There’s ‘70s pop star Todd Rundgren; you know the one that gave us classic radio hits like “I Saw The Light,” “Can We Still Be Friends,” “Bang The Drum All Day” and a personal fave, “Hello It’s Me.”
Then there’s the Todd Rundgren who played at the Chicago Theater this Tuesday night to a crowd of 3000-plus very receptive fans whose collective experience was nothing short of Utopian.
It was at first Todd the prog-rocker and then Todd the alt-rocker, but mostly Todd the straight-up rocker who, with his band Utopia, wowed fans – mostly old but some new ones as well – with their complex brand of guitar and keyboard-heavy rock from the group’s heyday.
And make no mistake, this was not a Todd Rundgren concert. This was Utopia (also known as Todd Rundgren’s Utopia) all the way, with fellow longtime group members Kasim Sulton (bassist and co-lead vocalist), drummer Willie Wilcox and new recruit Gil Assayas (on keyboards).
The quartet, which Rundgren founded some 45 years ago in New York while he was still also enjoying a successful solo career, recently reunited after a 25-year hibernation to embark on a 32-city North American tour that culminates in California next month.
That same month, Rundgren will turn 70 years old, a fact easily lost on fans who watched in admiration as the very much in-shape multi-talented singer/songwriter/producer/sound engineer youthfully pranced from one end of the stage to the other in a two-set/24-song barrage of tunes from Utopia’s various albums.
Those albums, recorded and released between 1974 and 1985, weren’t chartbusters by any stretch of the imagination. The highest any of them peaked on the Billboard album chart was No. 32 (1980’s Adventures In Utopia) and none of them ever achieved a gold certification (heck, Rundgren himself only has one gold album to his name).
No matter to the diehards in attendance on Tuesday night. You would have thought these jams were mostly top-10 million-sellers the way fans sang and danced along to the tunes as the band played.
If it wasn’t evident already by all the t-shirts that people were wearing which bore the band’s logos and likeness, it soon became clear based on the audience’s enthusiasm that Utopia had a very loyal following at this venue (as an example: a very young-looking 59-year-old woman sitting in front of us had seen them live when she graduated from high school in 1977).
Beginning with “Utopia Theme,” which segued seamlessly into a shortened snippet of “The Ikon” (both from Utopia’s first album, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia), and then into “Another Life” (from the band’s second overall – and first live – album, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia/ Another Live), Rundgren and company set the tone for what promised to be a musical extravaganza.
Those first three songs alone consumed 30 minutes, which seemed extreme until one realizes that the original combined running time of the first two tracks was 45 minutes (“The Ikon” – at 30 minutes and 25 seconds – took up a whole side of its original album and may be the longest song ever on vinyl).
Did I mention they were a prog-rock band (for the millennials out there, that’s short for progressive rock – a type of music popularized in the ‘70s containing classical influences and characterized by the heavy use of various keyboard instruments and lengthy compositions)?
Utopia’s first few albums and the songs they performed from them certainly place them squarely in the prog-rock sub-genre. Rundgren himself wryly acknowledged the “many notes” the band had just played on the first three songs before launching into the set’s chord-friendly next tune.
That song was the band’s energetic take on The Move’s/ELO’s “Do Ya,” on which Rundgren did songwriter Jeff Lynne proud with his trademark quirky vocals (fitting for a man who was donning a psychedelic pant-shirt ensemble as he played electric guitar in front of a myriad of hypnotic images projecting from the large screen behind him and his band mates).
But Rundgren has always seemed otherworldly to me, not just in physical appearance, but in his musical versatility.
For instance, on the inspirational track “The Wheel,” in which a metaphorical ferris wheel lyrically represents the ups and downs of life, Rundgren showed off some of his Philadelphia blue-eyed soul roots as he channeled Daryl Hall’s vocal styling on the ballad. He then led the audience in a unifying clap along during the song’s a cappella finish.
Two songs later, he and his band mates were doing Leonard Bernstein’s pop standard “Something’s Coming” (from West Side Story), a song that also appeared on Utopia’s Another Live album.
If none of this seemed cohesive, that was by design. It’s never been easy to confine Rundgren and his music to a singular genre or style. Remember, this is the same man who produced hits for rock acts like Grand Funk and Badfinger in the 1970s as well as evergreen pop ballads (“Hello It’s Me”), inspirational anthems (“Love Is The Answer”) and borderline novelty songs (“Bang The Drum All Day”) for himself or his band.
Yet the music still flowed seamlessly and went without a hitch, save for a technician who mistakenly projected the wrong image on the large screen as the group began to perform “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise/Communion With The Sun.” Rundgren wanted a pyramid and stopped the music briefly to make sure he got it. When he did, the band launched into the first set’s penultimate song as the pyramid behind them morphed into a large Sphinx with steaming nostrils.
After the first set, which consisted of 11 songs, the band took a 15-minute break before launching into the second one, a 13-song set covering Utopia’s poppier period. Highlights of Set 2 included “Trapped” (one of about half-dozen tunes on which bassist Sulton sang lead), “Set Me Free” (another Sulton lead vocal and the band’s only top-40 hit), and the aforementioned “Love Is The Answer,” the beautiful uplifting tune originally written by Lundgren and recorded by Utopia for their 1977 album Oops! Wrong Planet. It was later popularized by pop duo England Dan & John Ford Coley who made it a top-ten hit in 1979.
The second set, during which the crowd mostly stood, also added a bonus track, “I Will Wait For It” (which hadn’t appeared on recent set lists) and culminated with crowd favorite “Just One Victory” (the encore performance and one the crowd of devoted fans had highly anticipated).
All in all, the show was a blast, sonically and visually, with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia living up to their long-earned reputation as musician’s musicians. It was no wonder the crowd was so into it and they appreciated every minute of the two-and-a-half hour performance.
The next stop on the Road To Utopia is Denver. If you’re in the area you won’t want to miss it. There are only 8 stops remaining (all on the west coast) after that.
And who knows when we’ll get to have this Utopian experience again.
Set list for Chicago Theater stop (May 22, 2018):
- 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 (other lead)
- Overture: Monument, etc
- 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 For It
- Rock Love
- Love Is The Answer
- One World
- Just One Victory (encore)