with Paul Freeman
Plaza Theatre, Orlando, FL • 3-29-09
Carl F Gauze
As I stood in line with all the comb-overs, graying ponytails, and black tee shirts, I heard an amazing amount of detailed musical information from the sort of obsessive vinyl collectors that keep the spirit of rock and roll alive. Anecdotes about obscure drummers and long-forgotten opening acts mixed with commentary on digital mixing methods and what sort of microphones Stevie Ray Vaughn prefers. These were the survivors of the late ’60s and ’70s, now ensconced in the sort of comfortable middle class so widely rejected when they smelled bad and took random chemicals with gay abandon and no thought of the present future.
Inside the historic Plaza Theatre, noteworthy as the first desegregated movie house in Orlando, there were two shows tonight. A Christian metal band thumped along on the left side of the house, and the rest of us grabbed a few beers and some popcorn and headed to the right side to see one of the Gods of Progressive Rock. The audience had the casual feel of a small-town wrestling crowd — people chatted and shook hands and acted like they hadn’t seen each other in almost two weeks. We dealt with some confusion regarding the starting time — tickets said 8, posters said 9, so the opening act split the difference and went on at 8:30.
Paul Freeman is a delightful acoustic guitarist from Wales; he has the boyish look of a young Paul McCartney and a voice twice as sweet. His only accompanist was drummer Carl Aulty, who occasionally used a harmonium as a sort of mini-keyboard. His set was too short — a few originals like “With All My Strength” and “Last Man Standing” mixed with some gentle covers including the Travelling Wilburys’ “Handle Me With Care.” The audience took him to heart, shouting personal questions between songs. As his minimal equipment was packed away, the audience continued its lively chatting, and grabbed a few more beers.
Rundgren’s elaborate musical arrangements stood in stark contrast to Freeman’s simplicity. Rundgren has played all over the rock spectrum from progressive to soft rock to a harder electric sound that dominated tonight’s show. He warmed up with some of his bigger hits, which the savvy fans around me predicted with amazing accuracy. “I Saw the Light” was the biggie, and then he moved on to his new album Arena, a collection of 13 one word title songs.
Mr. Rundgren delivered a rocking show, jumping and dancing like he was still in danger of getting carded. He never attempted a stage jump. Just as well, I don’t think the crowd could catch a musician and pass him back through seats anymore. His back-up band had a few new members and a few older ones, none of whom were introduced. The cutest was the blonde bass player (Rachel Haden of that dog and The Rentals). Like all good bass players, she kept the calm center of the show while the rest of the crew bounced around her. The stage consisted of little more than a riser and some large white sheets, illuminated with a few lights and a smoke machine. In the wings a sound guy and some technicians kept busy patching microphones and other equipment. Stuff was breaking, but never to the point that the show lost its sound or energy. Rundgren kept his audience amused and banging their heads, and while the sound was loud, it was mixed very cleanly. For a medium-sized show, it felt very homey and the audience treated Mr. Rundgren like a long-lost college roommate. It was almost like having a backstage pass.