The Pop Culture Road Trip

Excerpted from a recent piece I wrote for AOL News…

“Veteran singer-songwriterMark “Moogy” Klingman (who, along with Buzzy Linhart wrote the Bette Midler standard “(You Gotta Have) Friends”) was recently diagnosed with cancer. His battle to survive is being fueled with what he knows best:singing and playing keyboards for his band The Peaceniks, in and around New York City.

 “The medicine that works best is the music,” he told AOL News recently, “and what’s happening at the end of this month is probably the best medicine the musical gods could have ordered.”

 Klingman’s referring to two shows he’ll be part of Jan. 29 and 30 at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. The concerts will be special, as they will feature a reunited version of the revolutionary early-1970s band that helped put Klingman on the musical map: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.”



Well, as most Rundgren/Utopia fans know, those shows happened last weekend. On Wednesday, 2/2, Sunday night’s performance aired in its entirety as a video-on-demand offering.

For those of us who’d wanted to attend but couldn’t – and I’m sure for many who had been in attendance – there was great anticipation about the webcast. By most firsthand accounts, the shows were dazzling. Any flubs, miscues or forgotten lyrics were all but forgiven in view of the scant rehearsal time and complex material.

Beyond that though, the inspiration for the shows, Klingman’s terminal illness, no doubt tempered the mood in terms of critique.

After watching the show, I’d offer that by any definition, this was an extraordinary musical evening. That’s true in large part to Klingman, who although has been suffering the ravages ofnot just the disease but also the treatments, played the keys like his life depended on it – because in a sense – it did. As he has said, this project (and the energy surrounding it) is something he has derived strength from.

Delicately opening the night alone at the piano with a shimmering interlude based on the Utopia Theme, Klingman then dovetailed the melody into “Never, Neverland” which found Rundgren at the center stage mic.

In a balanced, stirring moment, two old friends were recreating a classic just as they had on Rundgren’s 1978 Back to the Bars club tour and earlier, on 1973’s “A Wizard, A True Star” album.

After a set of Klingman compositions (including the elegant, soulful “Dust in the Wind”, the lyrics of which now take on a heightened meaning), the full band (keyboardist Ralph Schuckett, bassist John Siegler,drummer Kevin Ellman, Rundgren, backing singers Kasim Sulton, Darryl Tookes,Curtis King Jr. and guest guitarist Jesse Gress) settled in to tackle (primarily) a host of knotty-yet-melodic Utopia classics from the challenging prog era of1974-75.

Overall, the broadcast had a soothing quality. The comforting, evocative chord progressions and cozy-flannel familiarity of Rundgren’s voice made for a night of intimate musical scrapbooking – a couple of hours on a wintry night spent around the crackling Utopian campfire before about 700 friends.

Given Rundgren’s busy schedule,the core band was to set the foundation for him with a week or two of rehearsal. Then he’d step in at the eleventh hour to assume his role as savant front man.

Would the cement have time to dry? Would Rundgren be able to play catch up with his formidable former band?

Yes and yes.

Under the watchful eye – and authoritative-beyond-description basslines – of John Siegler, things soared.

Todd Rundgren, never one for over sentimentality, also helped keep the evening rolling along. There was no time for mawkishness, because there was music to play and that was his mission.Part of the charm of the night centered on Rundgren. For decades one of rock’s premier front men, as good as he is – and he remains a monster – he stills seems vulnerable and slightly awkward, which adds to his appeal.

One might also forget that in the 1970s, his name regularly appeared in magazine reader polls next to Page and Clapton as the best guitarist of the day, and he reminded the crowd of this with some searing, dazzling fretwork.

As for how the band sounded in this reunited form, they recreated the rich, luminous sound that had been their trademark with relative ease, evoking the powerhouse that they were almost four decades ago.

Remember, this was an A-list group that, to a person, was as proficient as any other band of the era. Ellman’s disarmingly simple drum style formed a rock steady rythym section with Siegler, and Schuckett played with studied, professorial class. 

And Klingman? His emotional, cascading piano solos added rainbow pools of texture and emotion.

What I found most striking was the jaw-dropping diversity of the repertoire. One might forget the full-bodied range this band had and just how many styles could be squeezed into one night’s performance.

There were cosmic ballads,(“The Last Ride”, “The Wheel”), the funky gestalt of “Another Life”, and a healthy slab of the 30-minute musical quilt known as “The Ikon.”

And then there were the anthems – the proggy, black-light sci-fi metal of the “Utopia Theme”, the call-to-arms classic “Freedom Fighters”, the typically-majestic set-closer “Just One Victory” and the rousing sing along encore, “Sons of 1984.”

There were Klingman’s own Tin Pan Alley-esque odes, a cover of The Move’s chunky classic “Do Ya”, and still there was more.

The breadth of material was just as head spinning now as it was in the mid 70s, cramming oddball time signatures,blue eyed soul, airy esotericism, funk, and interstellar jazz into one rippling, prismatic two-hour set.

The faithful crowd was typically enthusiastic as they are for anything Rundgren-related, but with a purpose.They basked in the glow of the musical sun – and radiated the energy back to the band, punctuating the night with whoops, hollers and waves of love designed to crash upon Klingman – which they did.

Like the band, the audience also came to play.

As mentioned, there were a few flubs, but they only added to the spontaneous, little-boy wonder of the evening.

As a viewer, I feel compelled to say thanks to these players, who took some time for a friend. In doing so, they also led many of us back to another place and time – offering us a peek through the window to an earlier point in our lives – a hope-laden,pregnant-with-promise era when music was our nectar.

As Rundgren told me when I interviewed him for the piece I wrote prior to the show: “As is the case when you choose to play the older stuff, it has an instant effect on fans because it transports them back to a time when they were younger, when there was a sense of optimism, and when music really mattered in their lives.”

So true.

Maybe it was a summer day at Wollman Rink in Central Park.

Or a cool fall day in a college football stadium.

Or a barn-like auditorium on a Minnesota winter night.

Or in your bedroom,listening to the “Another Live” album through headphones.

Wherever we were first initiated, Utopia meant a lot to many of us. The humanity of the music, and the spirit of the music are clearly still vital.

This is what good music does; it makes us laugh, makes us cry and sends chills down our spine. It soothes us, it inspires is and awakens all of our most precious instincts.

It connects us.

And it has the power to make people feel better.

Just as this broadcast did.



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