This was my first show of the tour, and as the must-see-TV people spend the whole Summer telling me, "If you haven't seen it-- it's new to you!"
ISP is a fun opener, significantly better than any of the "TV versions" I've heard simply because it is nice and loud. But for me, the show begins on the next song-- one of seven Utopia tunes performed (I don't count Ikon)-- when Kasim Sulton stepped to the mike to add his voice to Todd's on the "Play this game!" chorus. Chills. Suddenly it is 1981, and I remember the reason I used to go to so damn many Utopia shows.
For all the talk of how this is Todd's guitar-slinger tour, for me it was Kasim Sulton who put a big red bow around the evening. His voice, as my wife observed, goes with Todd's like it was "chemically engineered" (her words) to do so. You bring Todd and Kasim's voices, Kasim's solid, melodic bass lines, and Todd's stinging jangly mess of a guitar sound, toss in a decent drummer, and you have one killer pop trio. Not power at all-- but pop, pure pop bliss, plain and simple.
I think Kasim has honed his skills and matured over the years into an absolute ace of a sideman. The songs where he and Todd wrapped their voices around each other until they were one-- Play This Game, There Goes My Inspiration, the last verse of Love of the Common Man, the exquisite Secret Society, One World-- had the magic capability of making me feel 20 years younger on the spot, while somehow sounding fresh and vibrant (whereas, like Aipotu mentioned, something like the Mystified/Busted medley seemed less so).
The second theme for the night-- after "Kaz and Todd go great together"-- was, "Oh yeah, I almost forgot-- these are great fucking SONGS!" Love of the Common Man, heard in so many iterations over the years (the original arrangement, Todd solo, the big band Nearly Human version, the more recent solo version with the "darker" chords, bossa nova), was back to the original arrangement... and when Todd sings, "Catch it while you can" in the second verse, and Kasim steps up and backs him with those Utopian Ooh, ooh, ooh's-- well, they say the grinch's heart grew three sizes that day. Couldn't I Just Tell You, One World, Play This Game, Open My Eyes-- these are great power pop tunes, well-written, played and sung on this night with joy and abandon.
When Todd mock-informed the audience that he was from Philly, my wife asked me if playing in Philly made a difference. I have to say, in my limited experience, that it does. The hometown shows that I have seen (maybe 5 over the years) do seem to bring out something special-- and more often than not, that thing is a pronounced goofiness.
After Love in Action, instead of the usual schtick about love being stopped, Todd trailed off and started scanning the song list. There was a brief confab on stage between Todd and Kas, with Kaz arguing for "closure", Todd assuring him "We'll get to it." My wife thought I was nuts when I told her the song wasn't over, and that they still had to finish it. But two songs later, they did.
Jesse joined the band onstage after the acoustic interlude, and he was clearly supposed to sit in on just the three numbers-- Mystified, Hammer, and #1LCD. As noted, Todd had to almost chase him off the stage, saying "We're gonna have to play something the fucker doesn't know." So they launch into Buffalo Grass-- a great song, powerful live, and a future classic-- and you see Jesse peeping out... then his knee as he takes a tentative step... then he's on stage, behind Kaz... and by song's end he's back on the front line, wailing. Perhaps Todd didn't realize that Jesse is a musical encyclopedia, and that he knows EVERY song.
There was a nice bit toward the end of the mystified/busted medley where Jesse inserted the Marriage of Heaven and Hell riff (as he did during Born to Synthesize on the tiki tour) and Kaz locked in with him, and for a minute I was sure Kas was going to start singing, "Mr. and Mrs. Universe, with your cabin in the sky..." Ah well. Not tonight.
Jesse hung out for the rest of the show, and Todd kept throwing him leads-- he took the One World solo and added some nice muscle to the Ikon's encore riffage. (My mom always said to get a lot of riffage. No, wait-- that was ruffage. Never mind.) Open My Eyes, a song I'd never heard live, sounded as fresh as anything else; it seemed less a psychedelic freakout than a well-structured guitar pop tune. The encores as a whole were perfect; Epiphany is one of the strongest songs Todd has written in years, and to my ears with Jesse on board the synth backdrop wasn't even necessary.
Oh, I almost forgot-- Todd's guitar playing. Sometimes a flub during a solo, as he raced up the fretboard to get to that perfect note. But damn if he didn't get there every time. And his playing was, for the most part, less in the guitar calisthenics realm than in the concise, service-to-the-song realm (Mystified and #1LCD notwithstanding, of course). For my money, bits like the guitar solo in Couldn't I Just Tell You-- all of five seconds, right before the closing chorus kicks in-- were his best playing of the night. Oh, and Secret Society was a showcase.
After the show my wife had two comments. First, she said "Now I get why the girls all love Kasim." Ah yes, Janet-- the little girls understand. She also noted that this was a more "boy energy" show than the other two she'd been to (Tiki tour at Jaxx; Channel Surfing at IMAX on Long Island). She referenced the clowning around, and the leg kicks during, and to end, songs. Not that this was a bad thing; she was totally into it, and it suggested camaraderie. But it was an observation I probably couldn't have made.
The bottom line, then, is this: Great songs, great band, probably one of the better gigs of the tour (with the caveat that it was the only one I saw.) The power pop thrill of Utopia and solo Todd's finest hours, made fresh daily. If indeed this is Todd's last tour-- and I contimue to doubt that it will be-- he could do a lot worse for a swan song. The show was a gift, a blessing, a re-affirmation of why I love the guy in the first place.
I'll be the big guy in front at Irving Plaza. Standing on the left, by Jesse.
I Hate My Fricking ISP Play This Game Love of the Common Man Black & White Yer Fast Trapped Secret Soceity Love in Action There Goes My Inspiration Couldn't I Just Tell You Love in Action (concl) Cliche Bang the Uke Mystified > Broke Down & Busted > Mystified Hammer in My Heart #1 Lowest Common Denominator Buffalo Grass One World
Ikon Open My Eyes