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Under Investigation: Todd Rundgren's Official State Visit (and More)

January 10, 2014
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Todd, pictured here with “Foamy,” his trusty P-Project Strat clone.
What has seven legs but doesn't walk? Todd 2013 world tour, which spanned 73 shows over four months and as many continents, and actually comprised three completely different set lists and musical configurations.

“Todd Rundgren’s Official State Visit” featured most of his latest E.D.M.-style album, State, and similarly flavored T.R. material from No World Order (1994), Liars (2004), and Re- Productions (2011), performed by a stripped-down power trio consisting of Todd (as “DJ Odd”), Prairie Prince, and myself, enhanced with elaborate rave lighting. A full band set billed as “An Evening with Todd Rundgren” added longtime bandmates Kasim Sulton (bass) and John Ferenzik (keys) to the roster, and is probably as close as we’ll ever get to a “greatest hits” show. Finally, there was a one-off orchestral concert with the Akron Symphony and the Akron Youth Symphony where the full band was joined by background vocalists Mary Lou Arnold and Michele Rundgren. Yipes!

Beyond the obvious logistical difficulties presented by such a mammoth undertaking, our main challenge was assembling equipment for the State shows. T.R. mandated the use of virtual rigs, and his DJ gear, included a Presonus 1818VSL Audio Box, an Akai MPK 25 MIDI Controller, a couple of iPads, and a touch-screen HP ENVY 23-d030 computer loaded with Reason, which controlled backing tracks that included synth bass, keyboards, special effects, and background vocals. Todd connected to “Foamy,” his go-to, foam-green P-Project Strat clone, via a Line 6 wireless system, and monitored everything through a floor wedge. He describes his signal chain as follows: “The Presonus fed the guitar to Reason. The first device is the Line 6 plugin. Depending on the song, there might be chorus, echo, and/or reverb after that. Then it goes directly out its own channel back to the Presonus and out to the house.” Prairie imported Todd’s killer drum sounds into a state-of-the-art Yamaha DTX 950 electronic drum kit monitored with Future Sonics inears. I opted for “Swirly,” my marbleized, Beck-necked Fender Stratocaster, and a Line 6 Variax, through a Radial Tonebone AB/Y controlling two Line 6 pedals—a Floor Pod Plus, which replicated many of the sounds from the State album, and an HD500 for less guitar-y textures and some juicy solo sounds. These, along with feeds from Todd and Prairie, were monitored in full stereo through a pair of Sony MDR-V700 headphones, which sounded absolutely amazing. Our secret weapon was F.O.H. engineer George Cowan, who did triple duty as tour manager and trouble shooter, and devised both our monitor systems as well as a way to safely transport our gear around the globe. And so it began.

LEG #1: NORTHEAST U.S.A. (4/30 – 5/21)

Following three days of rehearsal at the beautiful Bearsville Theater in upstate New York, we donned goggles, headphones, and in-ears to premiere the State show at the same venue. The album and show opener, “Imagination,” begins with a dreamy flurry of sequenced arpeggios, and, given the premise of the album, one fully expects to hear a four-on-the-floor, 120 b.p.m., bass drum enter at any moment. Instead, we get a huge, Bonham-esque tom fill into the roar of C5-to-F#5 diabolus in musica chords shown in Ex. 1a, where the deep whammy-bar dips, which emulate the swooping synth bass line, are triggered by hammering on the root of each chord with the index finger. The song’s verses contrast the thick intro/chorus figure with burbling bass effects and sparse synth voicings that I’ve arranged for guitar in Ex. 1b. (Use either set—the grids simply add bass notes.) I simulated these with the Floor Pod Plus, using delayed volume swells that bloom into pitch vibrato. The bridge features the 10-bar Foamy solo transcribed in Ex. 1c, where Todd slowly morphs from sliding sixths over Bb/F-Ab/F (bars 1-4) to melodious whole tones over Gb/F-Ab/F (bars 5-8), before building to a climax in bars 9 and 10, where every note receives a special kiss. The outro features alternating chorus and verse figures, with C5 replaced by Cm7, a.k.a. Eb/C, while the descending sixth intervals in Ex. 1d follow each half-verse and paraphrase Todd’s “I am what I am” vocal melody over Ex. 1b, exquisitely tying it all together.

LEG #2: EUROPE & U.K. (5/26 – 6/16)

Slower songs bookend the album, but the majority of State is dominated by synth- and percussion-driven dance tempos. “Smoke” presented two challenges—finding an appropriate sound to blend with the “guitar-less” track, and keeping the relentless rhythm figure grooving over the track’s busy polyphony and counter-melodies. Ex. 2a notates the one-bar, never-changing rhythm motif, plus the chord library necessary to play the verse and chorus figures. Plug these characteristically ambiguous “Todd chords” (which frame Rundgren’s strident vocal melodies) into the verse and chorus progressions shown in Examples 2b and 2c, lock into Ex. 2a’s rhythm, and you’re off and running for the entire song. I used both the neck-and-middle (verse) and neck (chorus) pickups through a clean, chorused direct simulation on the Floor Pod-Plus layered with a more lush-sounding preset on the HD500 called “Tube D.I. Shimmer,” which I relied on extensively throughout the set.

LEG #3: BACK IN THE U.S.A. (6/22 – 7/12)

Our first week back in the states was spent at Toddstock II, a fan-and-family, 65th birthday celebration hosted by T.R. at the stately Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana. The festivities culminated with a terrific surprise fireworks display over the mighty Mississippi and a private State show for attendees. Though our set featured only three songs with Todd on guitar, his playing on the Utopia chestnut “Secret Society” (from Utopia’s POV album) reinforces his status as a still vital and often brilliant soloist. Ex. 3a illustrates the song’s framework rhythm figure and Todd’s mastery of manipulating triads over bass notes. Here, he uses shifting Bm and A triads over a G-to-A bass line to create a Lydian-based Gmaj7 tonality. Ex. 3b illustrates how T.R. adapts his blues-based style to this mode by soloing over the whole thing in B minor. And check out how his B minor-based 5-b6-b7-b3 run in bar 5 is recast as a 7-root-2-5 lick when played over Gmaj7.

LEG #4: IN THE LAND DOWN UNDER (7/14 – 7/28)

For our first leg of full-band shows, Australian fans were finally treated to Todd’s biggest (and only) Aussie hit during the ’80s (though apparently no one told him about it!), but not before we hit them with the opener, “Real Man” (from Initiation). Ex. 4a shows the song’s intro figure, which features one of the most identifiable sets of Todd chords ever, while Ex. 4b documents my guitar adaptation of the piano part from the aforementioned hit, “Can We Still Be Friends” (from Hermit of Mink Hollow), where T.R. once again demonstrates his compositional control of triads over altered bass notes. Use the neck pickup with the tone control slightly rolled back, add subtle whammy-bar dips to create a more synth-y texture, and get someone to play those all-important bass notes.

LEG #5: HOME AGAIN (7/30 – 8/18)

…and eventually reunited with my own pedals and Vibrolux Reverb (Ahh!). This string of East Coast “Evening with…” shows culminated in a near-hometown appearance at the Philly Folk Festival, where Todd-lovers faithfully sang along with “Love Is the Answer” (from Utopia’s Oops! Wrong Planet). Ex. 5 is derived from the song’s piano intro, but doesn’t actually appear on guitar until the bridge. This chord-melody passage features diatonic thirds connecting the Am7, Fmaj7, and Dm7 chords, and two signature “T-chord” suspensions played a half-step apart. Feel the love.

LEG #6: JAPAN (8/19 – 8/25)

Todd’s Japan tours have always been special and our final State leg was no exception. Members of the extraordinary Japanese fan club One World who attended every State show got to hear T.R.’s wailing guitar on the album- and pre-encore set-closer “Sir Reality” six times. Ex. 6a outlines two sets of harmonic intervals that rise beneath a wash of swirly synth textures and provide the backdrop for Todd’s beautiful intro solo, transcribed here in Ex. 6b. We’re in and out of the tenth-position D pentatonic minor blues box as his sweeping opening phrase accentuates and sustains both unbent and bent 9s (E) in two different locations during bars 1 and 2, and then drops back into D blues terrain in bars 3 and 4. The last four bars display T.R.’s impeccable timing as he bends and shapes stock D blues phrases into uniquely displaced rhythms.

LEG #7: PLUS A NIGHT AT THE SYMPHONY (8/26 – 8/31)

Arriving back in Chicago, we played a few “Evening with…” gigs, followed by our highly anticipated concert with the Akron Symphony and the Akron Youth Symphony. The Dutch Metropole Orchestra provided wonderful arrangements, and since T.R. played very little guitar during the program, I had the pleasure of covering his parts on rarely performed gems like “Another Life” (from T.R.’s Utopia’s Another Live), a seven-minute suite of complex instrumental passages and soaring vocal melodies and harmonies that’s part prog-rock and part Broadway show tune. Ex. 7a lays out its opening ensemble figure—three rounds of a tough E pentatonic minor riff that alternates between 4/4 and 3/4, before settling into 4/4 and syncopating its way up to a targeted F6 chord. A few movements later, the meter changes to 7/8 for the sweeping, one-string melody depicted in Ex. 7b, with its second ending employing natural harmonics to arpeggiate D and G triads. This segues directly to Ex. 7c’s rousing theme, which is later picked up by the background vocals. It’s written here with staccato phrasing, but should be played legato on the repeat.

To document the completion of this incredible tour the way we actually ended it in Kent, Ohio, here’s everything you need to know to play our final encore, “A Dream Goes On Forever” (from Todd). Ex. 8a provides the song’s repetitive rhythm motif and chord library, and Ex. 8b diagrams the entire verse progression, including where to play the pair of super-jangly, partially open fills shown in Examples 8c and 8d. These should be played with a much brighter tone than the strummed parts. (I used the combined neck and bridge pickups with a lot of compression for the fills, and switched to all three for everything else.) As always, Todd slowly left the stage singing off-mic as the band continued to vamp on the last four bars of Ex. 8b, complete with Fill 2, until we ended by inserting Ex. 8e into bar 4. My head is still ringing. Special thanks to T.R., our hard-working crews, and Todd fans worldwide!

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