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Todd’s Blues: Rundgren’s Live “Johnson” Captured On CD/DVD Set

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Todd Rundgren - Johnson LiveWhen Todd Rundgren’s Johnson was released in April 2011, the singer-songwriter’s longtime fans were forgiven for greeting the album with surprise.  While Toddheads have been trained to expect the unexpected, Johnson was a departure from even the artist’s most outré projects.  It was Rundgren’s first-ever all-covers album, and its subject wasn’t a songwriter whose influence was readily apparent in Rundgren’s own music.  (At various points in his career, a tribute to Laura Nyro or Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell might have seemed more appropriate, though the restlessly creative Rundgren was apparently never tempted.  1976’s Faithful featured one side of covers, and 1980’s Utopia release Deface the Music paid clever homage to The Beatles with all-original tunes.)   The subject was the late Delta blues legend Robert Johnson – hence, the rather unfortunately jokey album title.  But Johnson did give Rundgren the chance to utilize his own considerable guitar talents – and now, the artist is revisiting the album with Esoteric Recordings’ new CD/DVD release of Todd Rundgren’s Johnson Live, recorded in 2010.

Rundgren was approached to record the all-Johnson album by the distributor of his well-received 2008 rock record Arena.  He told journalist Graham Reid, “So it came time to do distribution for Arena and the company that made the deal also happened to administer the Robert Johnson music publishing. They made as a requirement to distributing Arena that I record an album of Robert Johnson tunes as well. They claimed to me that they were getting many requests for Johnson songs to be used in films and TV shows…[and] while they had the publishing, they had no recorded versions.”  He admitted, “I agreed to do it mostly because I wanted to get my record out and thought I would figure out how to deal with this later.”

Yet inspiration did strike Rundgren.  Speaking to Guitar World, he revealed that “The album is a tribute to the white players of the Sixties who were influenced by Robert Johnson — guys like Clapton, the Bluesbreakers and Michael Bloomfield.  It was modeled after the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album from 1966. That one really turned heads. It was like an atom bomb for guitarists.”  Johnson played like an off-kilter tribute to Robert Johnson filtered through the heavily-charged, amped-up sensibility of those pioneering blues-rockers.  Indeed, one of Rundgren’s earliest musical affiliations was with the band Woody’s Truck Stop, and the Woody’s sound took cues from blues-rock with a major twist of psychedelia.

After the jump: more on Johnson Live, plus the full CD/DVD track listing and order links!

Rundgren took the Johnson material out on the road for a tryout before the release of the actual album.  The studio LP was recorded with Rundgren playing all instruments save bass, which was handled by Kasim Sulton.  For the tour, he was joined by a small band including Sulton, Jesse Gress on guitar, and The Tubes’ Prairie Prince on drums.  Johnson Live preserves the performance of April 11, 2010 at Connecticut’s Ridgefield Playhouse, and follows Esoteric’s releases of concerts from 1990 (with his Nearly Human band) and 2012 (with the Metropole Orchestra).

The electric blues workout captured in Connecticut has been distilled to 16 tracks on CD, but the DVD includes 20 songs.  Most of the songs that ended up on Johnson were played live and can be heard on the CD/DVD, including “Dust My Broom,” “Stop Breaking Down,” “Kindhearted Woman Blues,” “Love in Vain,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Come On in My Kitchen,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Travelling Riverside Blues” and “Crossroads Blues.”  Perhaps to avoid Johnson fatigue or somewhat sate those hoping for a show of Rundgren songs, the band weaved some Todd staples and rarities into the setlist.  The CD includes renditions of “Bleeding” from Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, “Unloved Children” from Nearly Human, “I Went to the Mirror” from Something/Anything, Boogies (Hamburger Hell)” from Faithful, “Kiddie Boy” from The Nazz’s Nazz Nazz, and even the S/A hit single “I Saw the Light.”  The DVD adds “Soul Brother” from Liars, “Black Maria” from S/A, “Open My Eyes” from The Nazz, and “Weakness” from Arena. The end result is actually a tour through many sides of the multi-faceted singer/guitarist/songwriter’s ouevre.  And even the Johnson songs take on a different dimension from the album versions with Rundgren supported by a crack band.

Todd Rundgren’s Johnson Live is packaged in a digipak and includes a color booklet with images from the concert.  The CD/DVD set from Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings label is available now, and can be ordered at the links below!

Todd Rundgren, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson Live (Esoteric EANTCD 21025, 2013) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

CD:

  1. Dust My Broom
  2. Stop Breaking Down
  3. Kiddie Boy
  4. Kindhearted Woman Blues
  5. Bleeding
  6. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  7. Love in Vain
  8. Sweet Home Chicago
  9. Unloved Children
  10. I Went to the Mirror
  11. Come On in My Kitchen
  12. Hellhound on My Trail
  13. Travelling Riverside Blues
  14. Crossroads Blues
  15. I Saw the Light
  16. Boogies (Hamburger Hell)

DVD:

  1. Dust My Broom
  2. Stop Breaking Down
  3. Kiddie Boy
  4. Soul Brother
  5. Kindhearted Woman Blues
  6. Bleeding
  7. Black Maria
  8. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  9. Love in Vain
  10. Open My Eyes
  11. Sweet Home Chicago
  12. Unloved Children
  13. I Went to the Mirror
  14. Come On in My Kitchen
  15. Hellhound on My Trail
  16. Weakness
  17. Travelling Riverside Blues
  18. Crossroads Blues
  19. I Saw the Light
  20. Boogies (Hamburger Hell)

Written by Joe Marchese

January 6, 2014 at 09:43

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