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City in my head, heaven in my body.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Killer Queen.

For all those people yearning to hear me sing again … all those people who think there just aren’t enough albums on Bandcamp … and all those people longing to hear John “T-Bone” Shelby immortalized in song:

Your moment has come.

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Today marks the release of Ontario Queen of the Lakes, the latest Kurt Blumenau Bandcamp album.

It’s a collection of 14 songs, some songier than others, more or less inspired by the Rochester, N.Y., I grew up in. (Some of it may leave you wondering if, indeed, I grew up at all.)

Mark Knapp, the drummer from my high school garage band Fried Pig (you’ve read about him at least once here), lends his presence to a bunch of the songs. It’s not quite Planet Waves, as reunions go, but I’m happy it happened anyway, and I hope to do more with him.

For now we’ll content ourselves with this: Ontario Queen of the Lakes, featuring pick hits such as “In Canada They Do Remark’ble Things,” “Winter Track,” and “I Found Love (at the McQuaid Invitational),” this last being surely the finest song ever written about growing up in western New York.

It’s a free download, which means you don’t have to pay anything to possess your very own copy, or even five of your very own copies.

And, as always, I will extend great personal goodwill and bonhomie to anyone who sends me a photo or screenshot of a Queen of the Lakes song being played on their iTunes, phone, or other media device. (I keep making this offer and no one ever sends me any; I guess I’m gonna have to put up cash, one of these years.)

Go. Listen. Enjoy. Walk in peace.

I hear you are singing a song of the past.

Walter Becker wouldn’t have cared about my 10 favorite Steely Dan songs, and most likely you don’t either.

But it’s raining too hard to walk, and I don’t wanna think about work, so here ya go, in no order but chronological.

Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments …

1. “Dirty Work.” Steely Dan fans love Becker and Fagen’s quirkiness — their insistence on wedging jazz chords into pop songs, their frequent name-drops of specific (if sometimes imaginary) places and people, and like that.

I go for that too. But I also think 1972, pound for pound, was the best year of the Seventies for Top 40 music; and I love the fact that these two weirdos were able to create songs that walked right onto the mass airwaves and held their own. Becker and Fagen would have plenty of time to get weird — and they would take it — but Radio-Friendly Dan is a distinctly winsome creature of its own.

“Dirty Work” wasn’t one of the two singles from Can’t Buy A Thrill, but I’ve heard it on the radio a bunch of times and it sure sounds fantastic, starting with that flare of Hammond organ that makes me sit upright and pay attention. And just try not to sing along (in your head, if nowhere else) with that simplest of choruses.

2. “Razor Boy.” I wrote about this mournful little cha-cha once, several years ago, and everything there is still true. Ray Brown’s upright bass meets Skunk Baxter’s pedal steel guitar and it works wonderfully. The chorus is at once sad and soaring.

3. “Your Gold Teeth.” In which Becker and Fagen match angular licks to a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett sort of lyric, over another uncategorizable Latin groove. I suppose the long solo section in the middle is awfully rockish, but I do enjoy hearing Fagen and Baxter stretch out. Fragments of the lyric from this one often occur to me at totally random moments (usually it’s “Got a feeling I been here before / Won’t you let me help you find the door?”)

4. “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” From my least favorite of the classic Dan LPs, Pretzel Logic. (You will eventually note the absence of Becker and Fagen’s reunion albums from this list; I’ve just never gotten into them like I did the Seventies stuff.)

This one is uncharacteristically gentle and reassuring, like a pat on the back, and as a much younger lad I once derived reassurance from it for a brief period.

(Of course, knowing Becker and Fagen, they probably wrote this lyric in the voice of one junkie singing to another, or something perverse like that. But on its surface, at least, it is unique in the Seventies Dan catalog, and all the more charming for it.)

5. “Bad Sneakers.” From my favorite of the classic Dan LPs, 1975’s Katy Lied, which features the Dan’s most consistently successful marriage of subterranean lyrical darkness with the surface charms of jazz and pop.

The swelling up of piano and melody on the chorus here — “Bad sneakers and a pina colada, my friend / Stompin’ on the avenue by Radio City” — shines like a Manhattan marquee; it’s Cole Porter for the age of ‘ludes and paranoia. Also a nifty guitar solo (as if that need be specified in a Steely Dan review). And is that another electric sitar on the intro?

