After a thirty-year-plus hiatus, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia graced the Chicago Theater stage, with the hopes of promising fans an extraordinary, other-worldly concert experience. The original 70’s-formed band established a stellar reputation for stretching the prog rock/pop envelope and infusing their mostly original material with verve and state-of-the-art technique. There was a mixture of anticipation and sense of wonderment in the air as fans trickled in about half-an-hour before the set.
It was already apparent that the stage was set up for an evening of great showmanship. With double keys and the drum kit on risers, bassist/guitarist/vocalist Kasim Sultan and the “true star” himself would have ample room in which to interact with one another and display a tool kit of excellent chops.
While I can’t speak for those seated in the balcony, sight lines were essentially excellent in my ground level seat, except for those moments when fans in the first few rows wildly danced or remained standing.
The quartet, dressed in eye-catching, glitzy apparel, waltzed onstage without a lot of fanfare, but graciously responded to the excited welcome they received. The first instrumental, ‘Utopia Theme,’ was a fifteen-minute masterpiece—Rundgren’s shimmering electric guitar tones were divined from a soulful and passionate place. Kasim matched Rundgren’s enthusiasm, phrase by phrase, notably when plucking the forceful bass line which started off second chestnut, “The Ikon.”
“Something happened in the middle of the night in a place I’ve never been before,” Rundgren revealed, in regards to the atmospheric “In Another Life.” Then he remarked slyly, “some of you are still standing after that blizzard,” referencing the fierce onslaught of instrumentals just performed.
The onscreen eye-candy ranged from oozing blotches of color to shooting stars, barren lunar landscapes, and images of “Ra.” In every case, the graphics reflected an element of the poignant, lyrical themes. At times, the display was so heady and inviting; it almost seemed like Kasim and Rundgren might burst out of the giant screen, as brilliant colors and sonics swirled in tandem.
As for their onstage partnership, Rundgren and Sultan opted for a proper quid pro quo, trading soulful lead vocals or supporting each other with lush harmonies. To that end, Rundgren’s voice has lost none of the strength and flexibility he has become known for, and as the night progressed, he became even more adventurous with his stylizing and pacing, working the audience up at key moments to an unmistakable fever-pitch. For instance, later in the set, after the band played the introduction to the longed-for “Love is the Answer,” Rundgren, sans his guitar, kept up momentum with signature, exploratory vocal phrasing.
Although the opening numbers were cerebral, the mood shifted, and the set list blew wide open. Fans could not keep still during ‘Do Ya’ (The Move), a terrific contrast with its clipped chorus and strident barre chords. In the same lively vein, “Back on the Street Again” found Sultan in jubilant vocal form—his earlier lead vocals had been, at times, spotty, but this hard-driver brought out the best.
Rundgren’s smooth take on Stephen Sondheim’s “Something’s Coming” from Broadway musical West Side Story was simply arranged but tremendously heartfelt. On “Monument,” Rundgren performed a breathtaking electric guitar solo, this time, focusing on the upper register amid more spectacular, background graphics.
After a twenty-minute intermission, the quartet returned, dressed this time for casual Friday. The pressure of performing syncopated, air-tight instrumental pieces was gone, and after catching their breath, the players exuded an incredibly chill vibe.
They opened, contemplatively, with “The Road to Utopia.” “Set Me Free” was just plain fun. While earlier, the “true star” demonstrated that he has lost none of his gift for imaginative phrasing, he then pulled out all the stops, replacing his pure and soulful musings with bluesy growls for show stopper, “Love in Action.” Throughout these selections, the visuals grew more and more compelling, featuring brilliant shots of setting suns, lunar landscapes and a fitting tribute to “Ra,” which represented a milestone in Utopia’s history.
“Love is the Answer” remains one of Rundgren’s most requested, signature tunes for a good reason. His sincerity and respect for the ballad’s optimistic message came out organically through his timbre and demonstrative body language. Letting go of his guitar, he was genuinely free to emote without added responsibility. That said, he drew close to the front rows for some brief, but intimate interaction.
Another special delight was the addition of “Princess of the Universe,” which in stark contrast to the other tunes, exploded in punk. “There was a Time” saw Sulton shimmer simultaneously on vocals and bass.
“Rock Love,” meant for the dance floor, offered Sulton the opportunity to step in as lead guitarist, a task that he took quite seriously.
While we didn’t have an opportunity to hear drummer Willie Wilcox perform a full-blown solo, his steady hand, and magnetic flourishes more than suggested overall talent. Showman Gil Assayas, on keys, slyly inserted jangly runs that bound the evening of eclectic material together.
Perhaps because this Chicago audience had waited for decades to hear Utopia’s fiery and diverse collection, they refused to hold back, physically or emotionally—their unbridled appreciation echoed the onstage excitement and vice versa. Yet even after a generous encore, fans trailed out slowly, clearly reluctant to leave, perhaps because they were processing the reality that this night could be a one-off. Or then again, maybe not. Either way, the talented quartet truly honored Utopia’s brilliant legacy, and if they do return, they will surely be met with open arms.