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RETRACING THE MUSIC

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia / Bergen Performing Arts Center, Englewood, N.J. / April 20, 2018

Todd Rundgren and his seminal progressive-rock band, Utopia, have reunited after a more than 25-year absence, with the result being a step back in time to the heady, psychedelic, prog-rock atmosphere of the late ’70s and early ’80s — and proof that he and the quixotic and unpredictable group are still forces to be reckoned with.

The second show of their tour brought them to New Jersey’s Bergen Performing Arts Center on April 20, and they were well received by a near-capacity crowd, delivering choice cuts from Utopia’s more popular albums.

The soon-to-be 70-year-old Rundgren — sporting dark sunglasses, a tie-dye shirt, thin knee-length overcoat dabbed with color and silky lounge pants — worked effortlessly to evoke a spacey, colorful and dynamic vibe onstage. Core Utopia members Kasim Sulton on bass and John “Willie” Wilcox on drums (joined by keyboardist Gil Assayas, who replaced Ralph Schuckett due to health reasons after the tour was set) powered through heady versions of “Utopia Theme,” “Ikon” and “Freedom Fighters” from their 1974 debut album, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, in the engaging first set.

A large screen center stage and two smaller screens on the base of the podiums supporting the drum and keyboards projected abstract images, swirling icons and giant eyes, representative of 1970s prog-rock album art. Smoke-machine effects and stage lights were the only other embellishments put to use during the show, which eschewed gaudy effects and stagey gimmickry for guitar chops and bold vocal delivery.

Rundgren and Sulton shared vocal duties and were in fine form on “The Wheel” and “Monument.” At times, the sound system (there were no speakers noticeable on the stage) created a muddle that drowned out the vocals — and with a band that relied so much on words to flesh out its songs, this had the potential to be occasionally, but not annoyingly, problematic for the uninitiated trying to grasp the playful meaning of the lyrics.

A cover of The Move’s “Do Ya” was a first-set highlight (“We’re now going to play something with a few less notes,” Rundgren interjected in one of his few comments to the audience), as was “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise” and “Communion With the Sun” from the 1977 Utopia album Ra (complete with a huge sphinx projected on the back screen). The set closed with “Last of the New Wave Riders,” which showcased Rundgren’s (some would say underrated) guitar mastery.

The second set was a measured change in both song choice and sound level. The placement of the drums center stage was also an effective move. Beginning with “The Road to Utopia,” the band steamrolled through a string of upbeat, bouncy songs that included “Trapped” (from 1977’s Oops! Wrong Planet) and “Hammer in My Heart” (from 1982’s eponymous Utopia). Assayas’ keyboard treatments and Wilcox’s tireless drumming were a driving force on this song block, in particular “Trapped,” “Play This Game” and the quasi-political “Swing to the Right.” And on some, Sulton shined with a vibrant tenor lead vocal, evoking comparisons to Dennis DeYoung of Styx.

The power ballads that closed the show fared the best in terms of quality of performance. “Rock Love,” “Love Is the Answer” and “One World” formed as good a triumvirate of songs to conclude a Utopia concert as could be imagined. The dreamy, flowery, heartfelt quality of the band’s avant-garde material still speaks to the hopeful idealists untainted by cynicism and hate, and the message is a universal one.

The encore was “Just One Victory,” from Rundgren’s 1973 album, A Wizard, A True Star, the only song from his solo oeuvre to be performed. It was a perfect capper to the evening, with the lyrics (“we may be losing now but we can’t stop trying”) encapsulating the optimistic whimsy facing down cruel reality evident in many of the Utopia numbers. This show proved to be a triumphant return for this iconoclastic and heady group, and Rundgren and company appear to be enjoying the revived journey as they continue to seek and speak of something close to a real utopia.

— By Donald Gavron

Photo by Danny O’Connor

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