Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, 20 Monroe Live, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 15, 2018.
Thirty minutes into their opening set, Utopia had played just three songs — the entirety of the sprawling “Utopia Theme”, a five-minute instrumental chunk of the half-hour epic “The Ikon” and the extended progressive soul workout “Another Life.” Todd Rundgren seared and soared on guitar; Kasim Sulton dexterously laid down the thunder on bass; Willie Wilcox channeled the jazz drumming greats he grew up on; and tour keyboardist Gil Assayas adeptly covered piano, horn and synth parts originally done by three people. All that, plus pin-sharp four-part harmonies. No wonder that Rundgren’s first words to the audience were, “we call that ‘The Blizzard,’” before Utopia stepped “out of the notestream” with a hard-rocking take on The Move’s “Do Ya.”
Surprisingly for a tour marketed to fans of classic pop-rock (their first in 33 years), the first half of Utopia’s show leaned on proggier repertoire; the precision-tooled flurries of notes kept coming, whether packed into tight unison licks or splattered across plentiful solo slots. There were lots of stellar vocal moments too: Rundgren traveled effortlessly across his multi-octave range on “Freedom Fighters” and “The Wheel”; Sulton played a genial McCartney to Todd’s acerbic Lennon on the gritty “Back on the Street” and the yearning “Monument”; and the choral build of “Communion with the Sun” fit perfectly with the giant pyramid & sphinx projected on the back screen. All in all, impressive, well-wrought stuff, performed with enthusiasm and landing with maximum impact.
The second set did take a decided turn toward power-pop. Tunes like “The Road to Utopia”, “Love in Action” and “Hammer in My Heart” consistently cut to the chase, with less time between sing-along choruses, briefer solo spots and more opportunities to clap along in rhythm. (And honestly, I’ve always preferred Utopia’s simpler moments; from 1977 on, they consistently mixed killer riffs, Beatlesque vocals and hi-tech gloss into tasty pop cocktails, with just enough rock crunch to give their albums an decided kick.) They even played the perfect song for my lovely wife — “Princess of the Universe,” with Wilcox’s only lead vocal of the night.
Ultimately, the gathering energy of the second set had the desired result; as Rundgren ditched his guitar to focus on singing, the audience leapt to their feet for the gospel-flavored home stretch of “Love Is the Answer,” “One World” and “Just One Victory.” Without question, Utopia deserved their standing ovation at the end; just over halfway through this tour, they’d given the 800-900 folks in attendance a evening of first-class music delivered with gusto (as well as with spectacular hi-definition visuals). Here’s hoping this week’s planned audio/video recording of their Chicago show came off, so lots more fans can see and hear it. A thrilling, fun concert!
- The “Prog Rock” Set:
- Utopia Theme
- The Ikon
- Another Life
- Do Ya (Jeff Lynne, originally by The Move, later covered by ELO)
- Freedom Fighters
- The Wheel
- Back on the Street
- Something’s Coming (Leonard Bernstein & Steven Sondheim, from West Side Story)
- Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise (Bernard Herrmann, from the movie soundtrack Journey to the Center of the Earth)
- Communion With the Sun
- Last of the New Wave Riders
- The “Power Pop” Set:
- The Road to Utopia
- Play This Game
- Swing to the Right
- Set Me Free
- Love in Action
- Hammer in My Heart
- Princess of the Universe
- I Will Wait
- Rock Love
- Love Is the Answer
- One World
- Just One Victory
5 thoughts on “In Concert: On the Road with Utopia”
Wow. Sounds excellent, Rick. I’m jealous!
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One of these days we have get together for a show — Grand Rapids has more and more good stuff coming to town these days (Steve Hackett, Marillion, Utopia in the past year, and I’d be going to the upcoming Yes show if it wasn’t the night before our vacation).
I was just going to ask if you were going to the Yes show, Rick. I’m in Grand Rapids for the summer interning at the Gerald Ford Museum, and I’m thinking of going to that show.
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