Road Trip Report: Todd Rundgren and Utopia in Denver
Special to The Aspen Times
Utopia, fronted by Todd Rundgren, played a show for the ages — and the aging — at Denver’s Paramount Theatre last week.
The rousing and emotional two-plus-hour performance gave fans, most of whom have long longed for a reunion of the 1970s and ’80s prog-rock and pop group — an opportunity to hear live these songs that were stalwarts of the Utopia shows from over 30 years ago. It also offered a long-awaited return for Rundgren to show off, once again, his prowess as one of rock’s most talented guitar heroes. For many of his solo tours, most supporting recently released recordings, the solo guitar elements have taken a back seat. Not at the Paramount.
In front of an 80 percent sold theater, the band showed more than flashes of their former brilliance as they played two distinctly different sets. The first focused on lengthy, instrumental-driven power anthems, while the second augured toward the shorter, vocally oriented pop songs of the group’s later recordings in the ’80s.
Providing even more contrast between the sets was a costume and set change that brought drummer John “Willie” Wilcox off a raised podium to center stage for the second act. The enthusiastic crowd welcomed both sets warmly.
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The first three songs, the “Utopia Theme,” naturally, an excerpt from the 30-minute opus “The Ikon,” and the title song from the 1975 recording of “Another Live,” were played back-to-back-to-back for an epic half-hour of technical intensity that showcased the band’s proficiency and a place in time (the mid-1970s to be exact).
With original Utopia members Kasim Sulton on bass and Wilcox on drums, and newly minted Gil Assayas on synthesizer and keyboards, the band was tight, taut and dramatic. Each of the pieces performed was faithful to the original compositions and the power of the music brought back the vibe of earlier concert endeavors.
But clearly the star of the evening was Rundgren.
On the six guitars he rotated during the performance, he played the lightning leads and power chord progressions that have defined his nearly 50-year career. It is not just his skills that make him unique, and utterly revered by both his loyal fans and other guitarists. It is his style of phrasing. Notes are not wasted and momentary pauses lend emotional force to his playing. He tells a story, renders a feeling, inspires a thought with each solo or lead. There are obviously other talented players in rock, but none are quite like Rundgren.
The first half of the show moved with alacrity and offered little in the way of banter with the crowd. In fact, other than a brief “Hello” and a request to “give me a moment, the altitude is getting to me,” Rundgren kicked off the songs without introduction. But the assembled knew not just each song, but seemingly each chord change and responded in unison. Even when Utopia drifted from “Back on the Street” to a jazzy and jumpy rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s classic Broadway showstopper “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story,” the faithful were ready to respond.
Part two of the performance seemed a bit more casual and allowed the other performers to step forward. Wilcox, who has a day job as the musical coordinator for a gaming company, seemed to be having the time of his life as he beat on a Ludwig kit and took to a vocal on “Princess of the Universe.” Sulton, who sang lead on many of the band’s more well-known numbers, like “Swing to The Right” and “Set Me Free,” showed that he still retains his vocal chops. His distinctive, if somewhat limited, vocal range is a familiar element of the Utopia songbook.
And the newest addition, Assayas, a 31-year-old Israeli keyboard player who stepped in at the last minute to save the tour when original Utopian Ralph Shuckett bowed out because of health issues, brought an energy and confidence to his playing. If there were to be another tour for Utopia, Assayas surely has earned a spot on it.
There were a few imperfections in the evening. The video wall, which for the most part was spectacular, providing psychedelic and real-world images that were the eye candy for the performance, had an irritating black box glitch through much of the show. And, after two hours, Todd’s voice gave way on the higher octaves.
But when the night got late and the band seamlessly transitioned from the fury of “Rock Love” to the lyrical “Love is the Answer,” and eventually an encore performance of “Just One Victory,” the audience sang along as though they were one.
For the crowd, the vast majority of whom were old enough to remember these anthems from their youth, this was not a rehash of days gone by. Rather, the concert had the aura of a revival. A return to a feeling that marked the way they, and their beloved band, still hope life will be: A Utopia.
You can catch Utopia on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Wednesday, June 6.
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