TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA

(9 May, 2018; Peabody Opera House, Saint Louis, MO)

From the Nazz through his various solo outings, masterful production work and, particularly the ten albums released under the Utopia banner, I have been a fan of Todd Rundgren for a very long time. Sure, my previous experience with the live Rundgren had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but… this was Utopia! I knew that I must see the reunited progressive pop quartet that was responsible for the final eight Utopia albums, including ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA and OOPS! WRONG PLANET; Todd would be reuniting with Kasim Sulton, John “Willie” Wilcox and the keyboardist from the initial Todd Rundgren’s Utopia records, Ralph Schuckett, supplanting Roger Powell, who had to step away from playing in 2009 because of his health. When Ralph was forced to recuse himself due to health concerns of his own, Rundgren’s son suggested they check out a guy named Gil Assayas, who stepped into the very large shoes left by Schucket and Powell. Though Sulton and Todd had continued working together since the band’s unofficial dissolution, Utopia had not played together on North American soil for over three decades. Let’s just say that I was more than mildly stoked when I received confirmation that I would be granted access to this show. Before delving into specifics, might I also say that I was not disappointed!

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The guys very wisely split the show into two very different sets: The first half featured the longer, more progressively-attuned material (primarily from the first offering, TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA and the concept album, RA) with a couple of covers tossed in for good measure; the second half of the show concentrated more on the skewed pop asthetics of later records like UTOPIA and SWING TO THE RIGHT. The stage configuration for the first set featured Rundgren center-stage (was there any doubt about that?), Kasim holding down stage right with Wilcox on a riser behind him and Assayas on a riser stage left… a very prog rock look, fitting perfectly with the music. And, what music! Opening the evening’s festivities was a medley of classic Utopia tunes – “Utopia,” “The Ikon” and “Another Life” – which Todd affectionately dubbed “the Storm” after the tempest had subsided. “As you may have surmised, there’s a thing going around and I got it!,” the Runt declared before, apparently, hocking up a lung and ripping into a killer version of the Move’s “Do Ya.” The sound was virtually immaculate other than the occasional over-modulation of Todd’s mic. “Freedom Fighters,” one of my favorite tunes from my favorite Utopia album, is up next and Gil Assayas’ keyboards are on-point with that record’s version.

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Todd Rundgren) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Kasim Sulton) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The high notes were not coming off too well, as Todd’s affliction seemed to get the better of him on “The Wheel.” Later in the tune, Rundgren’s solo falsetto voice sounded stronger, if a bit strained. A very nice version. Kasim Sulton took the lead on “Back On the Street.” The number has a thumping groove and Todd looked absolutely hyped to be working in a true band environment again. Leonard Bernstein’s kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, “Something’s Coming,” from WEST SIDE STORY, comes off sounding very much like a kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, a great detour from the progressive pop that is this bands bread and butter. Kasim was back on lead vocals for “Monument,” a rather lightweight attempt at a hit single from Utopia’s last official studio release, 1985’s POV. The song’s break, however, does feature a really nice solo from Rundgren and a cool short blast from Assayas. A very cool visual backdrop adds to the atmosphere and the power of Willie Wilcox and Assayas’ introduction for “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise.” Sulton and Rundgren join in before a fist-pumping take of “Communion With the Sun,” highlighting the strength of an often-overlooked classic of the progressive era, RA. The coupling was absolutely great, with some nice vocal harmonies and all four players hitting on all cylinders. “Last of the New Wave Riders,” one of the stellar tracks from the group’s 1980 record, ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA, brought the first half of the show to a rousing conclusion. As the curtain closed, Todd tells the crowd, “We’ll see you in twenty.”

