In Concert: On the Road with Utopia

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.

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3.2, The Rules Have Changed

After Emerson Lake & Palmer’s late-1970s collapse, the separate members of the trio didn’t stop making music, releasing solo projects, launching new bands — and often working with one (but never both!) of their former colleagues.

The last such project before ELP’s 1990’s reunion was 3, a Geffen Records brainstorm to bring together the post-Lake & Powell Keith Emerson, the post-Asia Carl Palmer and guitarist/vocalist Robert Berry, a hot young gun from Los Angeles in the Trevor Rabin mold.  Aiming for another 90125 (or at least another GTR), the 1988 album To the Power of Three had some solid, intriguing moments — but it wasn’t pop enough to yield a substantial hit, or prog enough to reactivate ELP’s fanbase.  When Geffen cut off tour support and ordered 3 back into the studio for another album, Emerson pulled the plug on the band.

Fast forward to March 2016.   With an archive live release from 3’s US tour stirring fresh interest, Berry and Emerson planned to collaborate on a duo album, updating and re-energizing their sound for an environment where prog of all stripes had found an audience again.  Then, succumbing to depression on the eve of a Japanese solo tour, Emerson killed himself.

Nevertheless, using co-written songs and musical ideas Keith Emerson left behind, Robert Berry (also a classically trained pianist) persisted, playing all the instruments himself for the now-solo project 3.2.  The result is The Rules Have Changeddue for release on August 10 from Frontiers Records.  No less of a progressive music authority than Innerviews editor Anil Prasad calls it “an expertly-executed and performed album that takes the spirit of the first 3 release and propels it into edgier and more adventurous territory, while retaining the melodic qualities of its predecessor.”

I got to meet Robert Berry a couple years back, when his charity band December People (playing Christmas songs in the styles of classic rock and prog artists) toured Michigan for the holidays.  Our brief conversation revealed him as a down to earth guy, with fond memories of his time in 3 and deep respect for Keith Emerson.  Based on the sample track “Somebody’s Watching,” which absolutely captures the sound of the original band at their most daring and delightful, I’m definitely looking forward to The Rules Have Changed, and I wish Berry’s 3.2 project all the success in the world.

— Rick Krueger

 

Rick’s Retroarchy — Procol Harum, Still There’ll Be More: An Anthology, 1967-2017

Take a Dylanesque verbal collage by lyricist Keith Reid; marry it to instantly appealing melody and harmony — passionately sung and played by R&B pianist Gary Brooker, drawing equally on Baroque grandeur (Bach’s “Air on the G String”) and dramatic soul (Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”).  Then garnish with Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ counterpoint.  The result: “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum’s first single, a defining hit of 1967, and one of progressive rock’s most influential precursors.

You can argue Procol Harum (Brooker, Reid, drummer B.J. Wilson and a shifting supporting cast — notably Fisher and guitarist Robin Trower) never topped their debut, either artistically or commercially.  But they made excellent music for a decade, with reunions every 12-15 years after that — thirteen fine albums that consistently engaged the mind, gut and heart. The latest installment in Procol’s current reissue campaign, Esoteric Recordings’  Still There’ll Be More: An Anthology, 1967-2017 , is the long-overdue box set this band richly deserves.

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Bill Bruford on Creativity

I really was going to write about hearing Bill Bruford’s scintillating lecture “Give the Drummer Some: Distributed Creativity in Popular Music Performance” with a packed house at the University of Michigan’s School of Music.  But stuff happened.

As previewed here, two days after the Bruford lecture I traveled to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Grand Rapids Symphony & Chorus.  (How’d it’d go? 15 seconds of singing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on The Today Show, 2300 in attendance on the night with multiple standing ovations, and a solid review from the New York Timesso it was cool.)  This was followed, not just by the renewed demands of workday life, but also by ten days of the death flu (from which I’ve finally recovered).

With all this intervening, the best thing is for you to do is check out Dr. Bruford’s lecture, as delivered last year at Edinburgh Napier University.  My impressions and photos will follow the jump:

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Cedric Hendrix, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This

Given that my series on The Albums That Changed My Life has stalled, it’s good that I never started the parallel series I contemplated last year: The Books About Music That Changed My Life.  (Yeah, clunky title.)

I’ve mentioned some of these before.  Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever shaped my teenage Fab fandom; John Culshaw’s Putting the Record Straight served up vignettes of classical composers and conductors — quintessential concert musicians — in the “artificial” environment of the studio; Joe Jackson’s A Cure for Gravity is a sharp, sardonic memoir by an uncannily observant musician, warily treading the path to pop stardom.  And there are more: Glenn Watkins’ passionately encyclopedic Soundings: Music in the 20th Century (which I read in pre-publication form for his class at the University of Michigan School of Music); Greil Marcus’ giddy, eccentric cultural study Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music; Sid Smith’s frank, definitive band biography In the Court of King Crimson.

I don’t think Cedric Hendrix would put himself in the same league as these authors.  But reading his first book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music for Eclectic Ears, provided a similar experience for me.  Finishing it up, I thought, “Yeah.  That’s what it’s like.  He caught it.”

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How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

If you’re part of the Grand Rapids Symphony and Chorus, here’s how:

“We submitted a proposal, and Carnegie got interested in us,” [music director Marcelo] Lehninger said. “There was one specific program in the season that they really enjoyed, and they had a date available, and we could go there the week after we performed the programming in Grand Rapids. So, it was just all the stars aligning,” he laughed. “We said ‘you know what, let’s go now.’”

So a week from tomorrow, I’ll be on a plane for New York City, one of nearly 250 instrumentalists and singers making the pilgrimage.  We settle in Thursday, rehearse Friday morning, let it rip on April 20th at 8 pm, then head back home on Saturday — hopefully basking in the satisfaction of a job well done!

(And yes, everybody’s practicing, practicing, practicing these days.)

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Perfect Beings, Vier

What would you do if your drummer and bassist quit?  The remaining members of Perfect Beings — vocalist/keyboardist Ryan Hurtgen, keyboardist Jesse Nason and guitarist Johannes Luley — upped the ante.  Their goal became “a four-sided double vinyl album with four continuous compositions that cover one side of each album,” with Luley on bass and sessioneer Ben Levin on drums.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, Perfect Beings’ second goal was avoiding the dead spots some listeners (including me) find in their obvious model, Yes’ divisive Tales from Topographic Oceans.  I’m happy to say the band’s superb new album Vier (German for “four”) succeeds on both counts.  It’s sound is spacious and elegant, but it’s not about style over substance,  The music is thoroughly, consistently enticing; something marvelous is always happening, and the band’s sense of invention seems inexhaustible.

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