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Although I am a Millennial (with a podcast!), and ELO’s critical and commercial peak came when my parents were in high school (though their greatest hits, like “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Evil Woman” have had a long cultural shelf life), I nonetheless have long been a huge fan of this Beatlesque symphonic pop-rock group. I have written about ELO’s output at Ricochet and even got to discuss it for two hours on an episode of National Review’s excellent Political Beats podcast.
So you’d think a superfan of my status would have known about this concert for months, and be planning to attend. Wrong. I either completely forgot or never knew that one of my favorite bands would be performing almost literally in my neighborhood. Hence my panic: I was terrified that tickets would be sold out (they weren’t). Or that I, not a frequent concert-goer for dislike of crowds and of loud noises–my last one was a Moody Blues concert in 2008–wouldn’t be able to find anyone to come with me on such short notice (I did).
So I would go after all. But I still had one last fear: The show wouldn’t be any good. I love ELO’s music. But it’s 40 years old now, and Jeff Lynne, the man who always did the most to create it (hence the new touring moniker, which just confirms this), is in his 70s. And I would bring to this concert a certain knowledge of ELO at its peak. Not only did I know the discography back to front, having listened to it all (yes, all, even Balance of Power) many times. I also own a DVD of an ELO concert from the band’s 1978, original line-up, peak success tour.
ELO is far from alone among classic rock acts touring well into old age. It’s common knowledge that fans both old and young (but mostly old) will pay big money to see these once-godlike figures belt out (or attempt to belt out) their radio classics while making sure they don’t break a hip or fall off the stage. Nostalgia can be a powerful drug and can make one ignore some of the more obvious defects of an aging act. Indeed, for some older concertgoers, there could be a sort of old-age solidarity at play; it may make them feel a bit better about themselves to see that even rock gods age.
But I would not be so forgiving. My test for this concert would be how well ELO recaptured the magic of the band at its peak, with only some leeway given for the different environment of a live show, and for time’s cruel progression. Fortunately, this ELO concert passed this test with flying colors. Between a setlist that touched on (nearly) all of the band’s peak output, some new players who did an adequate job taking the place of no-longer-touring members, and the overall atmosphere of the concert, it almost felt like 1978 all over again (or what I’m guessing 1978 was like, since I wasn’t alive then).
Before the concert actually began, one of the biggest mysteries was what ELO would start with. Many of their songs would have worked as concert-starters; I was thinking maybe the wordless rocker “Fire On High.” But when the gentle, nursery-rhyme-esque tones of “Standin’ In the Rain” trickled through the dark arena, I was delighted and surprised, even though I should only have been delighted: This was the same song that began the concert I had on DVD, recreated almost perfectly (even down to the light show that started with the song proper), with just a few high notes and more complicated parts understandably dropped.
After this, the band went through an excellent set of classic hits: “Evil Woman,” “All Over the World” (which was preceded by Jeff Lynne’s saying “Hello Washington, D.C,” to which I thrilled, though I wish he’d namechecked the city in the song as well), “Showdown,” and “Do Ya.” It didn’t take me too long to get used to the new division of labor that Jeff Lynne had worked out for his tour, by which he handed off some of the more difficult vocal and instrumental parts to other members of his touring band. Though not all of them: He still did the guitar solo from “Showdown” himself, for example. The occasional flub or imprecise delivery, as on “Evil Woman,” was a bit more worrisome, yet always forgivable, and never disrupted the show; only my obsessive knowledge of ELO made me notice such incidents at all.
The next part of the set touched equally on the present and the past. “When I Was A Boy,” the lead single from Alone in the Universe, ELO’s most recent album, came next; Jeff handled this song perhaps best of any that night, as it was written more with his current vocal range in mind than any other on the setlist, but also dealt more with his own upbringing than any other ELO number. “Livin’ Thing,” another highlight of ELO’s greatest hits,” came next, and it was done well, though the concert-forced fade-out replacement could use a little work. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night followed, as Lynne casually announced that he was going to do “a song by my other group.” At this point, Dhani Harrison, son of Beatle George, whose band had been the opening act, returned to the stage and flawlessly recreated his father’s lead vocals on the Traveling Wilburys’ song “Handle With Care.” During this song, scenes from recording sessions of this legendary supergroup, whose other members included the now-deceased Tom Petty and Roy Orbison and the still-chugging-along Bob Dylan, were projected on stage behind the band. It was a touching tribute to a part of Lynne’s career that I did not expect this concert to reference at all.
