Todd Rundgren’s once out-of-this-world vision for Utopia — prog-pop? proto-new wave rock? Whodathunkit? — was coalescing into a provocative and powerful musical conception by this point.
The line up was still in flux, and there would be at least one more major move (as Kasim Sulton replaced John Siegler), but this October 9, 1975 concert finds Utopia beginning finally to establish its own sound apart from its early long-form Yes-style pretensions — and its own presence apart from Rundgren’s already wildly celebrated solo career. Utopia had a sleeker, fresher, song-focused sound by the time it reached London for this, its first-ever UK show.
Of course, Rundgren’s most rabid fans (ahem!) have had a tattered copy of this concert recording — the old vinyl was confusingly titled Nimbus Thitherward — for years. With the release of Live at Hammersmith Odeon ’75, due April 10 from Shout! Factory, we finally get a cleaned up, sonically stunning version of the old tapes recorded by the BBC for its Rock Hour radio program. Still, hearing this band as it comes into its own, and in a pristine setting, provides powerful jolt after power-pop-ful jolt.
Rundgren is joined by Siegler, Roger Powell (who succeeded Moogy Klingman, and others, from Utopia’s initial two projects) and Willie Wilcox (replacing Kevin Ellman), with backing vocals by future R&B star Luther Vandross, along with Anthony Hinton.
They begin with a fiery take on “Freedom Fighters,” from the initial 1974 Utopia recording, before diving into Powell’s “Mister Triscuits” — the first of four tracks on the group’s then-current live project, including “The Wheel” and (perhaps most interestingly) a cover of the Move’s zippy classic “Do Ya.” This version, which predates the more familiar radio-hit from the Electric Light Orchestra by a year, is said to have been a tip of the hat to ELO leader Jeff Lynne, who had been doing his own in-concert takes on “Open Your Eyes” from Rundgren’s former band the Nazz.
Also included are several tracks from Rundgren’s solo career, including “When the Shit Hits the Fan/Sunset Boulevard/Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard, A True Star, “Heavy Metal Kids,” “The Last Ride” and “Songs of 1984” from the double-LP Todd, and “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” from Something/Anything — and, yeah, “Open Your Eyes,” too. Missing are Rundgren’s solo hits “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light,” as well as the expected show-closing theme-song “Just One Victory,” but that actually helps refocus the project on the emerging substance and potentiality of Utopia.
The band would, in keeping with its leader’s roving muse, continue to sharpen its sound — becoming less willfully difficult but also much heavier as the decade wore on. Still to come was Utopia’s biggest chart success, the No. 27 hit single “Set Me Free” and the Top 40 album Adventures in Utopia, both in 1980.
If you want to experience that moment when the planted seed burst up through the ground, though, start here. I’d argue, after enjoying this glistening new version of a familiar old boot, that Utopia’s first singular moments — the first time they sounded utterly like themselves, and no one else — can be found on Nimbus Thitherward, er, I mean Live at Hammersmith Odeon ’75.