46 years ago: Todd Rundgren’s road to Utopia runs through USD
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46 years ago: Todd Rundgren’s road to Utopia runs through USD

One of the few direct mentions of Vermillion in popular culture can be heard on the first side of Back to the Bars, musician Todd Rundgren’s 1978 live album.

Rundgren asks “Is this Enid, Oklahoma? That’s not right… Is this, uh… Vermillion, South Dakota? No, no, that’s not right… I remember! It’s Cleveland, Ohio!” while making rapport with the audience between songs.

Some answers as to why Vermillion was directly name-dropped may lie in Rundgren’s visit to the city and the concert he played at USD over 45 years ago, on Nov. 9, 1973.

The details on what brought him to the area in the first place are unclear, but many people still remember his visit fondly.

“Todd spent a couple of weeks in Vermillion before the concert…. He stayed with various misfits on farms, student apartments, etc,” said Ro Ann Redlin, a longtime resident who attended the concert.

Earlier in 1973, Rundgren, looking to contradict many people’s views of him as a “pop-song purveyor”, formed the first iteration of Utopia, a band which purposely set out to be as wild, crazy and experimental as possible.

The plug was pulled on this iteration after six weeks by upper management, afraid they were too far out for most audiences. But Rundgren set right to work on re-forming a new group, with more versatile musicians.

Rundgren retained one person from the first formation, synthesizer player Jean-Yves Labat, and brought in an entirely new rhythm section: Mark “Moogy” Klingman and Ralph Schuckett on keyboards, bassist John Siegler, and drummer Kevin Ellman.

The performance at Vermillion is believed to be the second or third live performance of the reformed six-piece group, also known as “Utopia Mark II”.

Typically, for the first act of his shows, Rundgren would perform solo, with just a piano and tapes as backing accompaniment. For the second part of the concert, the full band emerged to perform, with Rundgren on guitar.

And for the Vermillion performance only, the folk-rock band Lazarus (on the same recording label as Rundgren) was used as the opening act.

Utopia’s early concerts were highly intricate in their presentation, not just in the material they played (elaborate instrumentals mixed with songs written by Rundgren), but which also incorporated laser-light effects and a quadraphonic stereo set-up.

Their high-power shows would occasionally put a strain on venues that weren’t prepared for it. More than one concert in the first years had to be cut off early due to an electrical problem, and the same nearly happened at USD.

The concert was performed in the original Slagle Auditorium (now the Aalfs Auditorium), which at the time, had only one outlet on stage.

“Todd was using too much electricity on the Slagle stage and he was asked to shut down part or all of his equipment during the show. He announced this to the crowd, and the crowd went wild,” Redlin said.

How a solution to the electrical problem was found has been lost to history, but the story is corroborated by Labat, Utopia’s synthesist.

“I remember vaguely, it was a show we had some trouble of a technical kind, that we couldn’t get enough power onto the stage,” Labat said.

Slagle’s electricity supply was not strong enough to support the power the band needed for their show. But after a short delay, the show was allowed to continue, and the band finished without further interruption.

“It was very early into the Mark II. We had to stop the show, but we played again, we started again. It was Vermillion, certainly!” Labat said.

The Utopia touring schedule for the rest of Fall 1973 and through the next year was typically one show per night, one right after the other, frequently at colleges like USD.

“The first tour of Utopia Mark II was totally crazy. We were playing just about every night; one night in Chicago, one night in Atlanta, one night in Vermillion, another night in San Francisco, then in Toronto. After a week or two, we didn’t know where we were,” Labat said.

The next concert Rundgren and Utopia played after Vermillion was two days later in Cincinnati. This show was recorded and broadcast live on the radio.

In the tape, as the last song concludes and the band talks with each other, one member notes, “That was a lot slower than the last one!” and Rundgren concurs, “Yeah, that was slow.”

With no USD recording yet unearthed, only those around to see it know how the song was played on that night in Vermillion.