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Utopia - ''Live in Boston'' 1982

Sanctuary Records // Unrated // July 27, 2004
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 12, 2004 | E-mail the Author
What in the hermit of mink hollow has happened to Todd Rundgren? At one time, he was a wizard, a true star. He was an artist who could do something, anything and his fans were happy. He was a god, both as a pure pop for now people performer and a dial twisting production genius for such acts as Grand Funk Railroad, Meatloaf, The Psychedelic Furs, The Tubes and XTC. But ever since the mid-80s, when the ever-tortured artist discovered the effect of computers and technology on the craft of making music, Rundgren has disappeared from the simple song scene. Oh sure, he's released countless albums and started his own interactive website (TR-i). But once magical moments like the chorus of "Hello, It's Me" or the joyous intro to "I Saw the Light" have all but vanished from the cultural radar. Where Todd was always a well-considered mainstay, he now appears like a crazy old coot, locked up in his video vault making motherboard connections. He's a former hero, a once important participant in music lost in his own private universe. Many have probably forgotten that he was an important instrumental force in one of the better multi-faceted bands of all time: Utopia.

More than just a side project for his prolific output, Utopia was an outlet for various conceptual interests Rundgren had. During the 70s, it was a prog rock experiment, utilizing the jam-derived direction of other overpompous acts to move away from the three chord masterworks he was weaving. But as the 80s loomed and punk preached that all such Yessongs were dinosaur shite, Todd and Utopia took off in another direction – directly into the belly of new wave and electronica. Such a shift was a semi-success, with a string of well-considered albums showcasing all the elements of the entire band (everyone wrote songs and everyone sang lead vocals). Hot on the heels of their three-sided LP release, the self-titled Utopia, Todd and the boys headed out on tour. Thanks to Sanctuary, we have this retro souvenir of that era in Utopia's career when they set as many standards as they followed. But Utopia - "Live in Boston" 1982 has some issues that dilute its potential power.

The DVD:
Featuring what many consider to be the classic Utopia line-up (Todd Rundgren – guitar vocals/ Kasim Sulton – bass, vocals/ Roger Powell – keyboards, vocals/ Willie Wilcox – drums, vocals) and over 23 classic cuts, "Live in Boston" 1982 is a decent DVD concert. It highlights a prolific and powerful pop band at the height of their creative energies. From 1980 to 1982 the group released 4 and ½ albums: Adventures in Utopia, Face the Music, Swing to the Right and Utopia (a three-sided LP, thus the ½). Concentrating on that most recent work and tossing in a few chestnuts from a few previous efforts, the song list consists of the following favorites:

"Infrared and Ultraviolet" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Libertine" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Burn Three Times" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Couldn't I Just Tell You" – from the 1972 Todd Rundgren solo album Something/Anything
"Set Me Free" – from the 1980 album Adventures in Utopia
"I'm Looking at You But I'm Talking to Myself" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Princess of the Universe" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Swing to the Right" – from the 1982 album Swing to the Right
"There Goes My Inspiration" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Hammer in my Heart" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Call It What You Will" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"You Make Me Crazy" – from the 1980 album Adventures in Utopia
"Rock Love" – from the 1980 album Adventures in Utopia
"Feet Don't Fail Me Now– from the 1982 album Utopia
"Say Yeah" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Back on the Street" – from the 1977 album Oops...Wrong Planet!
"Forgotten But Not Gone" – from the 1982 album Utopia
"Only Human" – from the 1982 album Swing to the Right
"Road to Utopia" – from the 1980 album Adventures in Utopia
"Caravan" – from the 1980 album Adventures in Utopia
"Love in Action" – from the 1977 album Oops...Wrong Planet!
"One World" – from the 1982 album Swing to the Right
"Just One Victory" – from the 1973 Todd Rundgren solo album A Wizard. A True Star

