After Nearly 40 Years, Todd Rundgren's Utopia Makes a Triumphant Return to Town

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After Nearly 40 Years, Todd Rundgren's Utopia Makes a Triumphant Return to Town
Scott Sandberg
Todd is coming. Nearly 40 years ago, only those three words were required in a concert ad to announce Todd Rundgren’s pair of shows with Utopia at the Cleveland Agora on August 23, 1978.

Similarly, when Rundgren announced earlier this year that he’d be taking Utopia back out on the road for their first extensive tour in years, hearing that one word, “Utopia,” was enough to make tickets for last night’s gig at the Hard Rock Live quickly disappear. A second show was added (some tickets are still available for that gig, which takes place tonight), effectively creating a convenient Rundgren fan getaway weekend — and it was clear from checking out the variety of vintage Rundgren and Utopia shirts being worn by those in attendance that many were in it for the long haul.

You can see a slideshow of photos from the concert here.

Fans had congregated at a local hotel in Independence on Friday evening to start ramping up for last night’s show. Utopia band members, bassist and vocalist Kasim Sulton, drummer Willie Wilcox and keyboardist Gil Assayas, the band’s latest recruit, reportedly stopped in to greet the fans and sign autographs. Only Rundgren himself was absent, but one fan recalled a previous gathering where Rundgren did show up and proceeded to make drinks for each of the fans. It kind of brings new meaning to the thought of the “ultimate fan experience,” right? You can start to see why Cleveland has had a decades-long commitment to the music that Rundgren has made.

Saturday’s sold-out Utopia show was one for the ages — whether it was simply the latest gig you’d seen by the band, or the first one, it covered a lot of ground. Structured as two sets with a brief intermission in the middle, the first half of the night was dedicated to the progressive side of Utopia with a heavy helping of material from the band’s first two albums leading off the set.

Opening appropriately with a lengthy run through “Utopia Theme” from their 1974 debut, they followed that with an abbreviated excerpt of “The Ikon” from that same record (the original recording runs more than a half hour), with the jazzy fusion vibes of the title track from 1975’s Another Live rounding out the first segment of music and quickly putting to rest any questions about whether or not Rundgren and the band were in good shape.

“That was what we call, a blizzard,” Rundgren told the audience after a mere three songs and nearly 30 minutes of music. “Hopefully, this will be the last one you have to survive this year. But after all of that, it might be time for a break and maybe some block chords,” he quipped. They followed that statement with a gritty version of “Do Ya” which featured a raucously ragged vocal from Rundgren, who was wearing his trademark shades and an anatomically themed shirt with a pair of tight pants that gave the whole outfit a psychedelic and futuristic feel.

More than 40 years on, he still looks like he might have come from the future. During “The Wheel,” he fumbled a small section of the lyrics, singing the first part, “I must have learned a lot of things,” and ad-libbing, “except the lyrics,” with a chuckle. He took a second pass at the same part a short time later and got it right. It was a good moment which demonstrated that while they might be deeply engaged in the material they were playing on stage, they were also having fun — and that was something that was visible from the audience.

Keyboardist Gil Assayas might have had the toughest job getting ready for this tour — stepping in to replace veteran Utopia member Ralph Schuckett (who had to bow out due to health issues) only several weeks before the trek was set to kick off. There was a lot of complex parts to learn in that time, but he handled the job incredibly, navigating the night’s material with ease and the quartet of musicians were locked in as if they had been playing together for years.

The stage setup was somewhat simple, by Utopia standards. As Rundgren had revealed leading into the tour, they wouldn’t be bringing the massive props — like the pyramid — that they had in past tours, “We’re not bringing that stuff, but we’re not bringing nothing either,” he said at the time. Assayas and drummer Willie Wilcox were both on elevated risers with small video screens in front with an additional large video screen behind the band, which gave them plenty to work with as far as added visuals, the highlight of which came during “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise/ Communion with the Sun,” late in the first set when a pyramid, complete with the classic golden sphinx with smoke pouring out of its eyes and nostrils, appeared on the large screen. So Rundgren was true to his word — while they didn’t physically bring the original pyramid, thanks to technology, they at least had a pyramid. No doubt, the road crew was happy with the technological advances that facilitated that change.

Rundgren and Sulton shared vocals on “Last of the New Wave Riders,” with keyboard swells from Assayas, bringing an energetic close to the first set. The second half of the evening found the band repositioned on the stage with Assayas and Wilcox moved closer together on smaller risers minus the screens and with smoke machines running, it made the atmosphere feel like the audience had shifted to seeing Utopia play a gig in a small club. The set focused more on the poppier side of the band’s catalog and there were numerous highlights, whether it was Rundgren stabbing his hand downward in a hammer-like motion during the new wave-tinged “Hammer In My Heart,” or the anthemic feel of “Love In Action,” which found members of the crowd swaying back and forth and pumping their fists in the air. Both songs also highlighted the powerful drumming of Wilcox, who like the rest of the band, seemed to gain intensity as the night progressed.

A spirited version of “Rock Love” found Rundgren mugging like a prize fighter at one point and dancing during another. It was really great to see the increased prominence of Sulton, a veteran presence in Rundgren’s tours across the years, as he took the lead vocals on a number of songs throughout the evening, including a poignant version of “I Will Wait” from 1984’s Oblivion and “Set Me Free,” the band’s Top 40 hit from 1979’s Adventures in Utopia, to name two.

Late in the set, it was longtime favorite “Love Is the Answer” that brought the audience to its feet for the last three songs of the night, ushering in a feeling like all in attendance had suddenly been transported to a gospel revival, something which carried through to “One World,” Rundgren slipping a Cleveland mention into the lyrics and the encore, “Just One Victory,” which with the crowd singing along, was a perfect way to cap off the evening.

Tonight will bring one more chance for fans to see Rundgren, and Utopia here and it’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
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