On Saturday (Oct. 13), deep in the redwoods of Northern California, Todd Rundgren ran ahead of a group of 40 or so fans following him along an overgrown, precarious path to see if the trail might lead somewhere interesting, before snaking back to say that we’d made a wrong turn. His followers looked unperturbed; we were quite happy to be lost in the woods with Todd as part of this year’s Toddstock celebration.
Toddstock was born out of Rundgren’s appreciation for his uniquely devoted fanbase: in 2008, he generously invited fans to camp out in his backyard in Hawaii to celebrate his 60th birthday for the first ever gathering. The tradition continued five years later, when Rundgren celebrated his 65th with fans in Nottaway, Louisiana. This year, for his 70th, Rundgren spread the love over four events in Virginia, Scotland, California and Australia. If Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honorees were chosen based on mutual loyalty, Rundgren – a first time nominee this year – would be a shoo-in. For now, the vote remains organic. The Wi-Fi on site was robust, and those in attendance were closely monitoring the Hall of Fame standings and reminding each other to vote over breakfast biscuits.
The scheduled activities at the five-day California event had a rejuvenating summer camp vibe: morning vocal warm-ups with Rundgren’s wife and singer Michele Rundgren (The Intoxicats), afternoon painting with Prairie Prince (of The Tubes) in the art barn, and a ukulele jam session with Greg Hawkes (The Cars). Rundgren’s longtime right-hand man and Guitar Player columnist Jesse Gress broke down Rundgren’s unique song structure during his Saturday guitar lesson: “In Todd’s music, suspensions go to other suspensions.” On Monday (Oct. 15), Prairie Prince, Hawkes, and saxophonist Bobby Strickland brought a caravan of campers to Navarro Beach for a drum circle (yes, there was a beachy version of “Bang on the Drum”), Prairie feeding beachcombers smoked oysters and avocado as we watched whales spouting off shore.
Rundgren had no qualms about being fully accessible throughout Toddstock, visibly reveling in spending time with his fans. He accompanied a group on a tour of a local cannabis farm, stopped for photographs in his Viking hat, signed albums, played cornhole, hosted an uproarious version of Family Feud (a show Rundgren watches religiously), and ate dinner side-by-side with fans in the Lodge, democratically sitting next to someone new at every meal. At night, Rundgren, a former Boy Scout, joined us in singing songs around the campfire, everything from “Johnee Jingo” and “Something To Fall Back On” to a bacchanalian rendition of “Psycho Killer.” (No “Kumbaya” was tolerated at this campfire sing-along.)
Campers aimed to create a Burning Man-like atmosphere at Toddstock, setting up interactive light installations, decorating teepees with colorful flags and bright pink flamingos and trading homemade pins and stickers. Fans also provided their own music, performing Rundgren songs or songs by associated acts, joined on stage by Hawkes and Rundgren himself, as well as Michele Rundgren and Prairie Prince, who brought down the house with The Tubes’ iconic 1975 masterpiece “White Punks On Dope.”
Monday night culminated in an intimate Rundgren show just as the sun started to set between the giant trees towering over the stage. All were dressed in white (costume themes had been set for each night), lending an appropriate cult-like atmosphere. At the top of his hour-and-a-half set, Rundgren lamented his struggle to come up with a set list since the fans had already performed all his songs, before jumping into his lively and unpredictable repertoire – Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense & Peppermints,” Weezer’s “Hash Pipe,” and The Call’s “The Walls Came Down” alongside tight versions of his own classics “I Saw The Light,” “Love of the Common Man,” and “Lucky Guy.”
Later that night, as our final campfire sing-along was winding down, Rundgren — dressed in a sequin jacket and contemplatively cradling a martini — reminded the assembled circle of diehards that you can think about the future and the past, but all that really matters is what is happening right now. “Be here now,” he urged, smiling and opening his arms to the group of faithfuls. And we were, warmed by the glow of the fire and Rundgren’s igniting presence before we meandered back to our tents to think about finding our way back out of the woods.