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The Odd Rundgren

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Todd Rundgren wasn't too thrilled about the 7:30 start to his show at the Birchmere on Sunday night. "I should be in a daze somewhere," he said, a little wishfully, as he peered through dark glasses at the sold-out house.

Well, sure -- we all should. But Rundgren quickly got down to some serious rock-and-roll, unleashing a loud, wild two-hour set that showed why he's still one of the most unpredictable musicians around. Opening with the beautiful "Buffalo Grass," Rundgren ranged over most of his four-decade career, playing everything from "Black Maria" (off his 1972 breakthrough masterpiece, "Something/Anything") to "Soul Brother" and "Mammon."

It was an unusual set, though, that focused largely on Rundgren's less-familiar work and a couple of oddities. Career-making songs like "Hello It's Me" and "Can We Still Be Friends" were nowhere to be found; the only big hit was "I Saw the Light" (which made it to No. 16 in 1972), and Rundgren played it as if he hated it and wished it would die -- which, more or less, is what it did.

And, frankly? Rest in peace. Rundgren can write a pretty pop tune with the best of 'em, but there's a lot more to listen to in songs like the bluesy "No. 1 Lowest Common Denominator." Besides, the show was more about hard-driving rock than tuneful ballads; Rundgren and the band (featuring the brilliant Jesse Gress on guitar, with Kasim Sulton on bass and Michael Urbano on drums) even tore through a cover of "Lunatic Fringe"(1981) by the one-hit wonder the Red Riders. It never sounded better.

And for a guy pushing 60, Rundgren still works hard, digging into the vocals and closing most songs with a leaping scissors kick. But his promises to "offend each and every person in the room" didn't quite deliver, starting with a tame "Fascist Christ" and ending with a listless jab against -- yawn -- neoconservatives. Sorry; if you want to talk politics in this town, you have to hit a lot harder than that.

-- Stephen Brookes

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