The best way to describe this concert is with the following simple statement: Utopia – "Live in Boston" 1982 is a great to good selection of songs, executed in memorable to mediocre performances on a visual representation that moves from bad to worse over the course of its 100 minute running time. From a purely technical standpoint, this is one of the worst looking concerts ever filmed – and then offered on DVD. Almost exclusively shown from side angles and captured in a flaring, bleeding basic video vexation, it's hard not to hate how bad this performance looks. We hardly comprehend the onstage dynamics (we never see Powell in a full on shot with Rundgren and Sulton) and there is a major tendency to keep the camera focused on only one person – Kasim, Todd – for far too long. Since the band dresses in Beatles-esque dark collarless suits with white shirts and skinny black ties, there is not a great deal of visual eye candy to the show (if there were any lighting or stage effects, the deficient picture renders them incomprehensible). So from standard live act attributes, Utopia put on a less than flashy, almost formal show. And the rotten rendering of this basic ballyhoo doesn't make it any more compelling or energized.

But it's the music that matters, right? Who cares if the visuals aren't all that stimulating if the songs and the sonics are perfectly in tune, correct? Well, yes, that is true. Sadly, this was not one of Utopia's better pitched performances. Sulton, for one, has shot his voice all to Hell. Anytime he sings lead, it's in a shout-talk timber that barely registers a melodic note. Then when it does, he's flatter than an unleavened pancake. Thankfully his bass playing is pristine: otherwise he'd be generally useless on stage (though he does manage to pull of a few fine harmonies, which is indeed odd). Powell plays his synthesizers with the then-popular pitch bender wheel in full-fingered force and there is nothing more annoying during a well constructed pop song than to hear a keyboard solo swerving all over the place, hoping to find a framework within the background sound. Most surprisingly, Rundgren also suffers from some atonal attributes. A couple of his guitar hero moments are tough on the ears and he hits several clinkers when it's his turn to take the mic. Only drummer Willie Wilcox comes out unscathed, able to bash the skins and sing along in terrific, tight tunefulness.

Luckily, the songs Utopia performs are some of the best examples of power pop ever crafted. This means they can take the massacring they experience throughout the show. Highlights include the sneaky stomp of "Libertine", the rollicking "Princess of the Universe", Powell's playful "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" and Todd's tortured "Hammer in My Heart". Occasionally, a song can fail to capture the moment ("Back on the Street" and "Call It What You Will" come to mind) and it's always tough to sell a stark ballad like "Only Human" to a crowd overcome by your rowdy rock and roll vibe. But brilliant examples of heart wrenching sirens like "I'm Looking at You But I'm Talking To Myself" and "Just One Victory" prove that Utopia can overcome preconceived restrictions to sell almost any of its music to the masses. And when you've got glorious showstoppers like "Love in Action" or "You Make Me Crazy", there is no need to play it safe, or by the rules. Again, it's just too bad that the band sounds so off. They appear to be a very tight combo having a rather miserable night. And would it have hurt Todd to focus less on the new album (Utopia material comprises 10 of the 23 songs, with the Beatles parody Deface the Music totally ignored by the set) and offer a few more choice nuggets from his (or other band members) solo titles? Listening to nearly 50% of a new album may have helped sales, but it doesn't do the overall legacy of Utopia much career-spanning good.

Still, you can't argue with magnificent music, and that's the main focus of Utopia - "Live in Boston" 1982. Rundgren's raging riffs, recalling the best of the British invasion with a few fun configurations of his own, matched with the strong vocal harmonies of the rest of the group and their incredible instrumental skills make for a shattering soundscape of sweet musical escape. Indeed, over the course of his crazy career, Rundgren - in any of his various guises – has been more influential and important than installed at the top of the charts. Bands like New Radicals and the former crackerjack Canadian combo The Pursuit of Happiness reflect Rundgren's song structure and playful spirit right back at him in homages to the happiness of a perfectly constructed three-minute song (TPOH were so inspired by Todd that they tagged him to produce their brilliant debut, 1988's Love Junk – one of the best Rundgren albums the artist never made). If you can survive the bad picture and the occasional off-key moments, you'll soon realize what many in the dominion of Todd already understand: whether he's flawless or faulty, silly or serious, Todd Rundgren was (and remains) a seminal figure in the world of brilliant singer/songwriter/performers. And the band that he used as a means of channeling his multiple muses – Utopia – was as good as it gets. Too bad "Live in Boston" 1982 has to besmirch that statement, if only a little.

