Todd Rundgren wanted to do something major to mark the 30th anniversary of his 1989 “Nearly Human” album. After all, the soulful full-length contained the artist’s last-charting single, “The Want of a Nail,” featuring R&B legend Bobby Womack. It was also his very first collaboration with his backup singer and future wife, Michele Gray.
But touring the record — set down live in a studio with musicians from three different groups, including Rundgren’s previous power-pop band, Utopia, The Tubes and Bourgeois Tagg —would be too expensive of an undertaking, requiring at least 10 performers and a slew of supporting equipment.
Even if he could afford such a large-scale tour, the pandemic made in-person shows impossible.
That’s when the “I Saw The Light,” “Hello It’s Me” and “Bang The Drum All Day” singer decided to put an idea he had conceived years earlier into action and launch the first-ever multi-city virtual tour, hitting The City on Friday.
“But how do you make this show special, worth watching, worth paying for and different from other stuff you’re doing,” Rundgren wondered. “By designing this whole thing to not just be a one-shot blast-out-to-the-whole-planet kind of thing. It needs to feel like a regular tour.”
One-off virtual concerts were already becoming commonplace in 2020, but Rundgren had the unique challenge of turning repeated broadcasts from one event space in Chicago into unique, localized experiences for him, his 10-piece band and audiences—over the course of a 25-date tour.
Working with the live-streaming company NoCap and his longtime manager, Eric Gardner, he developed what would be dubbed the “Clearly Human Virtual Tour.”
Coinciding with the rerelease of “Nearly Human” on CD and vinyl and incorporating the entire album as well as hits from Rundgren’s 50-plus-year catalog, the show also promises city-specific production elements like regional landmarks appearing on a video wall and locally flavored catering backstage for the band and crew.
So that the performers can feel like they’re playing to actual faces, the seats in the first few rows will be filled with cardboard screenshot photos of a sampling of those attending virtually along with a handful of in-person ticketholders.
Those at home will have the option of switching between viewing angles so that they’re not stuck looking at the same band member for the entire duration of the show. Remote meet-and-greets were added as an upgrade for those who want to get more up close and personal with Rundgren.
“The whole idea is the localization, the emphasis on the place,” says Rundgren. “So that we essentially feel like we’re in the place that we’re virtually playing, we want to see people we’d ordinarily expect from that city.”
Such a major technological undertaking might scare off other artists. But Rundgren has never shied away from boldly going where no other artist has gone before — especially when it comes to new ways of bringing music to his fan base.
In 1978, he produced the first-ever interactive television concert, and four years later, the first cablecast of a rock show. In 1998, he delivered the first online direct artist subscription service, which he dubbed PatroNet, and in 2016, the first full-length concert shot with multiple Virtual Reality 360-degree cameras.
While the “Clearly Human Virtual Tour” setup—not to mention the “Nearly Human” album, with its timely themes of loss, doubt and faith—heavily resonate in today’s socially-distanced world, Rundgren originally came up with the innovative concept years ago as a way to potentially reduce his own carbon footprint.
He hopes his tour will inspire other artists to follow suit—even after the pandemic eases up.
“We want to make this a model,” says Rundgren. “When we finish our virtual tour in March, I don’t see why some other band might not book their own, because ideally, by that time, we’ll discover all the things that make it work and all the things that are issues that need to be addressed.”
IF YOU WATCH
Todd Rundgren: Clearly Human Virtual Tour
When: 8 p.m. March 19