Utopia’s Adventures Continue (Part Four)

Continued from Part Three

Redux ’92: Live in Japan (1993)
Six years after disbanding, Utopia surprised most onlookers by regrouping for a run of concerts in Japan. The shows were well-received, and a live recording was released on compact disc and video the following year.

“I look at that video,” Sulton says, “and I think, ‘You know what? We still had it.’ We were still a really great band. We sounded great together. There was a certain amount of chemistry that the four of us enjoyed; that is rare in our business.” But the reunion was short-lived. Nothing would be heard from Utopia for the next 15 years.

In 2009 Rundgren put together a band to play Utopia’s early, progressive-era music; the lineup also included Powell (who had been a part of the prog Utopia) and Sulton (who had not). Many fans hoped for a revival of the longest-running Utopia lineup, but most also believed such a reunion was unlikely.

2018 Tour
“Every couple of years we would throw the idea around that it might be good to do a reunion,” Kasim Sulton reveals. “It might be nice to talk about it, see if we can come to some kind of agreement. But then everybody has their own schedules, and we never seemed to have the same amount of time at the same time between the four of us.” But in early 2018, schedules aligned, and Live Nation was interested in promoting a tour. Wilcox negotiated a leave of absence from his job.

After the 2009 shows, keyboardist Roger Powell realized he wasn’t up for the rigors of touring; in previous years he had also been dealing with repetitive stress disorder that sometimes made playing difficult. So with Rundgren, Wilcox and Sulton committed to the project, they asked one of Utopia’s earliest members, Ralph Schuckett to join for the tour. In March, a teaser video clip was released featuring the four musicians, and a schedule of U.S. dates was announced.

Days later news broke that Schuckett, citing health issues, would not be taking part in the tour. “We were in a position where we had to find someone immediately,” Sulton says. “I know probably 50 synthesizer players who would be able to do the gig. But it’s a question of who’s everybody comfortable with.” The band issued an appeal on social media.

“It rained keyboard players on us,” says Rundgren with an inward laugh. “I think we got like 400 responses or something; more than we could ever possibly review.” But within a day or two, and through one of Rundgren’s sons, the band learned about Gil Assayas. A highly accomplished synthesizer player from Portland, Oregon, Assayas clearly had the skills to play both the knotty progressive material and the rock/new wave songs.

The 2018 Utopia tour scheduled 32 dates in cities across the United States, kicking off in mid-April and running into early June. Ahead of the tour, the band promised that the live shows would survey their entire body of work, from the dense progressive music on Todd Rundgren’s Utopia and Another Live through to the rock and pop music of the 1980s.

Asked what’s on the horizon for Utopia after the tour concludes, Sulton has a simple answer: “Nothing.” After a pause, he adds, “I would like to think that we might revisit it again in the future, but there’s no way to know what’s going to happen afterwards.” Rundgren concurs: “We’re definitely not thinking about that right now.”

Reflecting on Utopia’s legacy, Rundgren emphasizes that “everybody had something to contribute.” Sulton adds, “The sum was greater than the parts for Utopia, and to this day, I treasure the time that I spent in that band.”

BONUS: And There’s More…
In addition to the most obvious Utopia-related albums (Todd Rundgren’s solo catalog and his many production credits) there are a number of lesser-known yet fascinating releases from Rundgren’s past and present fellow Utopians.

Roger Powell – Cosmic Furnace (1973) Powell recorded this ambitious synthesizer album while working for ARP Synthesizers; his dexterity on that company’s analog instruments is showcased here.

M. Frog Labat – M. Frog (1973) One of Utopia’s three original keyboardists, French synthesist Jean-Yves Labat recorded a quirky pop/prog album that features rock instrumentation, gypsy fiddle and idiosyncratic vocals.

Paris – Big Towne, 2061 (1976) Utopia’s original drummer Hunt Sales never recorded with that band, but a few years after his departure he resurfaced in a power trio led by former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch.

Roger Powell – Air Pocket (1980) Fans of Tangerine Dream and Synergy might want to track down this album. One of its tracks, “Emergency Splashdown” was in Utopia’s live set for a time.

Kasim Sulton – Kasim (1982) Utopia’s bassist left the band briefly to focus on a solo career, releasing one album that disappeared in the marketplace. He soon returned to the band to finish work on Utopia’s 1982 self-titled disc.

Price/Sulton – Lights On (1986) After Utopia disbanded in the wake of the desultory P.O.V., Kasim Sulton teamed up for one typical-of-its-era record with former Scandal drummer Thommy Price.

Utopia – Disco Jets (2012) This 197 recording finally received official standalone release decades after it was made. The four-man Utopia with John Sigler recorded ten gimmicky tunes with a disco beat. Even more of an oddball project than Deface the Music, Disco Jets tried to latch on to the CB radio craze (“Cosmic Convoy”), featured a nod to the “Pet Rock” fad and a cover of the Star Trek theme.