A Utopia for Todd Rundgren fans

G ood things come to those who wait, as the popular expression goes, and if that’s the case, then fans of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia have certainly earned the right to expect a show filled with good things on May 10.

Todd Rundgren reunites his old band
at Cincinnati’s Taft

Todd Rundgren with Utopia drummer Willie Wilcox. Photo: Richard Kerris

By Tim Walker

Good things come to those who wait, as the popular expression goes, and if that’s the case, then fans of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia have certainly earned the right to expect a show filled with good things on May 10.

Rundgren and his bandmates—veterans Kasim Sulton on bass and Willie Wilcox on drums, and new addition Gil Assayas on keyboards—will be bringing Utopia’s 2018 reunion tour to Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre for a performance, and local fans couldn’t be more excited. But questions remain: who is Gil Assayas? Where has the band been all these years? And what magical talisman finally brought them all back together for
a tour?

“Inexplicable,” says Todd Rundgren recently when interviewed. “Everything always seemed against the reality, as recently as weeks ago. This is the Real Spinal Tap.” As always, Rundgren’s answers are short, to the point, and slightly acerbic; when asked what advice he’d give to a high virtuosity quartet of singer/songwriter/producers just getting started in today’s musical scene, he answered “Psychedelics. We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere or had any fun in the early days without them.” Far out.

To understand Utopia’s journey, it may help to revisit those halcyon days of 1974—those of you who were around back then, of course. Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine owned the major league ball fields, and the Vietnam conflict was finally nearing its end. Mel Brooks released both Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, and Richard M. Nixon became the first President of the United States to resign his position. And Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, the artist’s new and very progressive rock band, released its first album. On vinyl, yet. Rundgren had already enjoyed a series of FM radio hits at that time, and while that first Utopia album only made it to #34 on the US album charts, it began the band’s decades-long string of great guitar licks, cool harmonies, memorable songs, and far-out musical experimentation. The band, which has certainly seen its share of personnel changes, experienced a brief prog-rock flashback tour in 2011, but prior to that the band’s main foursome hadn’t played as a unit since 1992. That Redux ‘92 version of the band represented Utopia’s heyday, and the lineup of Rundgren, Sulton, Wilcox, and keyboardist Roger Powell had produced a string of memorable albums and hit songs such as “Love is the Answer,” “Set Me Free,” “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” and “Crybaby.”

“We just got tired of hearing people ask,” says longtime bassist Kasim Sulton with a laugh when asked why the band reunited. Sulton spoke to the City Paper from Missouri where, at the time, he was on tour with former Eagle Don Felder. “We decided that if we gave it a shot, and put it together and did some shows, that people would stop asking. 1992 was the last time we’d played together as a band, and that was only for 5 shows, with one warm-up date on the west coast. So that was very brief—I think the entire tour was 2 weeks.”

Okay. But who, again, is Gil Assayas?

As in the Rundgren-referenced Spinal Tap film, the band’s keyboard slot became the real-life Hot Seat for the 2018 tour—longtime keyboardist Roger Powell was unable to rejoin the band, and so Utopia turned to original member Ralph Shuckett to tickle those ivories. Then, just weeks before the band was scheduled to begin rehearsals, last-minute health problems forced Shuckett to bow out after months of work, sending the band into a panic to find a keyboardist who could fill his shoes on tour. Rundgren and the rest of the group actually put out a call online in March, asking keyboardists who knew the band’s catalog to send in audition recordings in hopes that they could find a suitable replacement. Then, thankfully, one of Rundgren’s sons suggested Assayas, an Israeli musician who agreed to the tour, and who the band uniformly describes as “fantastic.” Incredibly, he was unfamiliar with the songs prior to being contacted.

Rundgren himself is coming off a guest-packed solo album from last year. White Knight featured Joe Satriani on the song “This Is Not a Drill,” Donald Fagen on the Trump-inspired “Tin Foil Hat,” as well as Joe Walsh, Trent Reznor and Daryl Hall. When asked if Utopia has any plans to write or record new music in the near future, Rundgren was, as usual, cryptic.

He says he “only plans to have a future, if that’s humanly possible.”

Utopia will bring their 2018 reunion tour to Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth Street in Cincinnati, Ohio for a performance on Thursday, May 10. Show starts at 7pm, doors open at 6pm. For more information, go to www.tafttheatre.org, www.todd-rundgren.com, or
call 513-232-6220.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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