City in my head, heaven in my body.

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.

Not hurrying into anything.

In December 2012, I wrote a post about Todd Rundgren’s intention to release a new record, and my intention to see him perform if his subsequent tour came to my area.

Took me almost three years, but I finally bought a ticket to go see him again.

He happens to be coming to a theater in the northern Philly suburbs in mid-December, on a Sunday night before I take a week off from work.

(He’ll be coming with the same band I saw him with in 2011, not with the EDM-oriented show he toured with earlier this year. Though, honestly, I would probably have gone to see the EDM show if that’s what was on offer.)

And, I happened to discover the presale code for tickets left online by the theater management. So I went ahead and bought a ticket. They would have gone on public sale tomorrow at noon anyway, but I saw no need to wait that long if I didn’t have to.

I’d been holding out for him to come to the Lehigh Valley again, especially now that we have a bunch of nice new performance venues. Hasn’t happened, though. Rundgren’s legendary stubbornness seems to have trumped mine, and if he won’t come in my direction, I’ll drive an hour south to go to his.

This show (assuming nothing stops me from attending) also will elevate Rundgren alongside Neil Young, Bob Dylan and maybe B.B. King as artists I have seen three times.

Given that he continues to tour regularly, and continues to play smaller markets (or the outskirts of larger ones), Rundgren seems to have a better shot than the other (living) members of the Three-Show Club at reaching the never-ascended Four-Show Plateau. I won’t go to the big arena in Philly to see the other guys, but a smaller theater in the ‘burbs is another matter.

What happens if he reaches four shows, I don’t know … but Rundgren’s always game for new things, so maybe we’ll find out together in a year or two.

Of course, I’ve said that before.

Repeat customer.

Just caught up with some news from two weeks ago: Todd Rundgren plans to release a new album in April 2013 and follow it with a tour.

This is of note to me because, if he plays in my area, I will go see him.

And if I go see him, he will become one of a small handful of performers I have seen three times.

The last time.
The last time.

I’m not one of those people who considers any particular artist an absolute must-see — not one of those U2 or Springsteen fanatics with a glass-topped coffee table full of ticket stubs.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

– I just don’t get out to hear live music that often any more. I gave in to parenthood and boringness a long time ago.

– I haven’t gotten into many younger bands, and I don’t particularly want to see most older ones. (For instance, I never saw Aerosmith as a teenager, even though I loved them then; and I’m convinced that seeing them now would just be anticlimactic.)

– The region where I’ve lived for the past decade doesn’t have a hockey rink-slash-arena. And, I don’t like driving an hour or two to see a show. So most performers of arena popularity have been off my list for a good 10 years, just because I have no patience for big-city, big-venue hassles.

For instance, seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their current tour would have meant going to Philadelphia. And going to Philadelphia from where I live is a pain in the ass on the best of days. While I revere Neil and the Horse, I don’t consider it worth the time and expense.

(I will be interested to see whether the hockey rink under construction in downtown Allentown attracts much in the way of concerts.)

So who have I seen three times? What performers have roused me to get off my arse and dismiss my excuses?

Bob Dylan – October 1994 at Boston’s Orpheum Theater; November 2004 at Stabler Arena, Lehigh University; and July 2009 at Coca-Cola Park, Allentown. Even though he doesn’t have the voice to front a live band any more, I would probably see him again, just because he’s Bob Dylan. (He also lets kids in for free at his outdoor summer shows; the July 2009 show was my older son’s first concert, which is a cool memory, at least for me.)

Neil Young – February 1991 with Crazy Horse at the Aud in Buffalo; March 1992 solo acoustic at the Orpheum; and August 1996 with the Horse at the Great Woods amphitheater in Mansfield, Mass. I’d probably see him again, as long as he wasn’t off on some dopey country tangent.

(An old friend of mine came into a bunch of free tickets to see Neil and the Horse in Buffalo in November 1996, but he didn’t tell me in time. Otherwise Neil would be atop this list.)

I might have seen B.B. King three times. I know for sure I saw him twice, in August of 1993 and ’94, at what was then called the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua, N.Y. B.B. used to do package tours with two or three other blues/roots acts, and I caught a couple of those; they were always enjoyable, and a good night’s entertainment for the money.

There aren’t that many artists I’ve seen twice, and it’s a fair bet that I won’t be completing the trifecta for most of them:

They Might Be Giants – April 1993 at MIT, and April 1995 at Boston’s Avalon club. What can I say? It was a college thing. (Though I make no apologies for seeing the MIT show. It was pretty hot. Seriously.)

Yes – April 1991 at the Aud in Buffalo, and again in July 1991 in Canandaigua. Both shows were part of the bloated “Union” tour. My chief memory from the Buffalo show is keyboardist Tony Kaye waving to the crowd with one hand … with Rick Wakeman also in the band, Kaye was kinda surplus to requirements.

Phish – Opening for Santana, July ’92; then headlining in July ’94; both at Canandaigua. Yeesh.

