EDITORIAL: THESE ARE NOT THE UTOPIANS YOU ARE LOOKING FOR! RUNDGREN TAKES OUT YET ANOTHER BOGUS VERSION OF THE BAND!

This photo shoot includes Ralph Schuckett, who would later drop out due to health issues. Those issues being it was making him sick not being able to play like retired Utopia keyboardist Roger Powell. Photo courtesy Sirius XM

I’m out. No, seriously, I am done following and listening to (and reporting on) Todd Rundgren. Most likely his name won’t appear in this blog again outside the context of referring to him as producer, engineer, etc. I have yet to get his latest solo CD “White Knight“. Which is unheard of for me, having once pestered a local record store merchant by going to their store EVERYDAY asking about the not yet released Adventures In Utopia album.

Sicker still, I find it difficult for people to comprehend, but I prefer Rundgren’s more esoteric efforts. No, I hate Something/Anything, that and his Bossa Nova album With A Twist… Then he went EDM. Awwww hell no!!! But I stayed there with Rundgren through all the musical twists and turns he chose to make in his career. Spending a healthy dime on records, cds, posters, T-shirts, pins, on and on and on. Since 1974…

So I feel that (among other things) qualifies me to make these statements.

Let me take you back, back to 2009, the scene is Stamford Connecticut and the performance was A Wizard A True Star in its entirety. But that would not make a full show. So in a very large band that included three keyboardists, as well as two guitars (when Rundgren would play), bass and drums. One of those keyboardists was Roger Powell. The bass player was Kasim Sulton (as it usually is when Rundgren plays live). So you can deduce what conclusion they arrived at. They need to fill time and they have 3/4 of Utopia in house, let’s toss in Prairie Prince (who was drumming for the AWATS show anyway) to go out and do an abbreviated warm-up set of Utopia tunes. Right down to the white T-shirts and black pants (sound familiar?).

Now I love Prairie Prince as a drummer. There are few who are so competent in the art. Tasteful beats, fills, and a master at adapting to styles of music. Except when it comes to playing Willie Wilcox’s parts. There is just something about Wilcox’s style that is not easy to replicate. Prince was good, but it was not a great show. Contributing factors to that might be Rundgren slowing down with age and Powell being infirmed with severe arthritis (alternate reports say carpal tunnel, if you know which is the truth, please comment below). Certain songs dragged in terms of tempo, rolls were not within the parameters set forth by Wilcox. All in all, Powell was right when he told me later they called it Notopia. Truer words were never spoken. All this amounted to was (what would turn out to be) the first half-assed Utopia reunion.

Roger Powell and I discussing the flawed attempt to recreate Utopia without Willie Wilcox. Photo by Lynn Vala

Now this…

I first suspected things would go South when they announced they were “reuniting”. I knew that Powell could not play. My further suspicion was that they would go out as a trio (which Rundgren did with Sulton and fill-in Tubes drummer Trey Sabatelli for his One Long Year tour) with MIDI backing tracks that would replace Powell.

Not TOO desperate. Sending out a public cattle, I mean casting call for auditions to fill the vacated keyboardist spot filling in for Roger Powell via YouTube. Ain’t technology grand? Photo courtesy the Facebook group Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Tour 2018. UGH!

They ended up sending out a public call for auditions (via YouTube, Rundgren HATES auditioning people, hell he wasn’t even there when Powell and Wilcox auditioned Kasim Sulton). They landed an Israeli keyboardist by the name of Gil Assayas. All I can hear in my head is Beavis and Butthead laughing at the fact that the first syllable of his last name is ass…

Assayas’ band will open for Utopia. When Rundgren said they could supply Assayas with sheet music to learn the songs he jumped at the chance and I’ll bet Rundgren saw dollar signs in his eyes. A chance to pay someone sideman rate and split the difference between the three members.

But let’s back up a bit. They supplied Assayas with sheet music for the songs. Oh well, I guess I have no choice but to go into my anti-music school tirade. I contend that organized music education (the kind you get at schools or at music stores) employs teaching methods that are stale and sterile. Jazz bassist Jeff Berlin and I had a lovely conversation about this. Then I think about it from the interpretive level, you can put the exact same sheet music in front of two different musicians playing the same instrument and each interpretation will be different. That’s internal style coming out.

And that’s where the plot gets lost.

There is no way Assayas will interpret Powell’s parts with the same inflection, same style or feel. So right off the bat, there will be a sonic component that will be lost to Powell’s absence.

Another way it won’t be the same is in the fact that Powell could program his synths on the fly. Usually it would be only a minor adjustment and then saving that voice. Once, when they played the pier in Atlantic City for sorta the Oblivion tour-ish (footage was shot at this show for the video of “Real Man” that appears in the biographical video The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. During “You Make Me Crazy”, Powell found a tweak to one of his voices and he immediately had the patch named and saved before the “You scare me…” break in the song was finished! It’s that kind of technological advantage that made Utopia one of the most impressive pop progressive bands out there.

Powell in happier times during 1980’s Adventures In Utopia tour. Photo courtesy Coming Age

Does his voice have a similar key and timbre to match Powell’s? I can pretty much guarantee you won’t hear “Caravan” or “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”… None of the Powell lead vocals. Also you won’t hear “Sunburst Finish” for the rotating lead vocal that Powell shared. And if you DO hear these songs and you aren’t incensed, that would only go to show your ignorance of music and this band in particular.