6. “Chain Lightning.” The single baddest, tightest, most laid-back, in-the-pocket shuffle of the Seventies, which is saying a mouthful.

And while I’ve always thought of Rick Derringer as an arena-rock mope — the sort of gent perfectly suited to the 11 a.m. slot at Cal Jam — he delivers the goods in a big way here. Dig the chord-clang at 1:25; or the way he dances down into the muck at the bottom of the neck and then skips up again; or the snotty Jeff Beck-ish pick-flick at 1:41.

Not gonna write about the rest of the songs until I listen to this one again.

7. “Sign In Stranger.” From the “Dirty Work”/”Razor Boy” school of mournfulisms, I guess, comes this downbeat reggae dirge (and how often do you get to write “reggae dirge”?) about a future Wild West in which you can dodge your past misdeeds just by jumping from planet to planet.

Fagen’s narrator sounds like a pitchman preying upon the disaffected and spat-out, offering promises of easy redemption in the kinds of terms you’d hear on late-night infomercials (“Do you have a dark spot on your past? / Leave it to my man, he’ll fix it fast”) along with appeals to his prospective clients’ less savory desires (“Or maybe you would like to see the show / You’ll enjoy the Cafe d’Escargot.”)

The second verse does kinda go on and on, and the bridge ain’t B&F’s finest, but I like it anyway. And the big-brass instrumental coda rises up out of nowhere to suggest a happy ending, or at least a dead-end paved in gold.

8. “Aja.” A stone beautiful piece of music; the usual quotient of abstruse-but-memorable lyrics, with a gently Eastern tinge; and a couple of marvelous individual performances, most notably by Steve Gadd on drums. This glows like a sapphire.

9. “Deacon Blues.” The tale of a loser who’s decided he’s tired of watching the victors write history.

I find this more mournful than hopeful — do you really think the narrator’s going to find what he imagines when he crosses that fine line? — but brilliantly affecting in any case.

10. “Babylon Sisters.” Another flavor of shuffle here (it’s the wonderful Bernard Purdie on drums, IIRC) — polished and malevolent, with a Rhodes navigating a dark, snaky series of changes on top.

The mood eventually brightens, a little, but the whole thing sounds driven by energies, desires and situations that are untenable over the long term — lavish parties, younger women, general debauchery. Turn this one into a screenplay, and the narrator’s floating in a pool at the end.

(The Santa Ana winds are the perfect natural phenomenon to include here … and what is that weird sax-or-voice thing that rises up like a cobra at 3:21?)

So why is this tawdry offering one of my 10 favorite Steely Dan songs? Because, having spent the Seventies combining sunny exteriors with questionable interiors, Becker and Fagen had come pretty close to perfecting it at this point. If “Aja” shines like a sapphire, “Babylon Sisters” gleams like gunmetal.

“Nothing good happens in films about airplanes.”

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If you’re spending the summer in a full-body cast in a faraway state, these are the jams you need.

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The (Oh, Lord, can it truly be?) eighth Kurt Blumenau “solo album,” released on Bandcamp precisely four years to the day after the first.

The biggest influences this time around are probably Captain Beefheart and Jandek, if that gives you any sense of what kind of toe-tappin’ good time awaits.

There’s a song called “I Wiped My Hands on a Pigeon” … and an 18-minute guitar solo … and a song that sounds like you’re being dragged underwater in a cold sea behind a slow-moving trawler … and a song that starts with  a weird murky voice-mail I once got that sounds like the people didn’t know they were being recorded.

(I think there is at least one more “conventional” release in my pipeline, but it turned out not to be this one. You won’t want to miss that one either, I’m sure, when it comes along.)

Anyway: Go check it out. You certainly don’t have to buy it. Just by clicking the link and visiting the site, you’ll give me the happy illusion that somebody’s interested.

If you don’t even want to do that, here’s a taste you can enjoy without having to go anywhere at all:

Truth is the glue.

A brief break from Art for Art’s Sake to bring you an important announcement:

The speeches of Gerald Ford set to a backdrop of theremin is something you can now enjoy in your rec room, pup tent, Quonset hut, or wherever people gather and the beer is cold.

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Unlike some of my earlier Bandcamp releases, We Have Succeeded In Nothing Anywhere has no deep origin story.

