Reliving Fandemonium on the Road to Utopia With Todd Rundgren and Phantogram
How an appreciation for adventurous rock music — and a couple of close encounters — made one week in May a double shot of euphoria when two class acts lowered the boom in the rarefied air around the Mile High City.
Some bands just bring out the not-so-random fandom in you. And though they're more than a generation apart, the common bond that Phantogram and Todd Rundgren share through adventurous music speaks to me in much the same way. Of course, meeting them under completely different circumstances and more than 40 years apart only intensified that feeling of unabashed adulation.
So it was apparent that one week in May 2018 was going to be a major happening for a former Heavy Metal Kid when both artists brought huge shows to the Denver area. Phantogram — the electropop duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter — made their Red Rocks debut on May 21 in front of a massive crowd at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (9,525 seating capacity). Rocking Rundgren reunited with his former band Utopia three days later before a considerably smaller crowd at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Denver.
Musically, they're not really that far apart, with the ability to play headbanging anthems and gentle ballads with equal aplomb. Rundgren, a guitar hero of mine since he released the landmark solo double album Something/Anything? in 1972, can still shred through the rock 'n' roll wasteland like he knows where he's going, taking his audience on a mystical journey with extended instrumentals such as "Utopia Theme", which opened the Denver show.
Phantogram's Sarah Barthel spreads her wings. "I can't believe we're playing Red Rocks," she said. / Photo by Michael Bialas
Phantogram's Carter can be riveting on electric guitar, too, but strikes more often with sporadic bursts to complement Barthel's dreamy vocals and touch on the keys while a steady rhythm section enlisting two backing members delivers the hip-hop beats on their dark, edgy material.
"You guys are fucking awesome," Barthel exclaimed almost an hour into Phantogram's set. "Holy shit! That's all. That's all I need to say. (laughs) I can't believe we're playing Red Rocks. This has been a dream. We played for you, Denver, for years and years and years, so I think we deserve this. So thank you."
Phantogram, the mid-30-something pair from Greenwich, New York, who I began following in February 2014 after the release of their breakthrough album Voices, sealed the deal for me with an explosive show at the Boulder Theater in October 2014. That came several years after I tore up my music fan membership to start covering this passionate pursuit on a semi-regular (but not totally unbiased) basis.
After moving to Colorado in 1977, the first Utopia show in Denver I saw was in 1982, when a packed house at the 1,400-seat Rainbow Music Hall grooved to a taut, energetic quartet that included drummer John "Willie" Wilcox, bassist Kasim Sulton and keyboardist Roger Powell. With Rundgren, they formed a formidable power foursome that churned out some of the group's best albums (1982's Utopia, Adventures in Utopia, Deface the Music, Swing to the Right) and stayed together the longest, finally deciding in 1986 to move on before coming together for occasional reunions.
Todd Rundgren shows his true colors as Utopia arrives in Denver. / Photo by Michael Bialas
This latest tour includes Sulton and Wilcox again, but new keyboardist Gil Assayas was an emergency replacement for early member Ralph Schuckett, who had to bow out because of illness. The others seem to still be going strong, though. Between Utopia and his solo work as a multi-instrumentalist, masterful and prolific storyteller and experimental studio wizard/producer, Rundgren (who turns 70 on June 22) has released more than 30 albums.
That inner freaky fanatic who meekly emerged after seeing his first major concert — by the Eric Clapton/Steve Winwood/Ginger Baker-driven Blind Faith in July 1969 at the Chicago International Amphitheatre — became more courageous by the time Rundgren brought Utopia to the Municipal Auditorium Expo Hall in Mobile, Alabama, on April 26, 1974. That early iteration included Schuckett, Jean Yves "M. Frog" Labat (synthesizers), Kevin Ellman (drums), John Siegler (bass) and Mark "Moogy" Klingman (keyboards). Described in a letter to fans by Rundgren, copies of which were handed out before the concert, as a "singer-dancer-standup comic" who will "steal the show", Klingman was 61 when he died of bladder cancer in 2011.