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Willie Wilcox) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As the curtain opened for the second set to a recorded intro to “Road To Utopia,” a more traditional stage set-up was revealed, with Willie’s drums now sitting center-stage back, with Gil’s keyboard rig in basically the same spot it occupied before the break; both musicians were now situated on a level with Todd and Kasim, the previous set’s risers having been removed. A quick look at the time as the quartet took the stage again – playing a spirited version of one of my favorite numbers from Utopia’s “pop period” – indicated that they were gone for nearly forty minutes. The additional rest seemed to work wonders for Rundgren’s voice, so I cannot be upset over a break that was nearly twice as long as promised. This second set proved to be punchier than the first, with shorter, more melodic songs emphasizing a true band dynamic. The point is driven home by Kasim Sulton’s lead vocals on the next two tunes, POV’s “Play This Game” and the jazz-tinged “Swing To the Right.” “Trapped” featured a patented Rundgren guitar freakout and, though Todd continued to take a few vocal turns (mostly choruses and harmony parts), it seemed at this point that Kasim was doing most of the leads after the group’s return to the stage. I thought that it may have been Rundgren’s illness forcing a readjustment of the set list but, after checking set-lists from previous nights, it would appear that Sulton’s songs were bunched together like this since the beginning of the tour. “Set Me Free” gave way to a very nice version of “Love In Action,” with Todd once again taking the lead vocal. “Hammer In My Heart” seemed to indicate that the Wizard was saving his voice for the “radio/MTV hits.” Though obviously ailing, Rundgren continued to push through with some quite animated and very spirited guitar histrionics.

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Kasim Sulton, Todd Rundgren) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Gil Assayas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Willie Wilcox got his “Ringo moment,” as he took the lead on “Princess of the Universe,” a very Nazz-like pop thing from 1982’s UTOPIA before Sulton again sings lead on “I Will Wait” from OBLIVION. A Philadelphian at heart, Todd always pushed a bit of the Philly Soul sound into his music. “Rock Love” was his “James Brown moment,” setting aside his guitar, exhorting the crowd and his bandmates like a Baptist preacher on a Sunday morning, to ever greater heights of ecstasy. Kasim, on guitar, played a nifty solo. With Sulton back on bass, Rundgren delivered a powerful, if strained (and guitar-less) “Love Is the Answer” as, finally, the audience rose to its feet for a sing-along, clap-along ending. With the Runt looking a little the worse for wear, he nonetheless strapped on the guitar for the final number of the show proper, “One World.” After a short break, the band returned for one final song, a cover of sorts – an emotional, Gospel-tinged “Just One Victory” from Todd’s 1973 solo release, A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR. The evening was everything I could have hoped for (well, I wouldn’t have minded if they did “Itch In My Brain” but, that’s a minor infraction) and, I gotta say, that even though he wasn’t feeling too well, Mister Rundgren looked pretty good for a guy that’s (mumble-mumble) years old.


IAN ANDERSON

(14 July, 2013; PEABODY OPERA HOUSE, Saint Louis, MO)

THICK AS A BRICK 2 (band photo by MARTIN WEBB)

THICK AS A BRICK 2 band (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Three fifths of the (very likely) final incarnation of Jethro Tull descended upon the beautiful Peabody Opera House (formerly the Kiel Opera House, lo those many years ago) on this hot mid-July evening. Ian Anderson, whose latest solo outing is THICK AS A BRICK 2: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO GERALD BOSTOCK, is in full TAAB mode on the current US tour, performing the seminal Tull album in full, followed (after a short intermission) by a complete reading of the sequel. This is a move that a lot of “classic” acts have taken up quite recently and, while – more often than not – they don’t live up to the hype (or the album they’re trying to replicate), Ian and his five henchmen delivered everything that this enthusiastic crowd could have hoped for and more! For the record: It ain’t Tull, but it ain’t bad.

Ian Anderson and Ryan O'Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian Anderson and Ryan O’Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian’s band wandered onto the stage a few minutes late, dressed as a cleaning crew. They proceeded to sweep, dust and clean just about every surface on the stage before approaching their instruments and, looking over their shoulders to make sure the boss wasn’t watching, began to play “Thick As a Brick.” We’re not talking about that little edit that was released as a single in a few countries; we’re talking about the entire album-long song. They eventually got rid of the work smocks (or, maybe, they were “dirty Macs,” a la the “Thick As a Brick” single sleeve) as Mister Anderson appeared, stage left, strumming his acoustic and singing the opening lines of the nearly hour-long tune. Anderson’s vocal parts are now split with actor/singer/circus performer Ryan O’Donnell, giving Ian more time (and breath) to focus on his flute playing, which is as flawless as ever. O’Donnell’s voice is a softer, subtler version of Ian Anderson and is no less expressive. In theory, I suppose, Ryan is performing in the role of Gerald Bostock, the character created as part of the original THICK AS A BRICK album cover. This is a man who knows his way around a stage, a great performer and a lot of fun to watch.