Rundgren – October 2009, with Hall & Oates and the Hooters, in the last concert ever at the Philadelphia Spectrum; and again in September 2011 at Lehigh. By that schedule, I’m on track to see him again next year. And if he doesn’t give in to age, frustration or crankiness by 2015, he might just make the top of my list then.

An independent campaign.

As a blogger, I am irresistibly drawn to things that are (a) earnest, (b) quixotic and (c) timely. Tonight’s source material clears all three hurdles with ease.

Just yesterday, President Obama flew to Los Angeles to attend a star-studded campaign benefit concert featuring performances by Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi and Katy Perry.

(I certainly hope they did not perform in that order.)

As Election Day draws closer, it’s no surprise that rock and pop stars are putting their time, talent and cash behind the incumbent President.

And, while showbiz types seem to lean left, it wouldn’t surprise me to see conservative performers step forth in support of Mitt Romney.

But it would be something else again to see a prominent musician campaign for a third-party candidate with no chance of winning.

Not just for a single concert, but consistently and repeatedly, just for the principle of the thing.

That’s what was happening in America 32 years ago this month, when a plucky, independent-minded underdog politician found his match in a plucky, independent-minded underdog rock star.

John Anderson, meet Todd Rundgren.

Rundgren was not the only musician to champion Anderson’s unlikely third-party Presidential run in 1980.

A Billboard magazine article from August of that year mentions that James Taylor played three New England concerts for Anderson; Herbie Mann headlined a Washington, D.C., fundraiser; and Devo and Tom Rush were also thinking about lending their talents to the campaign.

(I am sure Anderson greatly appreciated the thought of Devo bringing its spastic anti-funk aboard his campaign caravan.)

Rundgren, unlike the others, didn’t limit himself to a few scattered shows. He played an entire concert tour to benefit John Anderson — a sort of rock’n’roll Pickett’s Charge against the twin powers of the Republican and Democratic parties.

Ticket stubs and posters exist for Anderson benefit concerts throughout the month of October, some of which paired Rundgren with former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. The two singer-songwriters shared a band, trading off their own songs as well as covers like “Cathy’s Clown,” “Needles and Pins” and “Eight Days A Week.”

A recording of one such show — generally believed to be Oct. 20, 1980, in Akron, but sometimes circulated as Cleveland — makes the rounds online, and it sounds just about as awesome as you’d think. (Not that I advocate obtaining or listening to officially unreleased material in any way, shape or form, of course.)

According to a blurb in People magazine (!), Rundgren threw his support behind the U.S. Rep. from Illinois after studying his platform and agreeing with much of it.

Anderson, in return, apparently told Rundgren he was concerned about the effects of high-decibel rock music on his children’s hearing. Or he did if one believes the political reporting in People magazine, anyway. Despite that fundamental disagreement, the shows went on.

What makes Rundgren’s autumnal crusade so appealing — to me, anyway — is that Anderson’s campaign peaked in September.

According to Wiki’s retelling of the 1980 campaign, Anderson’s last chance to gain ground came at a Sept. 21 debate in Baltimore. Anderson was credited with a slight victory over Ronald Reagan (Jimmy Carter sat out the debate)  but failed to score the major blow he needed. And from there, his numbers slipped steadily.

So, by the time Rundgren and friends were playing the Youngstown Agora and the Ocean State Performing Arts Center in support of Anderson, the campaign was already beyond hope.

Having committed to the benefit shows, Rundgren and Hunter couldn’t really pull out, of course.

They seem to have played like they meant it, even though the cause was lost. The recording of the Akron show certainly doesn’t find them half-assing it in any way, shape or form.

One wonders, in retrospect, how many of the people who went to those shows gave a damn about John Anderson, and how many were there just to see two maverick singer-songwriters strike sparks off each other.

In the end, Anderson and running mate Patrick Lucey won just 6.6 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes. Exactly 5,719,850 Americans cast ballots for him.

Still, the John Anderson benefit tour stands, I think, as a high point in the ongoing intersection of rock music and politics. (And yes, as a Rundgren fan, I am screamingly biased; but hear me out.)

Rundgren backed the independent candidate strongly enough that he was willing to spend a month of less-than-glamorous road life —  riding on buses, sleeping in Holiday Inns, and like that — to lend his support.

Single-show, star-studded benefit concerts packed with VIP attendees are one thing, but a string of one-nighters playing to the punters in Buffalo and Providence requires a different kind of commitment.

Was it quixotic from start to finish? Yeah. Was it totally the sort of thing one would expect from Todd Rundgren? Yup. Does that make it any less cool? Not to my mind.

Personally, I’d like to see another credible independent Presidential candidate in my lifetime.

Even if that happened in 2016, it would probably be too late to expect Rundgren to do any more campaigning.

But perhaps some other contrarian performer would step up and mount a tour for the ages … a tour people would remember long after the last well-heeled major-party fundraising show is forgotten.