Road Trip Alert: Todd Rundgren bringing Utopia to Denver
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia
Where: Paramount Theatre, Denver
When: Thursday, May 24, 8 p.m.
How much: $39.50-$89.50
Some bands have fans. Others fanatics. Put Todd Rundgren and the band Utopia in the latter category.
For the past two months, the iconic ’70s and ’80s prog-rock/pop band has been on a 32-show road trip playing mid-sized venues across America and satiating the pent up hunger of said fanatics, who have waited 30 years for another ride. A revived Utopia takes their act to Denver’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, May 24.
“When you are part of a tour today there are obligations that we didn’t used to have,” Rundgren said in a recent phone interview from Toronto. “You’ve got these VIP packages and meet-and-greets with fans before the show. And the fans thank us! They’re paying for it and yet they are thanking us! It’s remarkable.”
He is obviously enthused by the response.
“I expected all older people who were exposed to the music when we were a band, but we are getting a lot of double-generations, people bringing their 30-year-old kids along for the show,” he said.
From 1974 through 1986, Utopia — fronted by the performer-producer-songwriter-guitar hero-conceptualist (the ultimate musical hyphenate) Rundgren — released 10 studio albums and four live ones, plus a plethora of compilation discs. While sales did not rise to chart-topping status, Utopia birthed a core of devoted disciples who still play the vinyl versions of the albums.
“This was always a possibility,” Rundgren said of the reunion tour. “As long as there was a quorum of potential band members left and demand was there it was something that was possible.”
From its inception, Utopia’s live shows were legendary, both visually and musically. A tripod pyramid was erected in the center of the stage so Rundgren could climb toward the heavens for vigorous, otherworldly guitar solos. Willie Wilcox’s electronic percussion kit — drums to some — careened around stage on a three-wheel motorcycle they called the “Trapparatus.” Kasim Sultan brought a pixie-ish sex appeal to his bass playing and the keyboardists — Ralph Shuckett first, followed by Roger Powell later — huddled behind an assemblage of pianos, organs and synthesizers that dominated the stage.
“We won’t be bringing all of that,” Rundgren laughed, “but we do have a 32-by-16-foot video wall and the show scales pretty well in the venues we are playing.”
The energy and sheer volume of musical notes made the performances inspiring, though exhausting, musical experiences. Lightning fast guitar solos from Rundgren were a focal point, but it was the diversity that made the music so mesmerizing. Harmonic interludes and rapid-fire changes, from blues to pop to Broadway to jazz to classical, all could be heard in Utopia’s long-ish songs. The IKON (not to be confused with the Colorado ski pass) is a 30-minute-plus opus that features too many changes to count. Sometimes reminiscent of Aaron Copeland’s symphonic passages, other times the Beatles, and still others late night jazz, the piece, like so much of the band’s work, was the result of manic musical synchronization rather than simply sloppy improvisation.
The current tour set list includes 24 songs and the show is over two hours in length.
“Since the band really had two eras, the first part of the show is embedded in progressive rock (The Ikon/ Utopia Theme),” Rundgren said.
The second part, following a 20-minute intermission, is much more song-oriented.
“It’s from our ‘vocals’ period,” Rundgren said with a laugh, once again.
Three of the four members, those who shared songwriting credits as part of the original Utopia unit — Rundgren, Sultan and Wilcox — are in the current grouping. Shuckett, who turned 70 in March, bowed out of the tour literally at the last minute, due to health issues. In his stead, Rebop Rundgren, Todd’s Portland, Oregon-based son, recommended an Israeli born keyboardist named Gil Assayas.
“I never wanted to put together a band of substitutes, so when Ralph had to drop out it was a big blow,” Rundgren said. “I called my kid, who has his finger on the pulse beat of new musicians, and asked who was the best keyboardist he knows. Without hesitation he said ‘Gil.’”
Assayas, who was born after the last Utopia record was produced in 1986, spent a busy couple of weeks learning the intricate tunes and, according to Rundgren, has been a great addition: “You know, when a tour starts, the first week everyone is just listening to themselves, making sure they got all the notes. But now we can listen to each other and I think each show gets better. And the fans are really enjoying Gil.”
Rundgren, also turning 70 in June, has been touring for close to a half-century and still is going strong.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t retire from,” he said. “I always felt sad when musicians had to retire for whatever reason. It’s not like riding a bicycle. Once you leave the road you can’t get back on. You lose your vocal stamina, your callouses go off your fingers and it hurts to play, you get slow.” He added, “But I think (touring) keeps me healthy because I get two hours of aerobic exercise in the evenings. It’s the kind of thing where you have to use your brain a lot, so it keeps your mind somewhat nimble.”
He concluded, “And I still enjoy it. I still enjoy actually doing the shows. When everything is working right … when the audience is into it, when there’s no technical issues, those nights when it all comes together, you feel like you could do it for days. For weeks. You feel like you could do it for years.”
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The nonprofit VOICES led 39 bilingual Basalt Middle School students through a visual journaling project to tell their stories this spring.