Hello It’s Us: Utopia Returns

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The thing that brought Utopia back together ultimately wasn’t a burying of hatchets.

It was a surfeit of significant suitors.

Touring as a band is considerably more expensive and customarily less lucrative than touring as a solo act. So the encouragement, support, resources and deep pockets of a big-time promoter are, at the very least, enormously helpful.

Reached by phone, Todd Rundgren (Utopia’s founder and creative engine) said the band was courted by a number of major players and this helped convince him that a reunion was a good idea.

“We got a really positive response from several different promoters,” he said. “Ultimately, we went with Live Nation. It was their vote of confidence that was the real tripwire for the whole thing.”

Utopia performs at the Chicago Theatre on Tuesday night.

Rundgren has said for years that he wasn’t interested in the sort of half-ass reunion that would involve a couple of rehearsals and a couple of “greatest hits” concerts.

The current tour is the fruit of copious rehearsal time and fine-tuning.

One of the challenges of revisiting this era of Rundgren’s career was the bifurcated nature of the band.

Utopia started as a prog-rock outfit, but morphed into a more pop-friendly act.

Rundgren said revisiting the prog-rock era after all these years was daunting.

“That required the lion’s share of our rehearsal time,” he said. “Going back and trying to recapture everything that was represented in the first three albums of what we did.”

Rundgren said he initially formed Utopia as an opportunity to play guitar.

“The early records reflect that,” he said. “There’s much less singing overall and a lot more instrumentalizing.”

As his career progressed, Rundgren became “much less of a guitar player.”

“To have to go back and refocus on that messed with my brain a little,” he said. “To have to think like a guitar player.”

With all the hats he had to wear while putting this tour together, Rundgren said that the demands of the first few shows on him as a guitarist were a bit of a shock.

“Now I am starting to get back into the head of a guitar player,” he said. “I am thinking ahead instead of suddenly finding that ‘Oh, I am supposed to play this now?’ or “I am playing this now. What am I supposed to play next?’”

Rundgren said it was that way for everyone in the band.

As bassist and vocalist Kasim Sulton told Variety magazine in April: “I was just playing ‘Communion with the Sun’ earlier today and I’m like, ‘Oh man. Why did I play so many notes?’”

Each concert is structured to represent the transition that band went through, Rundgren said.

“The first set is more of the instrumental, prog-rocky stuff,” he said. “And the second set is more of the latter-day, songwriting-oriented pop stuff.”

Rundgren likens the first set to playing in a blizzard.

“Everything is coming at you so fast,” he said. “The second set seems a breeze by comparison. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe we should just do the history of the band backwards. Start at the end and work our way back to the beginning.’”

The band’s transition mirrored Rundgren’s transition into one of the more notable pop songwriters and producers of the 20th century.

Practicality and pragmatism are what drove the band’s transition.

“We weren’t getting a lot of records on the radio,” Rundgren said. “We were always more of an album act. As long as there was album radio, we got some airplay. But as time went on, (the Bearsville record label) lost interest in the band.

“We weren’t getting the tour support which made those big shows possible,” he said. “As we got more dependent on ourselves, we started to think more economically: ‘Let’s not write these big, top-heavy songs that require pyramids.’”

Nevertheless, Rundgren said the band never lost its “conceptual flair.”

While preparing for this tour, the band suffered a seemingly catastrophic setback.

With a month to go before the opening date, keyboardist Ralph Schuckett decided he wasn’t healthy enough for the rigors of the road.

Rundgren said he found a message about Shuckett on his phone after flying from Austin to Hawaii (his home is on the island of Kauai).

Given Rundgren’s perfectionism, perhaps readers can imagine how this news struck him.

“At that point, I wanted to walk into the ocean and just keep going,” he said, laughing. “Not look back.”

A Utopia keyboardist has to be as strong a singer as he is a player, so it isn’t surprising to learn that the search for a replacement went nowhere initially.

“After sulking for a while, I decided we couldn’t just go out and hire the usual stand-in,” he said. “There was somebody out there. We just didn’t know who it was.”

As part of an expanded, all-points-bulletin search, Rundgren sent a message to his son, ReBop.

“I asked him, ‘Who is the best keyboard player you know?’ He is zeroed in on a different generation. I knew our shout-out was only likely to yield a lot of dirty, old guys.”

ReBop came back with a name: Israeli-born keyboardist Gil Assayas.

“What Gil had that nobody else did was copious representation on YouTube,” Rundgren said. “In other words, we could evaluate how he played in all sorts of contexts. There was an interview, so we could get some idea about his personality.”

Assayas turned out to be the ideal choice, he said.

“We sent him this stuff and within a week he was already playing as much as two keyboard players had been playing before,” Rundgren said.

Assayas was even able to recreate all the sounds from the analog era on his modern set-up.

“I was kind of stunned us how quickly he absorbed it,” Rundgren said. “Suddenly, it was a sigh of relief.”