Joined by the love of my life and partner in crime Carmen Dorcik (who two years later would become — and still remains — my wife), we were mesmerized by a glammed-up, dynamic and handshaking Rundgren, whose fan letter announced the debut performance of "The Freak Parade" and "a 30-minute piece tentatively titled 'The Ikon'".
He had us at "Hello It's Me", though the magic wand touch of "Never Neverland" and the ability to make "Something's Coming," the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim song from West Side Story, seem really cool were signs that we were in the presence of a revolutionary rock god. Under his spell, we did what any true believers would do — followed the band's bus to a nearby Chinese restaurant to meet Rundgren and the members of Utopia, including the irrepressible Klingman, who seemed like a life-of-the-party guy.
They even invited us to stay for dinner with them, but when Moogy tried to turn Carmen into a groupie, we figured it was time to call it a night.
Still, 44 years and 18 Rundgren shows later — one that included a memorable evening of strikes and spares in the lane next to him after a 1995 show at the Ranch Bowl in Omaha, Nebraska, of all places — I remain a fervent follower in the Todd Squad. Planned vacations have included Rundgren shows at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California, the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and that Omaha stop on the way back from Chicago.
We never tried anything as daring as that bus tailing again. Though — before the age of meet-and-greets and album signings at merch tables — there were right place/right time brushes with celebrity that landed autographs from some of my other favorite artists. Among them were two in 1983: the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, at the Marriott hotel in southeast Denver; the Talking Heads' David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, in New Orleans after their show at Municipal Auditorium; and in 1996, former Lone Justice lead singer-songwriter Maria McKee, in the Bluebird Theater dressing room in Denver.
My close encounter with Phantogram's Barthel and Carter isn't as fascinating as the Rundgren rendezvous, but there is one. On the final day of the Hangout festival in May 2015, I had the pleasure of hanging out with them, briefly. Stopping by the press tent where I had interviewed bawdy Elle King the previous day, I was pleasantly surprised to see the coolest duo in the three-day lineup lounging on a couch (after conducting interviews) ahead of Phantogram's appearance that night. After they casually chatted and took selfies with a couple of media members, I timidly introduced myself. Carter admired my retro Denver Bears cap (with the Old English font similar to the Phantogram logo) and I asked them if they would take a picture of themselves using my iPhone.
"Do you want to join us for a selfie?" they asked. I politely declined, saying no one would want that messing up this shot of two attractive young people who looked — and presented themselves — like nice, caring millennials, not bona fide rock stars. Seeing just them in the photo was thrilling enough.
Unfortunately, I won't be around in 40 years to see if Phantogram's career follows a similar Rundgren longevity arc filled with epic songs and memorable moments. But this much is guaranteed — Barthel and Carter have another fan for life.
Now for some show highlights:
What's black and white and red all over? Phantogram at Red Rocks. / Photo by Michael Bialas
PHANTOGRAM: May 21, Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colorado
Following a somewhat sleepy set by four-piece Tycho (pot smokers much have been on cloud nine), the pair who once called themselves "psychic twins" played all but two of the glorious 10 cuts from their most recent album, Three, sharing lead vocals on "You're Mine," which opened the well-paced show. They saved the best Voices gems like "Black Out Days" and "Fall in Love" to unleash toward the end of their 16-song, 80-minute set.
Phantogram's Josh Carter gets a shot at the mic. / Photo by Michael Bialas
A dazzling light show that might have overshadowed other artists enhanced the double-decker stage, but occasionally left the two leaders in the dark as silhouettes. Still, hardly anyone in the crowd sat down as Carter, wearing a basic black New York Mets cap, let his screaming guitar kick off an impressive "Run Run Blood". A blonde ponytailed Barthel, dressed in thigh-high boots made for strutting and a cape that could outdo Wonder Woman, lifted "Destroyer" to new heights and, of course, topped the night with "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" during a three-song encore. She also broke out a white electric bass, bringing even more instrumental depth.
There was tenderness on display, too, as Barthel opened the encore by introducing "Someday", a new song they had released just a couple of days earlier and were performing live for the first time.
