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Todd Rundgren’s Innovative Tech Savvy Allows Him to Keep Touring

Rocker Todd Rundgren saw the light with a solution to COVID restrictions: a digital tour.
Rocker Todd Rundgren saw the light with a solution to COVID restrictions: a digital tour.
Lynn Goldsmith
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It’s been a big year already for legendary rocker and producer Todd Rundgren with his nomination for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the start of his 25-city Clearly Human virtual tour, which makes a digital stop in Dallas Sunday, March 7.

The idea is simple. Rather than do a one-off livestream anyone can tune into, Rundgren and his 10-piece band will broadcast each performance from a Chicago venue, with each show being localized to a different U.S .city through geo-fencing.

Rundgren and company wanted to recreate a sense of place for both the band and the fans, with local landmarks appearing on the video wall and catering for the band and crew including dishes associated with each city.

This is not the first time Rundgren has brought his tech-savvy ideas to live music performances. He performed the first-ever interactive television concert in 1978, the first cablecast of a rock concert in 1982 and the first full-length concert shot with multiple virtual reality, 360-degree cameras in 2016.

“Well, I'm … you know … I'm just … I get bored sometimes, actually,” Rundgren says with a laugh. “I try and find new things to do, and sometimes they're specifically experimental, trying to better understand audience dynamics.”

When Rundgren did the No World Order tour, the first live interactive tour, the audience played a significant part in the show. Cameras were dangled into the audience so they could point them around and people could see themselves or see whatever they pointed the camera at.

“That was interesting because in some places, the audience totally got into the spirit of it,” Rundgren remembers. ”Other places people would back off. They would go to our walls as if it was just a regular old concert and they weren't allowed to do anything.”

When the pandemic presented the challenge of how to perform live, Rundgren saw it instead as an opportunity to revisit an album that did not get the attention it deserved on tour: the 1989 futuristic R&B album Nearly Human.

“It's a tour that I always wanted to take out on the road, but it's prohibitively complicated and expensive,” Rundgren says. “This particular situation is ideal in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that I don't have to take everybody from town to town in the literal sense, so we're not spending money on buses and trucks. We're not also not burning the fuel in those buses and trucks.

"Additionally, we're not building ... cases for stuff that we're not bothering to transport, because I only set it up once.”

Much of this tour is based on the show Rundgren did after the album came out with a few additions to make the virtual show an extension of the studio experience.

“Everything was live in the studio,” Rundgren says, explaining that the whole recording process had become more of an exercise in overdubbing. “The thrilling aspect of it is that at some point, when you're doing your takes, you realize you're listening to the record. You're hearing everything that the listener will hear when you release this record, and it's just it's a spooky feeling because it's almost like traveling into the future.”

The other objective was for Rundgren reinvent himself as an R&B singer with the material that is supposed to sound like older Motown records.

“The show that comes out of that is not simply just a rendition of a bunch of songs — it's like a review, a gospel experience,” Rundgren says. “There are so many more interactions going on because there are so many more people on the stage and more things to see. It's the thing that you only experience when you're watching a symphony orchestra or a really well-rehearsed gospel choir.”

Rundgren is looking forward to convincing the people of each city in the virtual tour that his Chicago performance space is a part of the audience’s hometown, and the fact that audiences can control their own viewing experience.

“We're not going to be soliciting requests from the audience or anything like that, but there are certain interactive elements,” Rundgren says. “There's an option for you to select your camera view. You can either watch what is the director's cut, which will be all different shots, or you can go to each camera and select that and watch what's going on there, so that gives you more options.”

No word yet as to what the band will be dining on for their Dallas date, but Rundgren says, “it needs to be somewhat iconic of the Dallas area. It's more about a particular restaurant rather than a particular style of food.”

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