Todd Rundgren review – nostalgic tour from the Zelig of rock

Todd Rundgren is music’s M-theory, the missing link that helps everything make sense. Over 50 years, as singer, producer and technical innovator, he’s dabbled in Philly soul, power-rock, prog, psychedelia, punk, new wave, avant-jazz and experimental electronica; a photomontage during tonight’s retrospective show casts him as a 70s rock Zelig, cropping up alongside Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury, Rod Stewart and David Bowie. His wide-reaching influence is evident in his recent collaborations, guesting on the Lemon Twigs’ concept album Go to School – virtually a tribute to Rundgren’s 70s heyday – and working with Trent Reznor and Robyn on his 2017 album White Knight. Barely a genre is untouched by the hand of Todd.

It’s been a long and tangled trip, but Rundgren ushers us through it like a schmaltz-laden guided tour. The first of two sets has a loose chronology: a broken strap leaves him air-guitaring through Open My Eyes, his Who-like earliest single with 60s psych rockers Nazz, before its more successful flipside Hello It’s Me sets the tone for the first 90 minutes. We’re talking twinkle-toothed, jazz-lite romantic balladry delivered in Rundgren’s undiminished velvet croon: I Saw the Light, Can We Still Be Friends, wingman classic We Gotta Get You a Woman. Charming, but marshmallow.

With Rundgren narrating his career twists – “the critics got fed up with me at this point”, “now the drugs are kicking in” – the set only veers left-field for the scorched-earth riffs of Black Maria, a fiery new wave Can’t I Just Tell You and the self-deprecating vaudeville romp An Elpee’s Worth of Toons.

The “informal” second set finds him cutting looser, rapping like Lou Reed over an avant-jazz The Individualist, babbling prayers and throwing kung fu shapes through an exotic Eastern Intrigue and hosting a video Q&A about his ill-fated 90s interactive albums, which itself falls foul to audio gremlins. Here’s the adventurous soul of the man, as comfortable with bossa nova as industrial rock and sci-fi synth solos. A pity he wasn’t unleashed sooner.