Back then he was releasing his gold solo double album Something/Anything?; engineering the Band’s Stage Fright, recorded in the Woodstock Playhouse; producing Grand Funk Railroad and Meat Loaf’s classic Bat Out of Hell. His songs “Can We Still Be Friends?” and “Bang the Drum All Day” are still radio staples, or on movie soundtracks.
Now, the always-innovative musician will return to his old neighborhood with a Bearsville Theater show at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, and with a new venture: Todd Rundgren’s Musical Survival Camp, which will run Monday, June 20 through Friday, June 24 at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian. “I imagine [the Camp] could be interpreted in a number of ways, but principally it is one of these new-model-type things ever since the music business started to disintegrate,” says Rundgren, in an interview from Hawaii. “Artists have been experimenting with different ways of tour support, royalties…They started doing these musical camps – I think Dweezil Zappa was one of the first to do it. His approach was more in line to come and learn about guitar-playing and specific musical approaches.
“When I had this opportunity to do this, I felt that method was exclusive regarding people who could play. I had this idea to make it a little more inclusive and about a broader range of topics. Essentially it’s a four-day series of seminars and panels about all different aspects of the music business. It may have great relevance to a musician, but it will be informative to people who aren’t necessarily musicians, if you just want to understand how the music business works these days – or doesn’t work. We’ll have plenty of music, jamming in the evenings. Campers will be able to experience what it’s like to ride on a tour bus…”
The Camp will have sessions on “Prognostication,” including an in-depth deconstruction of the history of recorded music, designed to reveal insights into its future; on the smartest equipment, software and personal time investments; how to tell good from bad music and the choices that go into creating popular music; fashion trends, hair and what works as far as dressing up goes; the dangers and rewards of roadie life; how to deal with celebrity; e-promotion; and yes, the tour bus. Counselors include Cars keyboard player Greg Hawkes; guitarist Jesse Gress, who has been touring and recording with Rundgren since 1991; singer/songwriter Kasim Sulton, who has worked with Rundgren and Utopia; musician/journalist Lenny Kaye; clothing designer Rachel Culp; legendary broadcaster Pete Fornatale; video professors, stage techs, entrepreneurs, fan liaisons and more. For the Bearsville Theater show, the band will include Gress, Sulton, Prairie Prince and John Ferenzik.
Since the music business is down the tubes, so to speak, what keeps artists like Rundgren alive? “I’m doing okay, hanging in there. A lot of other artists I know that are in the same sort of boat are struggling to find new ways to exploit their talents. I find myself participating in other people’s projects, albums people have done recently. I was one of four or five artists who last summer got to play three nights at the Hollywood Bowl with an orchestra doing Beatles songs. Last October I conducted a professorship at Indiana University. Then I did a tour of New Zealand and Australia, and it was the first time I’d been there. In that particular instance I couldn’t afford to take my band, so I had to pick up musicians there. In January, we did a recording camp, had campers come and participate in the recording of a record. Fortunately there’s a loyal audience that stays with me no matter what I do.”
And creatively? “Musically, I’m sort of in between things. It’s been a strange couple of years. After my last studio album Arena, the label asked me to do an album of Robert Johnson songs. My first gig as a musician was in a blues band, so I figured, ‘What the hell.’ Now that it has come out, I’ve already toured it.” The album is called, well…Todd Rundgren’s Johnson. “I actually had in the back of my mind that one day I wanted to play some blues. It’s a lot of fun to play – not to have to be so precise, to stretch out; and we did that for a tour or two, with the audience scratching their heads.”
The latest tour is of the Northeast, mostly in smaller towns at performing arts centers. “They’re usually not downtown, but they’re usually the most well-maintained building in a small town. Now I’m trying to build a show that I can take out and plug into something like a tour of performing arts centers – places that have a lot of season ticketholders. So a significant number of people who come out are not necessarily fans; they see whoever comes. If I do a show that’s geared to my own fans, it’s a little too obscure for them. So I focus on more familiar material: songs that were not necessarily hits, but have found their way into the public consciousness.
Anything he wants to say to his old neighbors in Woodstock? “Hi, folks. See you in a couple of weeks.”
And a final plug for the Camp? “Just come on out, we’ve got a few places left. The economy has made people wonder how to spend their vacations. But I promise it will be memorable.”