It’s been a long 33 years since Utopia hit the road for a U.S. tour. Now the band, dubbed Todd Rundgren’s Utopia—Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton and Willie Wilcox, plus new recruit, Gil Assayas on keyboards, are tearing it up across the country, treating fans to a spectacular two-set treatise in explosive, mind expanding rock and roll, essaying prog-rock, power pop, art rock, smoky R&B and all stylistic points in between. Retro-Active‘s Ken Sharp spoke to Todd, Kasim and Willie before the tour kicked off for the back story behind how this unlikeliest of reunions came together.
Todd, for over 30 years fans have been asking about a Utopia reunion tour, what made this the right time to finally do it?
Todd Rundgren: Well, it wasn’t the first time it occurred to us. There have been continuing issues regarding availability for the most part. More recently we’ve been waiting for Roger [Powell] to see if he was gonna be able to do it. As it turns out he’s had some health issues so he won’t be touring anymore. So it was at that point we had to decide either permanently shelve the idea or go in a different direction. It suddenly occurred to us, ‘Hey, Ralph Schuckett is still around!’ (laughs) He doesn’t tour anymore but he has been part of a more recent original Utopia reunion when we went out as a benefit for Moogy Klingman. We contacted Ralph and he was open to the idea. But for him as well as for everybody else he had other obligations that had to be satisfied. We went out to promoters to let them know we were thinking of doing this and the response that we got was extremely positive. So it made it a little bit more plausible. (Note: Ralph Schuckett had to opt out of the tour for medical reasons and has been replaced by Gil Assayas)
The band never officially broke up so this truly has been a very long break. If a betting man, what were the odds you felt a reunion would eventually occur?
Kasim Sulton: I honestly didn’t know. Aside from the tour that we did in Japan in ’92, I guess on some level we never did officially announce that we had broken up. I had hoped a reunion would happen, I just couldn’t say it with any certainty if it would or would not happen. It was this kind of really weird nebulous area, a never say never. But the changes of it happening were kind of slim. The idea of song some show was presented that there was possibility that it could happened and I was asked if I was interested. I think out of everybody in the band has taken a hiatus, I don’t want to say I’ve been more vocal than any band member, between myself, Todd, Roger and Willie, but I’m always the one who ever few years would joke around, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could do it, wouldn’t it be cool if we could.” So if anything, I was more prepared for it than anybody else on some level.
While the tour is dubbed Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, it’s a celebration of Utopia and all its members, not just Todd’s work.
Willie Wilcox: For me personally there is a strong distinction between what Todd does as his solo career and what Utopia is. So for me this particular band, Utopia, Todd formed the group many years ago and it was called Todd Rundgren’s Utopia and Live Nation felt using that name would be the best advertising and business perspective to promote the tour. But the feel the fans and the interest for this project lies in the long running time period of the band that became what most people considered to be called Utopia and those were the four members which would be Todd Rundgren, Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton and Willie Wilcox. We had a large body of music that was made where everybody was contributing to writing, production, lyrics, melodies. We toured a very strong and important part of our lives with that band and so for me, I think that it really has to do with that entity and I think that’s what the fans are responding to and why there’s a strong interest for this particular project. For me, I don’t see it as a project, I see it as a band.
Are there any songs that you’d personally like to have played in the show but won’t make the cut?
Willie Wilcox: There are songs that I think we should be doing but we can’t do everything. To me, there are certain songs that I think connect like “Fix Your Gaze,” I like “Sunburst Finish.” I don’t think we’re doing “You Make Me Crazy,” which I think we probably should be doing. We’re not doing ballads like “Mated” and “Only Human.” I think those are important ones to do. “Love Is The Answer” was a big hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley and certainly recognizable for us but I thought that maybe “Mated” and “Only Human” were more Utopian. This is the first time we’ve been together in many many years. Things could change in rehearsals. I still think there are some things in the set that need adjusting. We just won’t know what works and what doesn’t until we start playing them and seeing what the momentum is for the set. I wouldn’t say we can count out adding some different songs and replacing some songs but the issue is we have such a very short window to prepare so we don’t have a lot of leeway.
Kasim Sulton: It doesn’t matter to me what songs we do or don’t do. It’s whatever works for the show. You have to look at it as an entire show; you can’t look at it as ‘let’s stick this song in because it’s a good song.’ If it doesn’t work within the context of the rest of the stuff that we’re doing, there’s no point in doing it.
If the tour goes well and everyone gets along, could a new album by Utopia be in the offing or an occasional tour?
Willie Wilcox: Yeah, absolutely, I think we need to wait and see how we do, how this tour goes and how we all feel being together again, how successful the tour is from a business perspective and there’s a viable opportunity and option for this to continue, by all means then I think it should continue .
Todd Rundgren: We’ll all consider it. It doesn’t mean those other kind of problems disappear, everybody will go back to what they were doing before. In Willie’s case it’s a regular job with a regular salary and they’re not gonna let him take off any old time that he wants. We’ll see how this goes if it goes well. That will be a factor of our performance and ticket sales will be the two things to determine whether it’s going well or not.
An interview with Utopia’s new keyboard player Gil Assayas
How did you wind you being contacted for the Utopia gig?
Gil Assayas: Todd’s son, Rebop, heard me play in Portland and recommended me to his Dad. Todd saw some of my videos and thought I’d be a good fit for the band.
What was the audition process like?
I didn’t really have an audition, the band checked out my online solo material and liked it enough to hire me.
Did Todd and Kasim and Willie ofer any input/advice/direction?
They were very helpful and answered any questions I had while learning the songs. I also spoke to Ralph Schuckett who provided me with some charts and advice. I didn’t have much time to learn the material, so most of the work was just trying to emulate the synth sounds and parts in the recordings.
