” “She’s Gone” and Todd’s farewell tune “Just One Victory.” The stage sounds crowded, with so many voices in the mix. It certainly was in person: between songs, you can hear Rundgren telling them to double up on microphones.
Over the years, this show has been extensively bootlegged. Back in the day, radio stations would sometimes broadcast a local concert over the air. But for this Rundgren upped the ante, having the show simulcast over a network of stations. Wolfman Jack isn’t kidding when he introduces the show by welcoming a potential audience of over ten million listeners. It’s interesting that with so many people listening, nobody really sounds intimidated.
If anything, Rundgren’s set bursts with energy, cracking jokes for the radio audience and constantly pushing his songs into overdrive.
The third disc, which was originally released as a Japan-only edition of Rundgren’s archive series, offers different takes of material on the first two discs and a handful of one-off performances. Here, Rundgren indulges in his love for Gilbert and Sullivan, covering “The Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song,” spitting the lyrics at a mile-a-minute, occasionally flubbing a bit. Meanwhile, “Determination” gets a brash, almost New Wave reading, giving the song an energy it lacks on Hermit of Mink Hollow. And “Love Is the Answer” is more of a showcase for the band, with them all contributing some gorgous harmony vocals.
One interesting feature of the third disc is it’s sound.
It’s not that the full concert sounds bad, but you can tell it’s been compressed for a FM broadcast. These tapes, which came off the soundboard, have a much fuller and clearer sound. It’s easier to hear the backing vocals and keyboards, but the guitar’s been mixed down somewhat. But again, it’s yet another angle into a remarkable series of shows.
In all, this set is a compelling listen for Rundgren fans. The hardcore ones have probably heard this show before, but certainly not at this quality. More casual ones will be surprised to hear how easily Rundgren moves between modes: blasting pop one minute, moaning a ballad another and leaping into soul mode the next. And the third disc is like a rawer, less polished version of Back to the Bars. It’s like a look behind the scenes of a live record. Or at a broadcast for millions of listeners out in radio land. Recommended.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.