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Wizard Rundgren remains a truly weird star at Crest

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The title of Todd Rundgren’s 1973 concept album, A Wizard, A True Star, always seemed half true: A studio wizard he may have been, a one-man band with eclectic influences and an ear for a great hook, but he was never quite the star he aspired to be.

Indeed, Rundgren, who made his recorded debut as a member of The Nazz in 1967, always seemed just a year or two behind the true trendsetters, and a bit ahead of the curve when it came to stardom. Despite several early hits — "Hello It’s Me" and "I Saw the Light" positioned him as a singer-songwriter in the mold of Carole King or Elton John — his tendency to go off in five directions at once and a healthy skepticism about stardom itself seemed to push him in the direction of cult star rather than rock star.

Forty-two years and dozens of albums later, Rundgren remains a cult star, occasionally releasing albums but rarely selling many. But his cult is devoted and passionate, and Wednesday night he drew a half house of ravenous fanatics to the Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento. The crowd of about 600 was fanatical, calling out to the singer between songs. One loutish fan even walked up to the apron of the stage to address Rundgren, who was in a mid-song vamp.

The draw wasn’t just Rundgren. The concert was promoted as a chance to hear him perform, start to finish, that same 1973 album, A Wizard, A True Star, known in its day as the longest single album ever released on one vinyl long player, at approximately 50 minutes. Most albums of the time topped out around 40.

More a collection of electronics-mad moments or melodic flights of fancy than fully-realized songs — one string of five songs are barely a minute each — it was a curiosity then and remains so now. Wizard came out the same year as The Dark Side of the Moon, Quadrophenia, Aladdin Sane, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Band on the Run and Houses of the Holy; any album would have a hard time standing out. That Wizard, with its dye-cut cover (a Dali-esque portrait of Rundgren) and lacking a hit single, did even reasonably well was no mean feat.

Wednesday night, 36 years after its release, Wizard got another chance. The music, now extending well over an hour, came across powerfully. Freed of studio wizardry and abrupt edits, and of the density of the original studio sound, the music had a chance to breathe, and Rundgren’s six-piece band, featuring old Utopia bandmate Kasim Sultan on bass and vocals, as well as Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, managed most of the tricky changes and bizarre shifts in tempo and tone.

That wasn’t always easy. Rundgren’s tastes, rooted in The Beatles’ psychedelia and the orchestral soul of his native Philadelphia, had become informed over the years by the weird time signatures and tonalities of Frank Zappa’s work — "Cool Jerk" in 7/4 anyone? — as well as the burgeoning glam rock of the early ’70s. And then there was that whole singer/songwriter thing.

And Rundgren’s rather dour sense of humor and irony (one refrain goes "You want the obvious/You’ll get the obvious") tends to undercut much of what he does on an emotional level. Though he sang such soulful numbers as "Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel" and a soul medley that included the chestnut "La-La-La Means I Love You," Rundgren maintained an emotional distance that verged on cold at points. One is always aware that he is performing, most likely with tongue in cheek.

In that respect, Rundgren didn’t help himself with the frequent costume changes that struck this viewer as something out of community theatre gone wrong. He emerged during the opening "International Feel" in an astronaut’s spacesuit, and subsequent songs saw him in a red fat suit (inflated on one song, deflated on the next), an orange leisure suit and a Isaac Hayes-inspired satin-and-skin ensemble that looked ridiculous on Rundgren.

Still, the costumes were part of the fun, and evocative of the crazy-quilt of Wizard. A studio-inspired and electronically-created album, it came off better live than might have been expected. The pacing of the album, played mostly in its original sequence, lent itself to live performance. Musical peaks and lulls came through beautifully. Even the odd little between-song instrumentals and sonic tangents served to give Rundgren time for costume changes, and a chance for the band to show off.

By the time he and the band got to the soaring refrain of "International Feel" and then to the album’s closing number, "Just One Victory," the evening was complete. A powerfully emotional anthem to hope, the song is free of irony and self-conscious wit, going to the core of ’70s soul’s optimism. It has long been Rundgren’s show-closer, but set in its original context at the end of Wizard, it was even more moving.

Rundgren may remain mostly a cult star, but to have maintained that cult for three-plus decades is quite an accomplishment. And it should be said that Wednesday night’s show, as rich as it was, neglected at least a dozen classic Rundgren songs. Even as part of the very short tour of Wizard, Wednesday night was a chance to celebrate not just an album, but the career of a man who, while perhaps not a wizard, is certainly a talented magician.

 

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