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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