Todd Rundgren has achieved just about all that anyone could imagine in more than 40 years in the music industry. As a musician and songwriter, he's regarded as a pioneer of the power-pop and progressive rock genres and has achieved chart success with numerous singles, including "Hello It's Me," "I Saw the Light," and "Bang the Drum All Day." As a producer/engineer, he's helmed classic albums by the Band, Meat Loaf, XTC, and the New York Dolls, just to name a few. And he's also lauded as a technological innovator in the fields of digital audio recording, videography, and computer-based animation.
Yet, in 2008, when Rundgren was set to unveil his newest collection of songs, the riff-heavy and (eventually) critically acclaimed Arena, the musician found it difficult to secure distribution. And in what became a strange twist of music-business fate, it was this unfortunate, if somewhat unfathomable, situation that ultimately became the impetus behind Rundgren's newest project, an album and live show based around the work of blues singer Robert Johnson cheekily titled Todd Rundgren's Johnson.
"I'm not sure inspiration is quite the word," Rundgren says. "I had some knowledge of Robert Johnson, of course, but he was never a big influence for me directly. Basically, I needed distribution for Arena, and the company I found to do it also administers the publishing for Robert Johnson's catalog but didn't own any of the actual recordings. So they made it a condition of the deal for Arena that I record a collection of Robert Johnson's songs, and that's how it started."
After the success of Arena (Rolling Stone's David Fricke called it "a bright, bullish return to Rundgren's specialties — paisley-mod punch, Who-ish guitar fireworks, and white-soul-boy woe"), Rundgren double-checked with the label to make sure a Robert Johnson covers album was still what it wanted. It was. But Rundgren still wasn't quite convinced:
"I was a bit apprehensive of any comparisons to Eric Clapton, who's made a second career of reworking blues songs and is known for Johnson's material in particular."
Even so, Rundgren eventually set about the task of researching Johnson's career and catalog, in an attempt to find a suitable approach for the project. This search eventually led him back to English blues revivalists, such as Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Jeff Beck, contemporaries of Rundgren's in the late '60s who had served as personal inspiration for him at the time, and more modern blues artists, such as Buddy Guy, Albert King, and Paul Butterfield.
"I just felt that instead of emulating Robert Johnson directly, it would be better for me to focus on more second-hand, indirect influences that were more meaningful to me," Rundgren says. "Which essentially means more recently living, latter-day artists."
The album version of Todd Rundgren's Johnson is slated for release next month, but a three-song preview, Short Johnson, is already available for download on iTunes, Amazon.com, etc.
For the live show, Rundgren also combed through his own vast catalog, selecting old and new songs with a strong blues influence to go with the Johnson material.
"It actually turned out to not be so bizarre," Rundgren says. "If I'd been a strict stylist in my career, it might have been more difficult, but there's a strange plausibility to me doing a blues-themed show. My first real working gig in music was in a blues band [Woody's Truck Stop], so it makes sense."
After the touring and promotion for Todd Rundgren's Johnson is completed, Rundgren will turn his attention back to performing classic material of his own, a project he began late last year with a series of ambitious live re-creations of the influential 1973 psychedelic album A Wizard, A True Star in Europe and the U.S. As decided by a fan vote, Rundgren will stage full live versions of the albums Todd (1974) and Healing (1981) this fall.
"These shows are proposed and promoted by the fans," Rundgren says. "I'm lucky to have a very loyal audience. It seems like some of them will come out for just about anything. But because the album re-creation shows are a much bigger production with a bigger band and more expenses, I can't afford to do them all the time."
That said, don't expect a dull or drab set from Rundgren, a consummate performer who, at age 61, shows no signs of slowing down. He returns to Memphis this week.
"If I didn't feel like the show or my playing was up to a certain level, I wouldn't do it," Rundgren says. "I don't really focus on my level of popularity or success anymore. I'm more focused on maintaining a level of quality, for myself and the fans."
Todd Rundgren plays the New Daisy Wednesday, April 21st.