“City in my head – Utopia/heaven in my body – Utopia,” Todd Rundgren sang in the opening number of his band’s deliriously retro May 10 concert in Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre.
Billed as Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, but featuring a four-piece reminiscent of the group that emerged after Rundgren’s proggy big band dissolved, the quartet of Rundgren, bassist/guitarist Kasim Sulton, drummer Willie Wilcox and last-minute replacement keyboardist Gil Assayas (who stepped in for the ailing Ralph Schuckett, who stepped in for the ailing Roger Powell), powered through a nostalgic – material ranged from 1972 to 1985 – 130-minute concert that served as a musical way-back machine for the Utopians in the two-thirds filled house.
Just as Utopia was essentially two bands, this was essentially two shows.
Opening with what Rundgren termed a “blizzard” of mostly instrumental, Zappa-esquse prog-rock – “Utopia Theme,” “The Ikon” and “Another Life” – the band played set one in front of a humongous video screen carrying trippy, psychedelic images of floating eyeballs, the cosmos and the famous sphinx from the group’s Ra tour. Wilcox and Assayas were perched on high platforms on either side of the stage, as Sulton and Rungren prowled around below them. The former was a fountain of youth, singing like it was still 1977 and tossing in consistently eye-popping bass lines, while Rundgren, dressed head to toe in what can only be termed as period regalia, concentrated on guitar and took lead vocals on all but three of the 11 songs that made up the 70-minute set.
The sound in the theatre was nearly perfect, with each of the four instruments easily distinguishable even as Assayas – who fit in as if he’d been around for ages – filled the hall with outlandish synth sounds not heard since well before the turn of the century.
As the set progressed, the band began hinting at the wildly diverse arc of its discography, from the guitar-driven pop-rock of the Move’s “Do Ya” to the social commentary of “The Wheel” to the playful nod to pre-rock musicals on Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” to the explosive “Last of the New Wave Riders.”
“The whole universe is a giant guitar,” Rundgren and Sulton sang in unison as faux flames danced behind them and Rundgren lit into one of the many incendiary solos he’d take over the course of the evening.
On the road for the first time since a brief reunion (with Powell) in 1992, the four-piece Utopia seemed happy to be back. Still, it should be noted that with Powell sidelined, this concert was more the Todd and Kasim show than a full Utopia performance; Powell’s tracks were necessarily ignored and Wilcox took only one lead vocal, on the hard-driving and well-received “Princess of the Universe.”
Like its predecessor, set two also kicked off with a mission statement – “The Road to Utopia.” Unlike its predecessor, this stanza was packed full of concise – no 10-minute workouts here – pop songs with the band in a more traditional configuration – Wilcox in the back on a kit and Rundgren front and center and flanked by Sulton and Assayas.
Even their dress was more conservative, reflecting the more conservative nature of the music. The visuals – as they were in set one – were gorgeous, adding to the atmosphere with visions of cloud-filled skies, futuristic settings and sunrises without detracting from the music.
The group crammed a baker’s dozen into a hourlong set. Again, the stupefying range of Utopia’s songbook was on display from the Reagan-era screed “Swing to the Right” to the new-wave bop of “Hammer in My Heart” to the bass-pedal driven dance track “Rock Love,” which found Rundgren shedding his guitar while Sulton took over on six string.
Thus began an anthem-filled homestretch when the relatively staid audience rose to its feet and sang and danced along to “Love is the Answer,” the adult-contemporary hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley, and the celebratory, clap-along “One World.”
Like every Utopia concert before – and every Utopia concert to come – this one ended with the only Rundgren solo tune of the night – the much-loved “Just One Victory” from 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star. It had a false start as Sulton briefly walked off stage to get a new bass and was good-naturedly scolded by Rundgren, who was otherwise uncharacteristically light on stage patter during the show.
Given their lack of shared history – and Powell’s inability to tour – over the past three-plus decades, Utopia is unlikely to be a going concern beyond this brief tour. But despite its spate of inactivity and quick recruiting of a new member, the band managed the herculean feat of mounting a reunion tour that is worthy of its long legacy and – if this is indeed it – an emphatic exclamation point on a truncated, but celebrated, career.