Purple Pyramid 2019
Unexpected comeback of most underrated art-rock collective lives up to forgotten glory of their halcyon days.
Here’s a band never destined to appear again – the Utopians’ attempts of turning the hands of time, made in 1992 and 2011, somehow missed the point – but the series of dates they embarked on in 2018 justified another go at it. Three members of the ensemble’s classic line-up – Todd Rundgren on guitar, Kasim Sulton on bass and Willie Wilcox on drums – plus the last minute addition of Gil Assayas on keyboards were imperfect and stunning at the same time, as documented on two CDs, DVD and Blu-ray to let a fan revel in the concert’s detail and convert the uninitiated into aficionado. It’s the closest one’s able to get to the foursome without actually being there.
The performance of “Utopia Theme” may ramp up the audience’s rapture, yet it’s the players’ psychedelic attire, rendering their return to progressive past very much pronounced, that keeps on fueling everyone’s excitement and complementing the melodies. Although Todd’s deadpan delivery and Kasim’s smile, thrown in sharp relief by on-screen projections, seem to contrast each other, there’s telepathy to help the veterans rock hard, and also an envious vim which drives the 2-hour-long, 24-number run through almost all the band’s albums, the quartet passing on “Deface The Music” while revitalizing most of their 1974 debut and dusting off such rarity as “Momument” where Sulton is at his soulful best. Rundgren might be left in the spotlight on “The Wheel” to turn the onslaught of tunes into a tenderly spiritual experience for the punters to clap, as if Chicago Theatre was a church, but he avoids bringing in numbers from solo records this time – except for “Just One Victory”: the usual finale.
Even more inspired is the restoration of the “Ra” opening salvo, including “Communion With The Sun” – arguably an apex of the collective’s conceptuality, with fantastic polyphony and Assayas’ ivories enlivening the piece’s sonic spectrum – so, despite looking fatigued, the foursome sound reinvigorated, nigh on otherworldly on the likes of “Set Me Free” or “Freedom Fighters” which define the quartet’s current comeback. Rundgren’s relentless riffs and licks must remind the listener that he’s one hell of a guitarist – the artist who doesn’t need to resort to singing to conjure magic yet, of course, songs are integral part of the group’s repertoire, and “Another Life” is colored by kaleidoscopic harmonies, once voices are beamed from the stage for the first time twenty minutes after the show started, whereas the cover of “Do Ya” provides a heroic pop respite amidst this artsy seriousness. As a result, Sulton’s struggle with high notes on “Back On The Street” can’t get in the way of fans dancing and Rundgren’s roaring rawness on “Last Of The New Wave Riders” can’t diminish the rendition’s energy levels
The concert’s second set sees the ensemble taken down to earth – in Gil’s case quite literally, as his riser has been removed while Willie’s was lowered and moved to the center – and the cosmic intro to “Road To Utopia” is reasonably resolved in simpler, if very vibrant, groove, which can’t be said of “Play This Game” that, unlike the boisterously airy retro of “Swing To The Right” where swing is king, feels dated, as possibly would any other sliver of "POV" but those didn’t make it here. At the same time, the punchy prog of “Rock Love” – capturing Todd’s shimmy and Kasim solo on six strings – and the transparent “I Will Wait” to the band’s focus may shed a new light on "Oblivion"; strangely, “Love In Action” seems too superficial to hit the right buttons for the remote spectators, as opposed to “Princess Of The Universe” whose warmth is stoked from behind the drum kit by Wilcox’s vocals.
In a natural way, “Love Is The Answer” gives everyone an opportunity to feel reunited with their favorite artists, with the audience and, most importantly, with their youth, and yet nostalgia isn’t a factor of this concert’s appeal; it’s the music and the vigor that validate the Utopians’ comeback.