Reviews

Concert Review: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Taft Theatre 5-10-18

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When I first heard that Utopia was reuniting and going on tour, I promised myself I’d buy a ticket. Many fans of Utopia wondered if they’d ever get to see them tour again, after their seemingly indefinite hiatus. The current lineup consists of “original” members Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, and Willie Wilcox, as well as new band member Gil Assayas, who was selected relatively quickly through an expedited audition process to replace Utopia alum Ralph Shuckett on keys. Before Ralph left, the band did a 20 minute interview to explain the reasoning behind the tour, as well as some insights into the band history.

When I posted the announcement on several forums, I saw some complaints from progheads (no surprise there) that they were worried that Todd and company would focus on the more pop-oriented later-era Utopia and would ignore their earlier, more progressive numbers. As I am a fan of both periods, I hoped for a balance between the two, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that that was the case. As a matter of fact, Setlist.fm has a graph at the bottom of their page that shows the distribution of songs played by album, and it’s pretty evident that they played a good mix of the various eras.

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Screenshot from https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/utopia/2018/taft-theatre-cincinnati-oh-6beda6ae.html

I think that Todd and company were mindful of this trepidation, and they wanted to make this tour special for Utopia fans from every era. I was very surprised to see that they started the set with “Utopia Theme” and “The Ikon”, two extremely proggy numbers that I definitely didn’t expect to hear. Todd was wearing a gold colored jumpsuit, similar to what he would wear in Utopia’s early days. Starting with early more obscure Utopia numbers was a strong statement of reassurance.  Of course they played many of their more popular cuts as the night went on, but I was very appreciative of the band for their thoughtful and diverse setlist arrangement.

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Some of my favorite songs throughout the night: First set: The first three songs, “Utopia Theme”, “The Ikon”, and “Another Life”, were affectionately titled by Todd as “The blizzard” (presumably due to their complexity and difficulty). The only thing more enjoyable than hearing the songs themselves was looking around the audience and seeing the early Utopia fans freaking out at hearing “Utopia Theme” live. “Communion With The Sun”, one of my favorite tracks from their Ra album (which is also my favorite early-era Utopia album) was absolutely joyous. This is one of the tougher songs in the catalog, and they absolutely nailed it. The song has a really jubilant spirit, and people seemed to respond in kind. This might have been my favorite song of the night.

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Second set: “Trapped”, from their transitional 1977 album Oops! Wrong Planet is a personal favorite, and I loved the interplay between Kasim and Todd on lead vocals. “Love in Action” from the same album was great as well- the harmonies during the chorus really popped, which is always a thrill.  “Set Me Free” made a lot of people smile, and Kasim masterfully handled the very tough lead vocal line. Later in the second set, Todd traded the guitar for a wireless mic and was free to wander the stage and dance for several songs. It was a lot of fun to see him, like a street preacher, wave his arms and do vocal riffs. His comfort in this setting shows how his decades of mastery of both showmanship and musicianship have paid off. It was a joy to watch him perform.

It’s difficult to say if there was a standout player, because the music of Utopia is incredibly tough to pull off. But, if I had to choose one, it would be Gil Assayas. He managed to pull off some very complex keyboard parts with fidelity to the original recordings, and he consistently provided solid harmonies throughout the night. It´s important to note that he learned all of the music on a fast track, as he was hired relatively quickly and didn’t have much time at all to practice with the band. I hadn’t heard of Gil previously, but I hope that this opportunity to play with Utopia leads to big things for him and his career- he has certainly earned his stripes. Kasim’s bass work was consistently solid and spot on, regardless of complexity, and his lead parts and harmonies were great. Todd had several guitar moments throughout the night that were breathtaking, and his powerful vocal belting stood as a perfect contrast to Kasim’s more controlled vocals. And Willie, who is a criminally underrated drummer and singer who worked with Meat Loaf and Hall & Oates as well as Utopia, was consistently solid and played with style and flourish. One of the trademarks of Utopia’s music is the harmonies, and this is  often the hardest thing to pull off, but Utopia more than delivered, despite the extreme difficulty of the vocal lines.  And, I think it’s important to note that these guys seemed like they enjoyed playing the music together, and I think that makes a difference. Their joy and smiles were infectious.

Utopia is a legendary band in my mind, and so I already knew that the night would be a musical tour de force, but Todd and the gang managed to exceed my already high expectations. The band is still on tour, so if you´re on the fence about going, GO! You won’t be disappointed.

SETLIST SPOILERS BELOW

Setlist:

Set 1:
Utopia Theme
The Ikon (excerpt)
Another Life
Do Ya (The Move cover)
Freedom Fighters
The Wheel
Back on the Street
Something’s Coming (Leonard Bernstein cover)
Monument
Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise / Communion With the Sun
Last of the New Wave Riders

Set 2:
The Road to Utopia
Play This Game
Swing to the Right
Trapped
Set Me Free
Love in Action
Hammer in My Heart
Princess of the Universe
I Will Wait
Rock Love
Love Is the Answer
One World

Encore:
Just One Victory (Todd Rundgren song)

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