"It's a very beautiful song, very sad, but a beautiful song about my sister Becky, who committed suicide about 2 1/2 years ago (Jan. 16, 2016, at the age of 34) during the process of writing our last record Three," Barthel said to the crowd. "And we were kind of unable to finish it because it was just very emotional, obviously. So we finally finished it and released it. So we want to play it for you. (cheers) I just want to … I feel so very blessed to be in front of so many fucking people for Phantogram … (cheers) but also to be able to use my voice and to let everybody know that it's OK to not be OK. And if you're not feeling OK, it's completely OK to talk and speak out and take care of yourself. You're not alone."
The moving performance soon gave way to utter joy as the show ended with a beaming Barthel showing off her dog Leroy, a Morkie with his own bobblehead, Instagram and Twitter accounts, in a Lion King-like presentation.
Utopia's main men (from left): Kasim Sulton, Willie Wilcox and Todd Rundgren. / Photo by Michael Bialas
TODD RUNDGREN'S UTOPIA: May 24, Paramount Theatre, Denver
Every time I see him perform, it's hard to stop wondering: "Why isn't Todd Rundgren in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?" Not that he probably cares, but the man who's dedicated more than five decades of his life to music must have pissed off someone on the nominating committee somewhere along the way because he should have been in there a long time ago. Even cleveland.com in December ranked him low (No. 86?) on a list of the "100 biggest Rock & Roll Hall of Fame snubs." Couldn't the Cars, who were inducted this year, find a way to add him as an "honorary member" for bringing new life to that group with the New Cars, who upstaged Blondie on the Road Rage tour stop south of Denver in 2006?
I honestly can't remember ever seeing a better single performer during almost 50 years of attending concerts (longer than that, if going to see Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass with my parents and older brother John counts). And each show I witnessed was decidedly different, including the A Cappella tour in 1985 (when I first saw Michele Gray perform, 13 years before she became Michele Rundgren); the Nearly Human tour in 1990, with Gray, Jenni Muldaur and Shandi Sinnamon, who went on to make several appearances on David Letterman as "the World's Most Dangerous Backup Singers"; and one of the 2nd Wind warm-up concerts, which were a series of California dates in 1990 in preparation to record his 28th album at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
Obviously, nothing can compare to that first Rundgren show in 1974, which ranks among my all-time top five that includes the Who (at LSU, 1975), Blind Faith, Bruce Springsteen (Born in the U.S.A. tour at Mile High Stadium, 1985) and Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense tour at Red Rocks, 1983).
This time around with Rundgren was incredibly gratifying and exceeded my expectations, even without the Chinese food or late-night bowling. It was partly nostalgic, beginning with the 14-minute, mostly instrumental "Utopia Theme" from that group's first album — Todd Rundgren's Utopia — that served as a real eye-opener.
It was about a half-hour into the set when the usually loquacious Rundgren finally addressed a crowd that, while enthusiastically cheering their hero, was disappointingly small in numbers at the 1,800-seat venue and stayed seated until "Love Is the Answer", "One World", and the "Just One Victory" encore concluded the show.
Basically, it was like taking a pleasant trip through time with Utopia, harkening back to that 1974 show with "The Ikon" (a far more abbreviated version, though) and "Something's Coming" among the 23 songs. Split into sets at least an hour each, with costume and stage changes (but no pyramid), the reunion show proved A Wizard/A True Star still shines with or without Utopia. He was in fine voice, too, as was his longtime sidekick Sulton, who shined during smooth lead vocal turns on "Back on the Street", the rarity "Monument" and "Swing to the Right" and "Set Me Free".
Sulton's contributions as right-hand man proved invaluable, especially as the pace escalated during a revved-up segment — when one spectator in the lower section kept screaming, "Todd Is God" — that included "Trapped", "Set Me Free", "Love in Action", and "Hammer in My Heart".
Even before that power-packed onslaught, opening the snappier second half with "The Road to Utopia", Rundgren quipped to the crowd, "Give me a moment. The altitude's getting to me."
The majority of the fans in the audience, many of whom looked over 50, could identify. Yet for one night at least, all aboard for what may be the last ride and experiencing the joy of feeling young again, they knew this was the perfect place to be.
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas