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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Utopia Live in the USA

For the first time in 32 years, performer/producer Todd Rundgren is reuniting his band Utopia for an extended tour of the United States.

Founded as a progressive septet specializing in synthesizer-heavy, instrumentally-oriented wigouts, Utopia served as both Rundgren’s dedicated live band and an outlet for his more experimental music.  However, as Rundgren’s solo albums kept getting wilder, Utopia went a different way, shedding two of three keyboard players, picking up Kasim Sulton as bassist and co-vocalist, and morphing from the proggy hard rock  of Ra (including the tongue-in-cheek epic “Singring and the Glass Guitar — An Electrified Fairy Tale”) to sleek power pop with cooperative songwriting, tight harmonies and a high-tech sheen.

With Roger Powell on keyboards and Willie Wilcox on drums, Utopia hit a commercial peak on the albums Oops! Wrong Planet (including “Love Is the Answer,” later a pop hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley) and Adventures In Utopia (intended as the soundtrack for a Monkees-like TV series that never happened).   The band’s highest visibility may have been as the backing group for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album, which Rundgren produced.

True to Rundgren’s restless musical tastes, Utopia then veered off into the commercial dead ends of Deface the Music (an album of Beatles pastiches) and Swing to the Right (a concept record slamming early Reaganism).   Rundgren’s pioneering video work for the band gained extensive play on the fledging MTV, but the quartet petered out in 1985, only reuniting for a 1992 tour of Japan.

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A Song for Our Surveilled Time

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of an overlooked landmark of blue-eyed soul — Hall and Oates’ AbaFile:Hall Oates War Babies.jpgndoned Luncheonette.

But I’m not going to write about that.  Digging up and sharing “Laughing Boy” to my Facebook wall sent me on a tangent to locate another lost “jewel” from their 1974 follow-up, War Babies.  Produced by Todd Rundgren, this LP was as close as the Philadelphia duo came to exploring the boundaries of art rock (Daryl Hall would revisit the medium with his Robert Fripp-produced Sacred Songs).  It’s a post-traumatic tale of life in the stagflationary doldrums, when “radical Islam” was merely a pawn to be maneuvered against an existential Soviet threat.

The song I was searching for is track 2, side 2, entitled “I’m Watching You (A Mutant Romance).”  Now, unless you’ve been under a rock or living with Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen in a swamp, you are surely aware of the Snowden revelations of sweeping government snooping.   “I’m Watching You” eerily anticipates such a claustrophobic dystopia by nearly four decades.

It’s the first-person narrative of a “dirty spy with a TV eye” following the wanderings of a prostitute (“Jewel”) through the city, the sweeping movement of the surveillance camera captured by Tommy Mottola’s synthesizer.  There’s  enough resolution to make out the smile on her lips; she reminds him of a girl he used to know in junior high (my wife and kids, on a field trip to a police public safety office, were rather disquieted by the detail the cameras could detect — “The wasps looked like dinosaurs, dad!”).

Our hidden narrator bemoans the moments when she disappears with a client into a building.  But when she reemerges he can “love” her, “as a man can love a woman.”

It makes you want to sign up for HTTPS Everywhere and Do Not Track Me, shut down the kids’ chat sites and cover your computer’s camera with duct tape.  Todd Rundgren’s sweet slide guitar and angelic backing vocals, far from making this savory, only intensify the irony.

But it serves as a troubling insight into a world of some troubled snoops (and they are bound to exist), the tension between the necessity of public safety and private fantasy, between what is real and what is imagined in the darkness behind watching eyes…