Mind you, I don’t read Rundgren’s mind, or Sulton or Wilcox’s brains. Wilcox has multiple sponsorship/endorsement deals, one of the more notable ones being with Ludwig drums. If you recall for the Swing To The Right tour, he played a Leedy & Ludwig kit. Still endorsing Sabian cymbals (I will admit, I do love my 6″ splash from Sabian, but right now, I am torn between Paiste and Istanbuls). So he has that money as well as the tour money.

This tour is sponsored by Sirius XM and LiveNation. I am starting to see the motivating factors for why all of the sudden Rundgren whipped out Utopia for reals. Earlier this year, Kasim Sulton had taken his own version of Utopia out on the road. Perhaps this was marketing research of the demand for such an act. If Sulton could take out a version with him being the only original member in this new incarnation, imagine what they could do with three more significant members of both incarnations of TR’s Utopia, the four man pop prog unit and the six man uber prog squad!!! Another financial aspect would be the fact that Rundgren no longer has his gig with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. Gotta make up that income somehow…

If you are thinking I am being too harsh, I have some news for you, this is killing me inside. Let’s just chalk it up to another of life’s great disappointments for me. Remember, I know how to play multiple instruments and produce in a studio because of Todd Rundgren. I was one of the starry-eyed, unquestioning followers.

Then came the internet.

I wholly and solely blame the internet for my growing tired of Rundgren. It was the internet that hosted my return to publishing (I’m a newspaper guy, old school) and it was there I started to write for Princeton Record Exchange (among others) and that gave way to my own blog but not before gaining some fair-sized notoriety for my writing. That led to me ending up in the trenches with acts like Rundgren, being backstage at one gig, or working for the promoter (that guy was really a trip), or going to dinner with the band, I was part of the in crowd.

Why would I give that up?

But along with being on the inside, I got to know Rundgren the man. Let’s just leave it at I wasn’t exactly impressed. How a guy can openly leer at your wife while you take their picture is sad, especially in this day and age of Me Too and Time’s Up. Maybe someone will come out against Rundgren with a sexual abuse accusation. I wouldn’t doubt it.

All of my Facebook friends think that by my posting the photo of the three members of Utopia and a blank spot to represent the absent keyboard player in the BouleBlog Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/bouleblog/) that I will be in attendance at the premier of this blasphemous attempt at Utopia at their first gig in Jim Thorpe PA (the same venue when I last saw the Tubes and was recalled by drummer Prairie Prince in front of a very jealous friend, eat that Father Yokul!) at Penn’s Peak. I will NOT be in attendance. I have no faith in this project, in this substitute and I could give a rat’s ass about Assayas or his band.

If it seems like I am “coming at them”, I am. This band meant the world to me growing up. I can’t count how many Utopia shows I went to. I have met in person three of the four members and as far as being human beings, Powell was the nicest, friendliest and most respectful. He made my life when he realized that (in his own words) I was the reviewer who wrote that “wacky review” of Blue Note Ridge, his solo album in Princeton Record Exchange. Another one who knew who I was. I HAVE to treat that with respect. Just like he was the only member of Utopia I met who didn’t get handsy or gawky at my wife. Wilcox just blew off my request for an interview a few years back. So screw him too.

I am, in fact, so disenchanted with my childhood hero that I am conducting a clearing house sale of ALL my Utopia/Todd collectibles. There are dozens of artists I could hold as personal heroes. Perhaps I am too old to have personal heroes. I still play all the instruments (when I can muster any free time, this blog column has become all-consuming in terms of time and effort, but that doesn’t help to cut down the amount of discs being collected from various sources to be reviewed) and I still maintain my own little Utopia Sound in my basement (I just don’t have outboard EQs on every channel of my mixer). I have dropped each and every Utopia/Todd song from my live acoustic set list. The artist(s) that takes up the most of my set list is now Mark Mulcahy and Miracle Legion. They are done, but they went out as a unit, with the last line-up they sported, the one with Ray Neal, Dave McCaffrey and Scott Boutier (as well as Mulcahy). THAT was a reunion/farewell.

Even when I got to talk to Mark Mulcahy after his solo show for his latest solo album The Possum In The Driveway, he said that Rundgren had lost the plot (and I am cleaning that up slightly). He was as off-put as I was, he was a fan as well. Mulcahy got pissed when he attended a Rundgren show in CT and Rundgren promptly announced upon taking the stage “If you came here to hear the hits, you may as well go home”…  Mulcahy had come for the hits. While I didn’t care when he said that same thing at the NYC gig I attended. I had heard those lame-ass hits over and over live, Mulcahy was there to hear those hits. He was disappointed.

Sound familiar?

Yeah yeah yeah, all you blind Rundgren fans are gonna have a field day with this. I’m a blow-hole, asshole, douche, so on. Like I haven’t been called these names before. Oooohh aahhh, I am SO hurt. I think not. Just like I don’t value Rundgren’s work post 2004, I don’t value outsider opinions. And knowing some insiders as I do, I don’t value many of their opinions either. As far as the fans, every good wish to you because if you are still on board with all this, perhaps you are better fans than I was. Also, before you fire up your hate mail machine, remember, the categories listed with this post are OPINION/Editorial. Yes this is merely my opinion. I am NOT in touch with any members of the band, the crew, the staff, no one. These are the statements of an almost lifetime fan who feels the direction of the artist/band has lost its way.

But you also most likely didn’t invest as much in him as I did. I turned to him for musician guidance. And for many years he was right there to teach me integrity, perseverance, and the ins and outs of studio life. For that I will always be grateful. But as the situation unwinds, I tend to look to Powell for that integrity.

I hope that makes him feel a sense of pride. I am proud to have met him. But as far as Rundgren and this incarnation goes, I won’t be missing anything at Penn’s Peak.

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