As a musician, pop singer/composer/producer Todd Rundgren is a punk who came in from the cold but, unfortunately, left the door ajar. With the release of "Back to The Bars," Rundgren's first live album, it becomes apparent that the waifish studio wizard is not likely to ever forsake his roots in blues and raunchy, powerchord rock.
If Rundgren would only recognize that his strength lies in sweet, adolescent love songs (where his voice has a ringing, choral quality) and not in pounding, droning rock (where his voice is strained to the point of self-mockery), then, perhaps he would enjoy the commercial and critical success he so richly deserves. As it is, fully one half of "Back to The Bars" is ruined by Rundgren's persistent delusion that he is a rock 'n' roll musician/vocalist in the Peter Townsend vein.
Since "Back to the Bars" spans Rundgren's entire recorded musical career, from "Runt" (1970) to "The Hermit of Mink Hollow" (1978), it is singularly illustrative of one musician's triumphs and failures. The album includes such gems as "A Dream Goes on Forever," "I Saw The Light," "Never Never Land" (from the musical "Peter Pan"), "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," "Hello It's Me" and a fine Motown medley from the listenable side of "A Wizard, A True Star." These pluses, however, are more than offset by such glaring minuses as "Eastern Intrigue," "Initiation," "Black and White," "The Last Ride," "Cliche," and "Don't You Ever Learn," all of which are so over-produced and under-inspired as to be simply embarrassing.
Rundgren developed this annoying predilection for musical noodling and doodling when, in the late '60s, he struck out on his own, after disappointing stints with Woody's Truck Stop, a Philadelphia blues band, and The Nazz, a foppish, vaguely English guitar band. His first solo album Runt, yielded "We gotta Get You a Woman," which became a Top 40 hit in 1971 and earned Rundgren some fleeting commercial attention.
Soon Rundgren established himself as a studio genius, producing and engineering for the great and near-great. The Band's "Stage Freight" and Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" are both Rundgren productions, as are various releases by James Cotton, Badfinger, Sparks, The New York Dolls, and Hall and Oates.
"Something Anything" (1972) has a surprising tour de force. Many of the best cuts from "Back to the Bars" first appeared on this album. Because he loathes strings, Rundgren used multi-tracked voices and guitars to achieve a soaring effect. Echo chambers and multiple overdubes produced the aural illusion of orchestras of instruments and choruses of singers. In fact, on three of the four "Something "Anything" sides, there is only Rundgren playing all the instruments and singing all the harmonies. An impressive achievement, but one that dazzles without emotionally affecting the listener.
"My fans are my favorite people," Rundgren once gushed in an interview, and the crowds on "Back to the Bars" are in turn, predictably appreciative of Rundgren. Backed up by his band, Utopia, and a coterie of guest artists which includes bad-boy guitarist Rick Derringer, Spencer Davis, Hall and Oates, and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Rundgren gallops through 24 songs at a numbing clip.
Regrettably, the finest cut on the album is not a Rundgren composition, but a Motown medley from "A Wizard, A True Star." Rundgren is an accomplished mimic (as the second side of "Faithful" will attest), and his renditions of The Impressions' "I'm So Proud," The Miracles' "Ooh Baby Baby" and The Delphonics' 'La La Means I Love You" are as much tribute to Rundgren's expertise as they are to the artists'. Rundgren has the falsetto voice of a young and vulnerable Stevie Wonder, and the synthesizer ability to compensate for the omitted violin tracks. With this medley, Rundgren recreates the ambience of innocence and good humor which pervades the best of "Something/Anything" and, most recently, "The Hermit of Mink Hollow,"
It's a shame that such a lackluster release as "Back to the Bars" should follow so closely on the heels of "The Hermit of Mink Hollow," Rundgren's best effort, both critically and commercially, since "Something/Anything." If, as Rundgren said in 1974, "music is something to keep me from going nets wondering," them "Back to the Bars" must simply be noise to fill the spaces between moments of true musical inspiration.