Happy Birthday, Todd Rundgren!

As American Pop’s wizard and true star turns 71, the RNRG sings the praises of a new Utopia live album

Todd Rundgren’a Utopia live at Chicago Theater

Dual careers are nothing new in the annals of rock. Once a musician takes a solo sojourn outside an established ensemble, suddenly he or she naturally finds their loyalties divided between the mothership and their individual endeavors. It’s little wonder that many groups live in fear that their front person will decide that the attention and adulation heaped on them as they stand at center stage will tempt them to seek their own stardom and leave the rest of the outfit simply as support players of little more than incidental standing.

The most notable example of that particular scenario is the dynamic that existed between Rod Stewart and his colleagues in the Faces. Even in the band’s infancy, Rod was releasing solo albums that left many wondering how much longer he’d be content to work two jobs before venturing out entirely on his own. Both Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham maintained strong individual careers even while Fleetwood Mac continued to flourish. Ditto Bruce Springsteen and his various ventures outside the confines of the E Street Band. There are multiple other examples as well, parallel paths that offered artists excellent opportunities to indulge in additional creative pursuits as well as multiple revenue streams all at the same time.  

Todd Rundgren has operated in the same way throughout much of his career, courtesy of an exceptional solo repertoire alongside his tenure at the helm of Utopia, an outfit that’s allowed him to indulge his more experimental whims. The band’s mostly been on a hiatus following the turn of the century, but reunions have become more frequent as well. A full fledged relaunch commenced early last year, culminating in a new incarnation that found Rundgren, bassist Kasim Sultan and drummer Willie Wilcox joined by recently recruited keyboard player Gil Assayas.

Cover art for Live at the Chicago Theater

The initial document from this reconstituted ensemble arrives in the form of Live at the Chicago Theatre, an expansive two-CD, DVD and Blu-ray box set that retraces two dozen of the band’s signature songs. Of course, some might have hoped for a new studio set, but live albums have always been an essential part of Utopia’s canon, dating back to Another Live, released early on in their collective career. That was followed by concert offerings in 1992, 2001, 2002 and in 2012. Given their instrumental pyrotechnics and majestic musicality, it seems appropriate that inevitably concert recordings would represent their instrumental outlays best.

Naturally then, Live at the Chicago Theatre is no exception, and the opportunity to revisit such spirited selections as “Do Ya,” “The Wheel,” “Last of the New Wave Riders,” Hammer In My Heart,” “Love Is the Answer,” “One World” and “Just One Victory” demonstrate that the band’s essential enthusiasm and visceral vitality remain undiminished.  The fact that there are only four musicians involved in this collective makes the music even more remarkable, providing ample pay-off for fans who greeted this recent reunion with great anticipation. Rundgren naturally takes center stage, but the sound is so big and so boisterous that all four members can justifiably take due credit.

Ultimately, Live at the Chicago Theatre doesn’t take any significant steps forward, but then again, it doesn’t really need to. It simply serves as a reminder that when it comes to Rundgren’s resume, there’s more to consider than those things he offers on his own.

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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