Published on 28th May 2019
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia – Live at the Chicago Theatre
Todd Rundgren surely needs no introduction, does he? Or maybe he does, let’s briefly touch on his early career. During the late ’60s he formed the blues orientated Nazz, but became increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the band. Production projects and a number of abortive collaborations were to be the order of the day, and we next join him in 1972 with his best selling albums as Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren and Something/Anything?. Latterly a slew of progressive rock albums ensued under the Utopia banner, such as Ra and Oops Wrong Planet.
In the 1990s Todd retired Utopia and reverted to making his own music, with varying degrees of success, and then last year came the announcement of the long-awaited U.S. reunion tour, where the album in review here originates. Recorded in Chicago on 22nd May 2018, the music reflects a run through many of the finer moments of the Utopia back catalogue. Todd is joined by fellow original members Willie Wilcox (drums) and Kasim Sultan (bass), alongside replacement keyboard player Gil Assayas who covered at short notice for an indisposed Ralph Shuckett.
This is quite a package, comprising two CDs, a Blu-ray and a DVD housed in a four panel fold out cover, and features the whole show with its 24 song set split across the CDs, whilst the DVD and Blu-ray give the full visual effect. I should mention I’m working from download files and as yet I’ve not actually seen the visual elements, but the CDs certainly sound very good indeed, well mixed and clear with the band sounding on very good form. Hard to believe that this is some 32 years after they originally finished (ok there have been a few impromptu reunions, but those were mainly in far-flung places like Japan and this was their first major U.S. regrouping since 1982.
The set covers most of the highlights from Utopia’s career, alongside a few selected Todd notables. Disc One covers the progressive side of the band, while Disc Two concentrates on the more AOR tinged elements.
Disc One I suspect will most likely be of interest to ardent Utopia fans as there’s a lot more improvised playing afoot and the songs have room to stretch out. Of special note are Utopia Theme which opens the show and is the longest piece on the album. There’s lots of manic synth work being utilised to give the songs their progressive edge and show that the band still has the chops to recreate this excellent music. Also noteworthy is their version of Do Ya by The Move (and also covered by ELO), which is a rousing number with its driving beat, chunky guitar parts and a great vocal from Todd himself. The Wheel, from Todd’s solo years, is well represented here in a group format, with an interesting syncopated vocal section halfway through where Todd sings with just the audience involvement as accompaniment. Back On The Streets from Oops Wrong Planet, the album that marked a swing by Utopia from the longer progressive form to shorter more radio accessible songs, is well represented here.
I have to say that whilst this album is pretty good, I think people unfamiliar with Todd’s work (which includes me) may struggle with its mix of styles, some of which can be somewhat an acquired taste. There is much to enjoy here as the playing is very tight and accomplished throughout, especially the replacement keyboardist, who plays staggeringly well, especially if you consider the short notice at which he stepped in to help out.
So, overall I consider this album worthy, although by no means essential, however if you are interested then try your luck and see what you think, perhaps this version of U.S. Prog is too different for us British types.
01. Utopia Theme (14:14)
02. The Ikon (4:20)
03. Another Life (7:04)
04. Do Ya (3:50)
05. Freedom Fighters (4:02)
06. The Wheel (6:48)
07. Back On The Street (4:16)
08. Something’s Coming (3:24)
09. Monument (4:55)
10. Overture – Communion With The Sun (7:30)
11. Last Of The New Wave Riders (4:40)
Time – 65:03
01. Road To Utopia (5:21)
02. Play This Game (4:17)
03. Swing To The Right (4:28)
04. Trapped (3:12)
05. Set Me Free (3:17)
06. Love In Action (3:40)
07. Hammer In My Heart (4:39)
08. Princess Of The Universe (3:21)
09. I Will Wait (4:18)
10. Rock Love (5:00)
11. Love Is The Answer (4:38)
12. One World (3:31)
13. Just One Victory (5:59)
Time – 55:41
Total Time – 120:44
Todd Rundgren – Guitar, Lead Vocals
Kasim Sultan – Bass, Guitars, Lead Vocals
Willie Wilcox – Drums
Gil Assayas – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Record Label: Purple Pyramid
Date of Release: 12th April 2019