Remember when reunion tours were looked upon as a joke? Like, basically cash grabs for beer-company sponsorship money?
I’m either lucky or I’ve chosen well, because the reunion tours I’ve seen have all been lights-out. The list includes Steely Dan in 1993 (first tour in 19 years); Graham Parker and the Rumour in 2013 (supporting their first album in 33 years) … and, as of last night, Todd Rundgren and Utopia.
The length of time between Utopia gigs depends a little on how you slice it, but after a little Wiki research, I’d call it the first tour by this edition of the band since 1992.
And this would be the first show of the reunion tour, at Penn’s Peak, a friendly barnlike building in the wooded hills of eastern Pennsylvania. Rundgren played there on his own last year and must have decided it would be a good place for a shakedown cruise.
Utopia started as a progressive-rock band before migrating to more conventional pop. And that’s how the show was structured — a first set going heavier on prog stuff, and a second set of shorter, poppier songs.
Starting with the complex stuff has its ups and downs.
On one hand, the music — both stately and energetic — speaks of loftier things than simple three-minute pop songs, and sets a grander tone. Hearing the band take the twists and turns of the 14-minute “Utopia Theme” made for an ambitious and memorable opening. Other notable parts of the prog set included “Freedom Fighters,” a condensed version of “The Ikon,” and “Communion With The Sun.”
(A few more words about “Utopia Theme”: I’d first encountered that song on a college radio station, many years ago, while running an errand … it turned out to be the kind of errand where you get lost in the song, drive until the song is over, and then return to your business. I never really expected to see anybody perform it live, so it made an especially wonderful scene-setter last night.)
On the other hand, starting off a show with complicated multi-part material requires you to be on top of your game right out of the dressing room. It’s like being a former world-class hurdler and starting your comeback at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
I was surprised to notice several instances in the first set when Rundgren’s left hand landed a fret or two — sometimes more — away from where it was supposed to be. My (very) distant impression of TR as a bandleader is that he doesn’t look that kindly on mistakes, so it was an interesting turn of events to see him fall short of the rest of the band.
(Utopia’s other members — bassist Kasim Sulton, drummer Willie Wilcox and new-guy keyboardist Gil Assayas — were rock-solid throughout on instruments and vocals. It’s a shame that former keyboardist Ralph Shuckett couldn’t make the tour as intended, but Assayas has the parts more than capably covered.)
After one especially noticeable cock-up, Rundgren told the crowd: “First night … OK, let’s play something simple, then.” Whereupon they launched into a perfect, blunt-instrument version of the Move’s “Do Ya,” as performed on the Another Live album.
A storming “Last of the New Wave Riders” ended the first set. The second set featured a slightly different stage setup, with Wilcox’s drums taken down off a riser and placed at the back of the stage — where Rundgren, in one of his wandering moments, almost tripped over them.
Rundgren and Sulton also did a lot of instrument-swapping, and each of them at one point received an instrument that hadn’t been correctly plugged in — requiring two songs to be waved to a stop after thirty seconds and started again. Roadies have first-night jitters too, it seems.
But that was about all the fault to be found with the second set, which kicked off with a strong “The Road to Utopia” and built from there. Rundgren’s playing was flawless; everybody save Assayas took a turn singing lead; and songs like “Set Me Free,” “Love In Action” and “Princess of the Universe” were tight, memorable and assured.
(I’m having trouble remembering whether “Trapped” and “Back on the Street” were in the first or second set — I suspect first; I wasn’t taking notes — but those were well-performed as well.)
The second set ended perfectly, with “Love Is the Answer” and an upbeat “One World” to close. “Love Is the Answer” was heartfelt without being histrionic, with a guitarless Rundgren roaming the stage and firing up the crowd. (Scoff at England Dan, John Ford Coley and yacht-rock all you want — I still say this is a marvelous song.)
And the encore, “Just One Victory,” remains a soaring, heartwarming white-soul underdog anthem.
In a different world, I suppose this and not “Bang The Drum All Day” would be the Todd Rundgren song you’d hear at sports games and on sitcoms. But that’s just as well; it’s avoided being overplayed and remains a gem for the faithful, a song to send you buzzing on your way home.
I haven’t gotten any sense that this reunion will last beyond the current tour’s run or lead to any additional records. Given Rundgren’s celebrated unpredictability, he may well move on to a record of Vietnamese folksongs once the tour winds up. And he may be so used to independence by now that he doesn’t want to go back to a democratic band setup where everyone writes and sings.
Still, if this reunion is all the Utopia the world gets, it was a nice place to visit for a couple of hours.