in performance: todd rundgren’s utopia

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. From left, Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox and Kasim Sulton. Photo by Danny O’Connor.

Three songs into a tireless performance with his band Utopia last night at Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre, Todd Rundgren congratulated the audience for surviving what he called “The Blizzard.” In strictly non- meteorological terms, he was referring to the program’s first half hour of music, a set that revisited his prog days of roughly 45 years ago.

It was a stunning segment, too – a triad consisting of “Utopia Theme” (which stretched on for a good 15 minutes through layers of synthesized and percussive frenzy as well as Rundgren’s scholarly power chords and soloing on guitar), an edited instrumental version of “The Ikon” and the anthemic “Another Life.” This was as complex and daring a set of tunes as Rundgren, in his 50 years as a touring artist, has ever presented onstage. The fact that he approached the works, both vocally and instrumentally with such ageless vigor (he turns 70 next month) was something of a triumph and marked, right from the onset, this performance as a winner.

It was a challenging winner, mind you, especially for those who know Rundgren only through his smattering of pop hits that reached rock radio during the ‘70s. But it was a winner notwithstanding.

Just as Rundgren is a stylist with multiple profiles, so is Utopia – a band that, outside from a few brief reunion runs, has been dormant since 1986. In its initial guise, billed as “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia,” it was a thrillseeking prog-pop brigade that extended the synthesized rock its leader paraded on one of many creative zeniths – 1973’s “A Wizard, A True Star” album. But the later band, billed simply as Utopia, was a more democratically inclined quartet that shed the complexities of the former lineup in favor of straight up power pop. This tour unites the latter lineup of Rundgren, bassist/vocalist Kasim Sulton and drummer/vocalist Willie Wilcox with new recruit Gil Assaya serving as an 11th hour replacement on keyboards for Ralph Schuckett (who was sidelined due to health reasons).

But here’s the curious part. This Utopia lineup is the first to extensively explore the repertoire of both bands. As such, after “The Blizzard” medley settled, so did the band into an array of simpler pop fare that shuffled vocals duties between Rundgren, Sulton and Wilcox. In the end, this Utopian gang covered tunes from nine of the band’s ten albums (1980’s “Deface the Music” was the only exclusion).

That meant tackling a fair amount of obscurities, like 1977’s “Communion with the Sun,” which was essentially a bridge between Utopia’s prog and pop camps, as well as intriguing covers that were staples of the earlier Utopia’s mid ‘70s shows (The Move’s “Do Ya” and, oddly enough, the “West Side Story” affirmation “Something’s Coming”).

It was all efficiently and energetically performed. Sulton and Wilcox held up their vocal ends easily on “Set Me Free” and “Princess of the Universe,” respectively, while rookie Assaya proved an expert pinch hitter, neatly executing the near symphonic keyboard lines created by Shuckett and Roger Powell but appearing very much at ease alongside the Utopian vets.

In the end, though, this was Rundgren’s show and not just because the band reverted back to its “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia” billing for this tour. As a guitarist, his playing remains remarkably urgent, whether it was through the elemental riffs he rifled out during “Hammer in My Heart” or the soaring (but way too brief) solo coda applied to “Just One Victory” that concluded the performance. And as referenced earlier, his vocals revealed remarkably little wear from the years. They were still buoyant enough to make a pop confection like “Love is the Answer” sound rich and purposeful and aggressive enough to propel the most elemental of rock offerings, such as the joyous, post-punk flavored “Love in Action.”

It was, in short, a program that offered the best of two Utopias – dual images of a band that remains an integral ambassador from Rundgren’s spacious pop cosmos.

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