The Video:
As stated before, there is really no excuse for the visually unpleasant transfer of Utopia – "Live in Boston" 1982. Sure, the technical limitations of the videotape media circa the start of the 80s means that we have to suffer through some low-end elements. But when performers are wrapped in bright red auras of noise and the strong stage lights cause the image to flare and ghost, it's time to suck up the bucks and put this puppy through a full-fledged remaster A.S.A.P. The 1.33:1 full screen print is peppered with such distracting defects and renders what should have been a bright and colorful souvenir of an era (directing flaws and all) into something dark, foreboding and visually miserable. Sanctuary really dropped the ball on the visual quality of this concert. Surely it's the fault of the original stock elements, but that's no excuse for a VHS style transfer. DVD just demands more.

The Audio:
Fortunately, the sonic issues here are far more pleasing. Utopia – "Live in Boston" 1982 is offered in an original Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation and a newly remastered 5.1 soundtrack that really opens up the audio attributes of the band. It's really hard to say which version is better, since both have their compelling considerations. The 2.0 sounds far more succinct and less filled with open air space. But the 5.1 does recreate the concert dynamic very well, giving you a sense of the interplay between the performers and each other (along with the crowd). Either choice is fine, but if you really want to overwhelm the awful picture with an immersive experience, go with the multi-channel presentation.

The Extras:
The most impressive bonus feature on this DVD release is truly monumental: lasting over 90 minutes and divided by group member and then individual question, we are treated to a rare set of current interviews with the band. Just seeing how they have aged and changed – Wilcox is now a bald, goateed sophisticate, Powell is the perfect elder hippy – is alone worth the price of admission. But the information they provide really seals the deal. Todd starts off the discussion by providing an overview of the band and its varying musical philosophies. He pinpoints the contributions of each individual member and mentions several of his personal and professional influences. Powell's talk is the more intellectual look at Utopia. He dissects the differing musical styles and argues for the older, more fusion oriented version of the band. He has many insightful tales of how the "classic" lineup came about and offers some words of wisdom about the industry itself. Wilcox seems very remote and routine in his Q&A. He repeats some of the things Powell says and downplays the previous prog history of the group. His description of the Trapparatus, though – a bizarre drum-kit like item used on the RA tour – is perhaps the most detailed and intriguing concert clarifying moment during this entire conversation.

And then there is Kasim. Looking impeccably groomed and very guarded, he tends to walk on pins and needles throughout the entire segment. He is quick to point out how distant his relationship with Rundgren was, only to back pedal toward the end and say how much he admires the man. Bringing very little that's new information-wise, Sulton's sentiments seems to hint at why, aside from a brief Asian tour in 1992, Utopia has not, nor do they even remotely appear to be, braced for a comeback. Like the photos in the bonus still gallery showing the 1982 version of the band in full Beatlemania mode, they were a band of their time, an era which has long since passed.

Final Thoughts:
Todd Rundgren has always been a strange amalgamation of critical darling and commercial presence. His obsessions have sidetracked his career more often than they've bolstered it. Along with a dwindling influence on the current crass real of modern music, Todd himself appears lost in a world of technology that only he, a lifelong tech head, would understand or appreciate. So while fans await a return to form and the uninitiated sit back and wonder what all the initial fuss was about, there is the time capsule concert entitled Utopia – "Live in Boston" 1982. Though the direction and videotape tantrums may undermine most of its magic, and the band has certainly seen better days performance wise, this is still a marvelous initiation into the power pop world of Todd Rundgren, Roger Powell, Willie Wilcox and Kasim Sulton. Gone and mostly forgotten are the pyramid-inspired sets and lugubrious 10 minute instrumental solos. Absent is a sense of stubborn seriousness and self-indulgent psychobabble. In its place, we get a wonderful world of joyful noise celebrating the endorphin forming influence of rock and roll. Though it may not persuade you to pick up the torch for Todd and the boys, this concert DVD – along with the equally eloquent interviews – provides a complete companion piece to the once and future heritage of the nearly human Runt, the no world order individualist who created some of the most clever, finely honed music ever to grace the AM (and FM) dial. Flaws and all, Utopia – "Live in Boston" 1982 is a remarkable pop achievement.

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