Throughout his career, Todd Rundgren has often been swiped at by his critics for
not being predictable and cranking out the expected hits and indulging his own
eccentric tastes behind the microphones too much. While this critic has never
had a problem with that at all, and believes it’s what kept Rundgren worth
investigating whenever a new studio album drops, it is a little harder to get
behind the live releases, which, if anything, truly do show off Todd’s more
eccentric styles in a rougher light. As great a guitarist and overall musician
as the guy is, he has always definitely seemed better in the studio than
onstage. At least when it comes to the quantity of live releases shipped out by
Rundgren thus far.
Instead of the usual date-specific show that Todd has been issuing as of late,
The Best of Todd Rundgren Live is instead a collection of shows dating back to
1979 and moving through 2004, all mixed seamlessly to give the impression of one
show. The song selection includes a bunch of expected solo and Utopia hits, as
well as “Soul Brother” from Todd’s last studio album, Liars. And again, it’s a
decent listen and all, but nothing anyone’s going to pull out consistently to
groove to. The whole thing, like other live albums of Rundgren’s that have
preceded this, is just a bit scattershot.
Things open with the expected “Real Man,” one of those songs from a more or less
failed album in Todd’s vast catalogue (Initiation) that have somehow stood the
test of time and still gets pulled out for the crowds. It’s a solid performance
with Todd’s Big Band and certainly the crowd pleaser, but being one of those
songs that was always just so-so to begin with, it pretty much sticks to the
books. Not so with the next track, “Love of the Common Man” which has been
re-recorded already (and in exemplary fashion) on Todd’s One Long Year after
being originally released on his Faithful LP back in ’76. Here, the track has
been refitted with some tasty horns and a sleeker groove, but damned if the
ending just doesn’t go on a bit too long.
The disaster of this disc has to undoubtedly be the version of “I Saw the Light”
included here. Even in the liner notes to the disc, Todd is aware of the audio
verité of it, noting that it was recorded with the A Cappella choir and that the
original instrumental tracks from 1972 were used with the vocal track wiped out.
So, basically they’re just singing over a tape of the original
Something/Anything? track, and it sounds like shit. Consider it Todd Rundgren
karaoke by the man himself.
Among the better moments here are “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” “Soul
Brother,” “Love in Action,” and “Can We Still Be Friends.” However, if Todd
truly feels that “Hello It’s Me” is just an albatross around his neck that he’s
tired of playing as he states in the liner notes, then why not just stop? Hell,
even Led Zeppelin didn’t play “Stairway to Heaven” every time out. And after all
this time, it’s annoying to hear Todd do his sarcastic psycho laugh after the
line “But I love you best, it’s not something that I say in jest” on “I Saw the
Light.” He’s been doing that since the ‘70s, which is in full display on his
best live album, Back to the Bars.
It’s nice to still have Todd around, and certainly last year’s Liars was a
really good album from him, but hearing all these live discs that he keeps
sending out as of late reminds one of when Frank Zappa was doing a similar thing
and how hit and miss they were as well. It’s cool to appease the fans, but Rundgren’s just not the kind of artist that has so far sent out enough live
material that distinguishes itself from one another in each of the releases. The
Best of Todd Rundgren Live certainly can’t be that, given that there have been
better live versions of these songs already issued, and the fact that the track
list is rather esoteric in places (“Can’t Stop Running,” “Rock Love,” “While My
Guitar Gently Weeps”). So it’s certainly not the best. But it ain’t bad, either.