(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 with the keyboardist from the initial Todd Rundgren’s Utopia records, Ralph Schuckett, supplanting Roger Powell, who had to step away from playing in 2009 due to 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!
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 aesthetics 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.
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 band’s 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 to “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise.” Kasim and Rundgren join in an 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 announced, “We’ll see you in twenty.”
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 and 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” (the aforementioned “Road To Utopia”) – 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.
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.