From here followed another hit parade. “Rock-Aria!,” one of my favorites, was done well (though they did miss the mini-Beethoven reference the song contains); it is always tricky live, as it involves vocal interplay between a lead male rock vocalist and a co-lead female operatic part. They had both on hand in the touring band; Jeff and a male backing vocalist shared the former, and a female backing vocalist took over the latter, perhaps even improving on original ELO member Kelly Groucutt’s version from the original tour. The show then went disco with “Last Train To London,” accompanied by the night’s most colorful stage visual effects up to that point (a glow-in-the-dark locomotive constantly ran behind the band), and “Xanadu,” which Lynne first did with Olivia Newton-John. The band did not shy away from showing footage from the infamously bad movie (with a famously good soundtrack) that song was the title track of during this part of the show, demonstrating an admirable comfort with all aspects of its past.
“10538 Overture” was the next song on the list. I was a bit surprised to see it there at all; this was the first song on ELO’s first album, created when the band was a far different entity from what it eventually became. Despite that, I thought their rendition of the song was perhaps the most faithful to the studio version of any song played that night, which is no small feat, given the multitracked cello riffs and difficult vocals of the original. They followed it with another surprise, “Wild West Hero,” one of the less popular tracks on Out of the Blue, and “Shine A Little Love.” The latter wasn’t a huge surprise as a choice. But the stunning array of laser lights that accompanied it sure was, and served as a reminder that ELO’s old shows were almost as well known for their light displays and giant spaceships as for their music.
Two far more expected choices followed, in the same order they appear on the compilation album that introduced me to ELO: “Sweet Talking Woman,” and the famous “Telephone Line,” a song that takes the form of a lovelorn telephone call and is one of ELO’s best and most famous. As this song played, ironically (or perhaps fittingly), I saw the dark arena fill up with hundreds of points of light from people getting out their phones to record it.
From here to the end of the show it was hit after hit: “Don’t Bring Me Down,” ELO’s biggest-ever song in America; “Turn To Stone,” a favorite of mine, whose deliberately sped-up middle eight the band nailed–or at least appeared to nail–without the aid of any pre-taped trickery (an unfair criticism of the older shows, and a seemingly quaint one given what concerts have become since); and, of course, “Mr. Blue Sky,” mine and everyone else’s favorite ELO song, which was done practically perfectly. They even did the full minute-plus segment of the song that is technically just the end of the “Concerto for a Rainy Day” suite from Out of the Blue, all the way to the “please turn me over,” an artifact from the age when you had to flip over the vinyl, as the “Concerto” took up side three of that album. It was also a great bookend to “Standin’ in the Rain,” which began the show, as that was the beginning of the “Concerto.” I would have been happy if my first experience of live ELO had ended here. And I thought it had.
But if I had paid closer attention to my concert DVD, I would have known better. Fortunately, the friends I was with urged me to stay, so I got to see what came next. When, out of the darkness, I suddenly heard a musical quote from Beethoven, I knew what was coming: ELO’s prog-rockabilly cover of “Roll Over Beethoven,” a raucous masterpiece from the band’s second album. This was also how the aforementioned concert DVD also encored, so, again, I should have known better. For I would have been truly distraught if I had missed the next eight minutes of foot-tapping, guitar-strumming, violin-burning symphonic rock. And I was glad that I did not.
That was the real end of the ELO concert, about which I have few complaints. But for the sake of fairness, I’ll list them here. Jeff Lynne’s voice is clearly not what it once was. And even though the arrangement he has worked out for his touring band mostly disguises that, there were bits of songs here and there that he either missed or has deliberately dropped from live shows. Some of these changes may just be from the different world of live performance, which also accounts for the forced addition of sometimes-awkward endings to songs that had relied on studio fadeouts. Not all of it was from this, though, and an intermittent imprecision in vocal delivery was also occasionally distracting. I am more sad than disappointed by this, as it merely suggests the passage of time to which we are all subject, even the now 71-year-old Jeff Lynne.
Less forgivable is the absence of any songs from Eldorado, my favorite ELO album. This was the only album from ELO’s 70s peak that did not get at least one representative in this concert. I still loved everything that was played, even if it had a bias toward the late-late-70s, an era that I sometimes forget was the band’s actual commercial peak, as my preference leans slightly more toward mid-70s ELO.
None of this detracts from my overall enjoyment of the concert’s music, or of its atmosphere. Both of these felt quite close to the aura of peak ELO. I understand how much of a cash grab and a sop to Baby Boomers these things are, but after going to one, I see why they are so popular, and I don’t really care. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t see your favorite band in concert while they’re still touring if you have a chance (as you should with ELO); you never know when that last show will be.
I’m just happy a friend reminded me that this concert was happening in the first place.