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.