You’ve said you were not initially a fan of Utopia and now you are, what has impressed you about the band and their deep catalog of music?
I was unfamiliar with Utopia’s music, but if I had known about it I would have been a fan long before getting the gig. It has all the musical elements that I love – excellent songwriting, unique chord progressions, warm analog synth sounds and incredible musicianship. The vocals harmonies are breathtaking. I love how unpredictable and diverse Utopia’s catalog is – every album and every song has it’s own unique sound. Even the most complex songs have so much soul. They were never afraid to explore new territories which is something I really respect.
Are there any particular songs that have become favorites of the songs you’ve been learning for the tour?
I’ve been enjoying all the songs, but if I had to pick favorites it would be some of the early stuff such as the “Utopia Theme”, and “I Will Wait,” which is a beautiful ballad sung by Kasim.
What are the greatest challenges you are facing as keyboardist with Utopia?
Really, just memorizing everything – these are not your typical four chord pop songs. There are hundreds of chords and riffs to remember, in addition to all the vocal parts and lyrics. It’s going really well though!
How close will you be sticking to the sounds and parts Roger Powell played on the records?
Very close! I’ve been meticulously programming synth sounds that sound almost exactly like the recordings. Of course, I’ll put my own twist on some stuff (like the solos, for instance)
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia tour dates:
APRIL 28 – ATLANTA, GA – TABERNACLE
APRIL 29 – DURHAM, NC – CAROLINA THEATER
MAY 01 – HUNTINGTON, NY – PARAMOUNT THEATER
MAY 02 – WASHINGTON, DC – WARNER THEATER
MAY 03 – NEW YORK, NY – TOWN HALL
MAY 05 – PHILADELPHIA, PA – TOWER THEATER
MAY 06 – BOSTON, MA – ORPHEUM THEATER
MAY 07 – RIDGEFIELD, CT – RIDGEFIELD THEATER
MAY 09 – ST LOUIS, MO – PEABODY OPERA HOUSE
MAY 10 – CINCINNATI, OH – TAFT THEATER
MAY 12 – MILWAUKEE, WI – PABST THEATER
MAY 13 – MINNEAPOLIS, MN – STATE THEATER
MAY 15 – GRAND RAPIDS, MI – 20 MONROE LIVE
MAY 16 – TORONTO, ON – MASSEY HALL
MAY 17 – DETROIT, MI – THE FILLMORE
MAY 19 – CLEVELAND, OH – HARD ROCK LIVE
MAY 22 – CHICAGO, IL – CHICAGO THEATER
MAY 24 – DENVER, CO – PARAMOUNT THEATER
MAY 26 – LAS VEGAS, NV – THE JOINT AT HARD ROCK HOTEL & CASINO LAS VEGAS
MAY 27 – PHOENIX, AZ – COMERICA THEATER
MAY 29 – LOS ANGELES, CA – THE WILTERN
MAY 30 – SAN FRANCISCO, CA – THE MASONIC
JUNE 01 – SEATTLE, WA – MOORE THEATER
JUNE 02 – PORTLAND, OR – REVOLUTION THEATER
JUNE 04 – SACRAMENTO, CA – CREST THEATRE
JUNE 05 – RIVERSIDE, CA – FOX PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
DREGGIN’ IT UP!…It was old friends’ night at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, Saturday, April 21st as the reunited Dixie Dregs continued their reunion tour to a packed house of Dreg Heads and a new crowd that were seeing them for the very first time. There was nothing but smiles as the Dregs took the stage and led off with a searing “Divided We Stand” with Andy West‘s thumping bass leading the charge. Andy left the Dregs to become a computer programmer decades ago, and then rejoined them for this tour, it was easy to see he was more than missed.
Watching this spectacular two-hour set, one thing comes to mind, this band epitomizes the word “tight,” percolating grooves and ESP like intuitive playing worked flawlessly as each member paired in tandem with the other flourished to forge a jaw-dropping display of incendiary instrumental virtuosity and seasoned chemistry.
Dr. Allen Sloan, on electric violin, who in his life away from music is anesthesiologist, was the equal to Steve Morse‘s six-string excellence as the duo reveled in their reunion, bouncing, bantering, jitter-bugging, charming the crowd with their tight interplay. Forty years since they emerged on the music scene, the band played with precision, infectious joy and exquisite craftsmanship like it was still 1978, finishing a gig, packing up the van and heading off to a “Club We’ll Play Anywhere.”
“Day 444,” like their song “Odyssey” hit with weighty emotion, demonstrating the Dregs’ innate ability to express a depth of power and emotion through their performance—and without any vocals/lyrics makes this even a more astounding feat. Those two songs take the listener on an evocative journey, weaving back and forth between the members, capturing the feeling of freedom, as evidenced in “Day 444,” which denotes the number of days the Iranian hostages were held captive, and in “Odyssey”’s eternal quest of the searcher. The audience was clearly along for the ride, celebrating it with them. Special mention must also be made about keyboardist Steve Davidowski whose jazzy keyboard excursions were virtuoso, free flowing flights of inspiration and Rod Morgenstein, perhaps the greatest underrated rock-fusion drummer, whose big beat mastery was a sight to behold and sound to experience—Messrs. Bonham and Moon would be proud.
For the encore, guitarist, Travis Larson, of the Travis Larson Band, joined the Dregs for a fiery encore performance of “Crossroads” with additional surprise special guest, Paul Barrere of Little Feat handling the only lead vocals of the night. Larson, clearly inspired by Steve Morse’s jaw dropping musicianship, more than held his own, smiling all the way through this elongated sweet mother lovin’ jam.
Retro-Active is written by Ken Sharp, who can be reached directly at email@example.com or 818-986-9715. ©2018. All rights reserved.