Scott Hammond live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Scott Hammond live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

The rhythm section of drummer Scott Hammond and former Tull bassist David Goodier bring a nice jazz vibe to the proceedings, while still maintaining the heavy rock underpinning of the original work. Hammond’s not-overly-long solo was imaginative and as impressive as any I’ve seen in a while. The other Tull expatriate, keyboardist John O’Hara, is as eye-catchingly expressive and verbose as Ryan O’Donnell. His parts seem to be the glue that holds the entire performance together. Guitarist Florian Opahle is a scary kind of flashy, kinda like Ian’s longtime band mate, Martin Barre. He just stands there and rips these amazing leads and solos, acting like the least likely guitar-hero of all time. For some odd reason, Florian’s stage presence reminds me of a younger Gary Rossington. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. The ensemble is “completed” via the video inclusion of violinist Anna Phoebe – who is busy at home recording a new album and raising a young daughter – during an instrumental break that happens in what would be “Side One” of the original album. The end of “Side One” has a cool fade, just like it did on the album, and leads into a serio-comic public service announcement warning men of a certain age to have regular medical check-ups to keep the plumbing clean. Though the message was entirely serious, it was a fun diversion that offered a much needed break for the musicians onstage. It also helped us geezers in the crowd (and we were legion!) put a mental stamp on where we were within the intricacies of the THICK AS A BRICK album.

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Having considered the plumbing, Ian and his lads were back to rocking with “Side Two.” Since we’re still talking about the same song, it would be easy to say that the rest of the first set was very much like the first part. That, however, isn’t exactly true. The intensity of Opahle’s and O’Hara’s solos picked up, as did the theatrical aspects of the stage presentation. The pure musicianship and artistry of this band is an amazing thing to witness. Bringing the first album to a close, Ian announced a 15-minute break. The rapt crowd was on their feet, still reeling from the stunning performance we’d just experienced and abuzz with anticipation for THICK AS A BRICK 2.

Ryan O'Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ryan O’Donnell live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Well… most of us, anyway. To be quite honest, I was a little – uh – underwhelmed by TAAB2 upon first listen. My one hope was that this band would be able to bring it to life onstage… instill it with the sense of fun that was exhibited in the first half of the evening’s show. What can I say? They did! Even the spoken word pieces (which I think gave me the most problems on the album) were good, given the inherent theatricality of Anderson’s stage persona and voice. O’Donnell’s vocals were more forceful here, due – I would guess – from the fact that he was now portraying a grown-up and more confident Gerald Bostock. The musicians were again turned loose, imbuing the sometimes pastoral tunes with a more vivid sonic life than they have on disc. The main difference, I believe, between the two albums (outside the obvious) is that TAAB2 is “songs” whereas the original is a single “song.” While there are technically no stops between the numbers, there is a certain sense of separation. This even minute respite offered the audience a nice give and take with the band that we didn’t have with the first set.

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo: MARTIN WEBB)

Ian Anderson and Florian Opahle live in Berlin, 2012 (photo credit: MARTIN WEBB)

Nearly two-and-a-half hours after the “cleaners” took the stage, good-nights, thank yous and introductions were said and made. My friend, Bill, asked me if I thought there’d be an encore. Just about the time I was saying, “I don’t think so,” John O’Hara came out and began playing the introduction to “Locomotive Breath.” He was soon joined onstage by Scott Hammond, followed by the rest of the band. The crowd erupted as Florian played one of the most revered riffs in rock history and as Ian led the band through one of the most beloved songs in the Jethro Tull canon. I dare say that even the people in the $95 seats left feeling that they’d gotten their money’s worth. I know I did! Bill commented on the way out that he knew Ian couldn’t get away without doing a Tull song. I reminded him that he’d just done an entire Tull album, front to back. “Well, you got me there!” he said as we exited the lobby and headed for home.