I found audio recordings of the speeches of Gerald Ford online. I found an electronc theremin simulator online. And at some point, my mind put the two together.

The speeches of Gerald Ford … accompanied by theremin. Yeah, the time has come.

It’s probably better in concept than execution. But, having executed it, I decided to loose it on the world anyway and let you, the listener, be the judge.

(Edit: I should probably mention that no social or political comment is intended here, nor do I have anything against Gerald Ford. His speeches just happen to be publicly available, in decent fidelity, begging to be set against vaguely psychedelic aural backgrounds.)

Like everything else I do, We Have Succeeded In Nothing Anywhere (it’s a phrase Jerry uses at one point; see if you can find it) is available as a free Bandcamp download. You need pay nothing for its myriad pleasures. In a world stacked against the common man, that’s a remarkable thing, Bunky.

As with previous releases, I will react with doglike gratitude (though no swag) to anyone sending me a photo of a WHSINA track playing in their iTunes, on their computer screen, on their phone, etc. I know, my comments are turned off, but anyone who reads this knows where to find me anyway.

Be of good cheer.

What’s playing now.

I bought a couple of CDs as part of an Amazon orgy a little while ago … and while I like ’em fine, right now I’ve set them aside and am listening instead to a bunch of stuff I downloaded off Bandcamp.

(Have no fear, Charles Mingus. I’ll get back to you.)

Just in case you’re looking for cheap thrills too, here’s what’s playing.

Squinch Owl, On The Goddamn Radio: Squinch Owl is pretty much one person — a singer and multi-instrumentalist named Sofia Pocket — and this marvelously titled release features her walloping the banjo and performing solo on WTBU-FM in York, Maine.

Pocket’s voice is a big, bruised, moonshiney yowl that suits her material well.

However, somebody seems to have told the engineer at WTBU that Blossom Dearie was coming instead, because they set the levels for someone much quieter. Every time Pocket even remotely opens up, her voice distorts into something thick, molten and mostly unintelligible. (When she really gets going, both her voice and her banjo go thick and fuzzy around the edges.)

I actually think it works nicely. The effect is akin to routing the Mississippi River into a channel too small by half to hold it. The pain and devastation is redoubled as a result.

It also hearkens back to the great old days when blues and folk singers made records with one ropey microphone, in whatever room they could use for an hour, and acoustic finery was the most distant of considerations.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=894006763/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/track=2212974734/transparent=true/

bobbito pickles, old ones: I clicked on this mainly because I liked the primitive cover art. Then I found it was lo-fi beats and loops from Edmonton (!) and I figured I’d never heard those before, and life is short.

These tracks are probably inspired by some beatmaster (J Dilla?) I’m not hip enough to be familiar with. Basically, they sound like chopped and channeled bits of mellow-gold love jams, driven sideways by loopy production techniques.

Senor Pickles provides us with 20 tracks totaling 29 minutes, which is pretty much the point at which his skips, scrapes and spasms start to get old … so everyone leaves happy, except maybe a bunch of copyright lawyers.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=1898454920/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/track=3795920171/transparent=true/

Duluth Homegrown Music Festival, Mayor’s Mix:  I admit I’m just starting to listen to this one, and it might suck; but I include it because I enjoy the concept.

Under the label of the Homegrown Music Festival, you’ll find a whole bunch of Bandcamp releases created by the hipsters — DJs, musicians, indie label owners — who populate the Duluth scene, all offering a mix of their own favorite bands and tunes.

And then there’s this collection, compiled by Duluth mayor Don Ness (he’s no longer mayor; the collection dates to 2011.)

I love the idea of the mayor of a city acting as your guide to its music scene, and Ness was/is youthful enough that I believe he actually did listen to these bands.

Hizzoner apparently digs a “low-fi, folky vibe,” though that doesn’t stop him from including a Sly Stone cover that’s played nicely straight — not thrashed up or Chili Peppered out or anything stupid like that.

We’ll see if the rest is as tolerable.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3362082434/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/track=1941900196/transparent=true/

Back to Memphis.

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As I watch tonight’s YouTube viewing of choice, I’m watching a man whose life in the spotlight is about to fall away from him.

I’m also looking at his boss, Elvis Presley.

For context: This week marks the anniversary of the last week Elvis ever worked.