Rundgren said it is too early to tell if this reunion will continue beyond this tour.

“There are those elements that always made it hard to get it organized,” he said. “Roger and Ralph had retired from the road. They had other things to do. They actually had employers. So the question always was, ‘How are they going to find a three-month window?’

“Those issues linger,” Rundgren said. “We have to wait until the end and look back to see what we accomplished. We have to see if it was worth the effort of doing it. If so, we’ll probably start talking about doing it again.”

 

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Fan Service and “The Last Jedi”

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In the choppy wakes of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Game of Thrones: Season Seven,” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I have begun to think about what it means for creative persons to engage in what is known as fan service.

Fan service is a term that was originally coined to explain why Japanese animators and artists might want to add gratuitous nudity and near nudity to anime and manga.

They do it to “service the fans” (largely male, in that case, and apparently afflicted with an unnatural sexual interest in cartoon characters).

The phrase has since been expanded to address whenever a creator does something with a TV series or movie that may benefit fans more than it benefits the plot or the dictates of coherent storytelling.

“Game of Thrones: Season Seven” was widely acknowledged to be chock full of fan service: It largely jettisoned the deliberate pacing, crackling dialogue and careful world building of past seasons in favor of big, splashy (and often illogical) revelations and action sequences.

This strategy rewarded some fans and alienated others.

Fans of deliberate pacing, crackling dialogue and careful world building did not feel well serviced.

Different fans have different expectations, which is why providing “fan service” is a trickier undertaking that it might seem to be on its surface.

Case in point: David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

“Twin Peaks: The Return” consists of roughly 1000 utterly surprising minutes. Whatever a fan’s expectations were going in, they were not met (except in a philosophical sense, which I will go into later).

Superficially, Lynch provided fans with little that qualified as fan service.

Lynch doesn’t seem to care much about our nostalgia. He wasn’t interested in cooking up the meal we know and love. He wanted to challenge our pop cultural palates. He wanted to whip up something worth whipping up.

The sequel series disappointed some fans of the original “Twin Peaks,” fans who apparently wanted nothing more than to see FBI agent Dale Cooper sit around for 17 hours eating cherry pie and talking about “damned fine cups of coffee.”

But for fans of Lynch – fans of the way Lynch has dependably frustrated and offended and amused and astonished and bewildered us – “Twin Peaks: The Return” was an improbably satisfying and stimulating reboot.

Which brings me to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Spoilers to follow).

First of all, it would be difficult to make a “Star Wars” movie that pleased everybody because filmmakers are competing with adults’ idealized and rose-colored memories of having loved “Star Wars” as kids.

The older a fan is, the longer those memories have had to grow fat and a little crazy.

One of the biggest complaints leveled against “The Last Jedi” by the people who claim to hate it has to do with the character of Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill).

Unlike Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda before him, Luke did not age into a placid spouter of Jedi axioms.

In “The Last Jedi,” he is a tortured, bitter guy with skeletons in his closet.

Let us consider for a moment how bona fide Jedi were generally portrayed in Lucas’ films.

The last time we really got a good look at Luke was in “Return of the Jedi.” Gone were the sense of humor and range of emotions he’d demonstrated in Episodes Four and Five.

Lucas hamstrung Hamill in “Return of the Jedi” because he required the actor to shift into bland guru mode.

All the Jedi in Lucas’ prequels are insufferable, humorless bores. Lucas apparently has this idea about holy men: That true enlightenment leaches them of charisma, charm, nuance and any interest in taking or making jokes.

Imagine what a long slog “The Last Jedi” would have been if Luke had spent its duration uttering cookie fortunes in a bland, expressionless monotone.

Instead, “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson gave Hamill some meat (and scenery) to chew.

And Yoda!

Johnson resurrected Yoda from the creative graveyard of the prequels where Lucas used CGI to set the wizened wizard free only to bring him crashing back to earth with thudding dialogue and a prissy personality makeover.

Say what you want about Disney: The studio brought something back to the franchise that it hadn’t been seen in decades.

Namely, recognizably human (and humanoid) characters.

But here is something I understand because I am a nerd: Nerds are a little defensive about their proclivities.

They’re used to being mocked for the things they love, so when they see humor, irreverence or brazen narrative doglegs in “The Last Jedi,” they mistake it for disrespect.

They almost prefer it when their beloved characters are rendered as one-dimensional. That’s the only way their integrity can be ensured.

This is why there is so much nostalgia for the prequels in certain nerdy circles: Because they’re reverent at the expensive of everything else: surprise, suspense, emotional investment, etc.

Well, nerds need to lighten up.

I am as big a “Star Wars” fan as a person who hasn’t purchased any new action figures in a while can be.

And I loved that “The Last Jedi” was as surprising and unpredictable as it was.

It took what we thought we knew and made it fresh without spoiling its substance.

This is the key to the longevity of movie franchises: Bringing in self-assured creative people who aren’t afraid to take a few chances.

That’s the epitome of “fan service,” it seems to me.