Whenever I go to a concert these days and I’m the kid there you know it’s like I slipped into the twilight zone. And that’s how AI felt when I went to see Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. Todd Rundgren is a musical enigma. Everybody knows his name, however they can only name maybe two or three at best off the top of their head. And with his body of work he’s had only two top 20 hits and one top five. To the musical nerd he is famous for his work as a producer as well as creative clashes with Cheap Trick, XTC, New York Dolls and Meatloaf to name a few. And then there was Utopia.
Rundgren took early to music videos unlike some of his colleagues and contemporaries. He has always been ahead of the curve technology-wise as well being one of the first artists to put good use of the internet in its early days. I ran across Utopia in the early days of MTV (that mythical creature that one day actually stood for “music television” – something I repeatedly harp on I know). I wasn’t very familiar with Utopia at that point but I knew of Rundgren and when I started watching all these music videos two early videos caught my eye and still does. Early music videos were great. They were like watching home movies. They weren’t very slick and most were very creative unlike now where almost every video is some sort of “live” or performance video. Early videos were like mini movies – the granddads of the webisode, so to speak. Bands like The Kinks, Bowie, ABC and the Go Gos had videos that made it hard to turn away. Utopia’s video for “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” was one of those. The song by itself was infectious with it’s Beatlesque harmonies in contagious enough but seeing Rundgren and company dressed as centipedes just hammered home how fun music could be and anyone could sing along and act silly without a care in the world or worrying about “hits” and “likes”. “Hammer In My Heart” was another song from that album (Utopia) that I watched over and over again. My limited knowledge of the band at the time (my only source at that time was the radio, MTV and some random clerk at the Record Bar) I really liked what I heard. It was poppy, it rocked mixing all the things I loved and still do – catchy guitar hooks and harmonies
I bought the Utopia cassette at the Record Bar and remember driving all around every day listening to it – back and forth as I drove to school. Occasionally I switched it out with my Pretenders cassette and Eddie Money’s new one, but I eventually wore the tape out – one of the hazards of owning cassettes. Unlike today where everything is at your fingertips, finding the Utopia cassette wasn’t easy. I had found that one on sale because no one else was buying it around here at the time. There was so much great music coming out at that time that I didn’t have time to dwell so I went on to the next thing even though songs from that album remain some of my all time favorite to this day. Living in the moment as I did and without a source to do further research on the band or desire because I loved new music at the time I went on. It might have been different if we had internet and YouTube back in the ‘80s.
I’ve always kept abreast to Todd Rundgren’s products over the years because of his talent. I even briefly bought into “The New Cars” although I stopped short of buying the CD. Being a Cars fan from day one it was hard to fathom the band without Ric Ocasek involved and Ben Orr had died a few years earlier – but it did raise my curiosity. I’ve even seen Rundgren live a few times, but when I saw a listing for “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia” I had to check it out. As stated I did not know what to expect since a majority of my knowledge was from one album and a solid body of solo work. Boy was I in for an eye opener.
Once I got to the show I knew the fans were not your ordinary music fans. There were one or two guys dressed up in some kind of jester-like or renaissance outfit. I knew Rundgren was a bit of eccentric musically but I didn’t know about the fans. It was a definitely older crowd. When I entered I was informed it was a seated show – something I’ve never done at a rock concert before. But I was dealing with a bunch of old people so I figured as much. The baby boomer age crowd that assembled reminded me of a bunch of middle age stoners who I hadn’t seen altogether at one time since that time I saw Steely Dan years ago at Chastain Park, which was surreal to me at that time.
There was a definite buzz in the air as this was the first time Utopia had toured since the mid ‘80s. The show started complete with a trippy backdrop reminiscent of the band’s debut album art from the early ‘70s. The show was broke into two sets that represented two distinctive styles of the band. The first set consisted of early material from the early to mid/late ‘70s when the band was playing progressive rock and experimental styles. The evening started out with “Utopia” or what is referred to now as “Utopia Theme” from the eponymous titled, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. The 14-plus minute aria allowed the musicians to showcase their individual talents. The one exception is the opening set was “Monument” off of the band’s last studio release, POV from 1985. Seeing Utopia live was unique in the fact it featured the core original lineup minus keyboard player Ralph Schuckett who had to step away from the tour due to serious health reasons but all indications are he’ll be back after this short two-month tour. Any time you get to see a band that has been around for as long as Utopia (over 40 years) it is special and rare if they have the original lineup intact. Another Live was represented well, a conceptual live album that featured two covers that the band performed for the crowd, “Do Ya” originally done by The Move and then ELO (written by Jeff Lynne) and Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming”.
After a short break the band returned to play a second set of more pop oriented songs from later in their career although a number of songs from Oops! Wrong Planet was peppered in both sets. Oops! was an anomaly at the time since it came out between two prog heavy albums. That album did feature the song “Love Is The Answer” that went to the top of the charts for England Dan and John Ford Coley in 1979. Utopia touched on Utopia with “Princess of the Universe” and “Hammer in My Heart” and Swing to the Right with the title track and “One World”. Kasim Sulton on bass and John “Willie” Wilcox on drums kept the rhythm section on track and added effortless harmonies to Rundgren’s spaceman vocals and guitar virtuosity. Newbie on keyboards Gil Assayas was a perfect fit subbing for Schuckett.
The seated crowd rose to their feet as the band finished their encore of “Just One Victory” as Rundgren and company bid adieu and the crowd cheered for a job well done.
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Set List
The Ikon (excerpt)
Do Ya (The Move cover)
Back on the Street
Something’s Coming (Leonard Bernstein cover)
Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise / Communion With the Sun
Last of the New Wave Riders
The Road to Utopia
Play This Game
Swing to the Right
Set Me Free
Love in Action
Hammer in My Heart
Princess of the Universe
I Will Wait
Love Is the Answer
Just One Victory (Todd Rundgren song)
– Dave Weinthal
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