After the June 19 show in Omaha, the King stumbled for another week through the Midwest, playing shows in Lincoln, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati and, on the 26th, Indianapolis. (Two of those shows were filmed for a regrettable — and, as it turned out, posthumous — network TV special.)

After the June 26 show, Elvis went home to Graceland. He hadn’t held a recording session since the prior October, and he didn’t hold any more before his death in mid-August.

This, then, is the anniversary of the last week Elvis spent at his principal occupation — making music.

I’ll withhold most judgment on the quality of the music he was making at the time, except to say the June 19 Omaha concert is a less depressing experience when you can watch the film. I’ve had a recording for years, and it’s a hugely dispiriting listen. But the sight of Elvis’s porky smirk and the remnants of a gleam in his eye redeem things a little bit. Although he’s in dismal shape, he doesn’t look as bad as he sounds.

This week in ’77 also would have been the last week in the arena spotlight for Elvis’s longtime crony, Charlie Hodge.

Hodge, a diminutive Alabamian, had sung in a gospel quartet and picked a little guitar as a young man. He’d had the good fortune to meet Elvis backstage in 1955 and the even greater fortune to be stationed near Elvis in the Army, where he used their shared showbiz experience to strike up a friendship.

(Hodge’s Wiki entry, which appears to have been given a thorough scrubbing by the Charlie Hodge Appreciation Society, claims that Hodge appeared on network television before his famous future boss. Perhaps he did.)

When Elvis filmed his legendary 1968 comeback special, Hodge’s musical ability and place in Elvis’s inner circle landed him a spot in the show’s rowdy small-band jam sessions.

And when Elvis returned to live performing that year, Hodge was again at his side — fetching towels, bringing drinks, holding mics, strapping Elvis into his guitar, and singing backup and strumming unmic’d acoustic guitar when not otherwise needed.

Reportedly, the members of the Memphis Mafia spent much of their abundant free time coming up with reasons to be jealous of one another. Hodge was a particularly ripe target: Alone among Elvis’s entourage, he got to be on stage every night, in close proximity to the King, sharing the attention.

Watching the Omaha film, it’s difficult to tell just how much he enjoyed the privilege by the end.

His smile seems genuine enough at times … but then there are times when he reaches for the mic and Elvis won’t give it to him, or when Elvis pantomimes kicking him in the rear end, and the cruelty under the boys-will-be-boys routine seems to show itself.

(Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography of Elvis says that, about two weeks prior to the Omaha show, Elvis hit Hodge in the nose forcefully enough to draw blood during a discussion of cars Elvis had given to some of his lieutenants. It could be, then, that Hodge’s relationship with Elvis was more strained during these last shows than it had been previously.)

Elsewhere, Hodge can be seen standing apprehensively in the background while Elvis launches into flannel-tongued between-song monologues. Even after many nights of watching Elvis embarrass himself onstage, that couldn’t have been pleasant.

And then there’s the start of “And I Love You So,” where Hodge dispenses his usual supplies and retreats to the background. He wrings his hands briefly, pulls up his pants, and finally settles into a sort of subservient parade-rest posture, unable for the moment to escape the fact that he is 42 years old and makes his living handing out towels and water to a former friend he can now scarcely recognize.

I wonder if Hodge ever thought, at moments like that: “I could have been my own boss. I could have stayed in the Army and been an officer by now. I could have married the local Chevy dealer’s daughter and gone into the business. Instead I run like a squirrel around the stage of the Omaha Civic Auditorium, trying to stay two steps ahead of a guy who swears at me when the mic feeds back. But what else can I do with myself at this point?”

Whether he liked the setup or not, it had almost run its course on that night in Omaha. Less than two months later, Hodge would be trimming and coloring his boss’s sideburns in preparation for his funeral.

In addition to co-writing the obligatory book, Hodge spent some of his remaining years as an onstage gofer to Elvis tribute artists — doing the same things he did for Elvis, on much smaller stages, for performers who presumably treated him humanely and with respect, and in front of audiences who bought tickets as much to see him as to see the Elvis impersonator.

I suppose that passes for a happy ending, when you’ve gone that far down the road of professional subservience.

I still like to imagine Hodge clad in ’70s polyester, killing time during soundcheck in Springfield or Tuscaloosa or one of the other second-rank ports of call where Elvis played at the end, mulling the eternal question:

Is it better to be renowned for your fetching than to be anonymous for your bossing?