For most of the past 30 years the notion that the Electric Light Orchestra would be selling out a 14 date UK arena tour would have seemed preposterous. Always derided by critics and seen as uncool, since their creative juices ran dry, mainman Jeff Lynne had reinvented himself as producer extraordinaire and handmaiden to rock and pop royalty, while various other former members trotted out the hits under ELO-themed names on the ‘chicken in a basket’ circuit of provincial halls.
However in recent years with contemporary bands citing their influence and a renewed appreciation for the songwriting and arrangements of some of the seventies soft rock giants, Jeff Lynne’s attitude towards his body of work seemed to soften, and after re-recording some of his own songs and a Radio 2 gig at Hyde Park 18 months ago which sold out in minutes, the ELO revival gained pace.
Once he had released a new album ‘Alone In The Universe’ it was inevitable there would be a clamour for live dates to give many of us a first ever chance to hear these songs performed by the man who wrote, sang and arranged them.
Indeed the support act The Feeling emerged in the wake of the ‘guilty pleasures’ revival movement a decade ago, citing ELO as a major influence, which singer Dan Gillespie-Sells was gracious enough to admit from the stage.
Having enjoyed some success at that time they were a highly polished cut above the usual support act, with impressive songs such as the opener ‘I Thought It Was Over’, ‘Never Be Lonely’ and the semi ballad ‘Rose’. They rocked more than I expected in a manner not too far removed from the likes of Bryan Adams and Richard Marx.
‘Wicked Heart’ proved that though their time in the pop spotlight swiftly faded they are still writing good material to this day, while set closer ‘Love it When You Call’ had a magnificently catchy hook. Having previously found their feyness and the earworm nature of some of their material a touch off putting, in this environment the songs shone through enough for me to think I should give them another chance.
There was then rather too long an interval but the music played was a reminder of Jeff Lynne’s post-ELO influence as arranger and producer, from the Travelling Wilburys and Tom Petty to the Beatles’ ‘Free As A Bird’ and Bryan Adams’ latest material.
Interestingly, when this finally gave way to the intro audio-visuals, in a nod to ELO diehards, the band opened with a lesser known number in ‘Tightrope’. However ‘Evil Woman’ was the first of many songs to combine an imaginative backdrop with an instantly recognisable hit, with ‘Showdown’ hot on its heels.
The disco flavoured ‘All Over The World’ got a few people dancing and ‘Livin Thing’ enticed even more onto their feet to sing along, and it was becoming obvious that this would be a more participatory gig than those I saw at this venue by The Who and Fleetwood Mac, with a similar age demographic.
The classic sounds were replicated almost note for note by a 13 piece band including only one other ELO alumnus in keyboardist Richard Tandy, seated centre stage but these days with the air of an off duty vicar. Special mention should go to one of the backing singers Iain Hornal, who from time to time stepped in with some higher register singing to complement the comforting warmth of Jeff’s trademark vocals.
The time I spent cramming on the day of the gig by streaming the new album, expecting it to feature heavily, was not strictly necessary. Only two made it into the set in ‘When I Was A Boy’, where the McCartney influence seemed to have rubbed off by osmosis, and a short and punchy ‘Ain’t It A Drag’.
The rest was all old favourites – from the post-psychedelic sounds of ‘10538 Overture’, to the dreamy ‘Can’t Get It Out Of My Head and a rare album cut in ‘Steppin’ Out’. ‘Rockaria’ and ‘Wild West Hero’ were reminders of how Jeff managed to create complex mini symphonies with changes of mood all within a four minute pop song. The set however was very seventies heavy, with ‘Secret Messages’ the only nod to when they went all futuristic on us in the early eighties.
Still sporting his timeless look of beard and curly hair, Jeff remains a notably low key performer and other than the odd thank you there was little banter or explanations of the songs, and he even left introducing most of the band to arranger Mike Stevens, incidentally a current member of another seventies act being belatedly re-evaluated in 10cc.
Mid-set I turned to my partner and said words to the effect of ‘it’s been great so far but think of how many hits are still to come’. Sure enough, either side of the aching heartbreak of ‘Telephone Line’, more and more were on their feet to the strains of ‘Shine A Little Love’ – reminding us how its parent album was nicknamed ‘disco-very’! and ‘Turn To Stone’, before a single drum beat heralded a storming ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’. The backdrop looked like the panels of a football, but was I reading too much to infer this was a dig by the Birmingham City supporter at the travails of local rivals Aston Villa?
After another classic in ‘Sweet Talkin Woman’ the inevitable ‘Mr Blue Sky’, one of the great feelgood songs, had everyone right up to the top rafters out of their seats and clapping along to the symphonic like chanting in the song’s second movement in an atmosphere nothing less than joyous.
The set was over in a trice and there seemed plenty of time for encores. They began with a solo intro from the all-female string trio, leading into ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ where perhaps for the first time the band were let off a highly polished leash and began to rock out and play off of each other in looser fashion. However, disappointingly that was the end of the set. While the songs had been devoid of padding, a set clocking in at an hour and 35 minutes was on the short side considering the prices charged.
That gripe aside, this was a memorable show. The immaculate presentation and sound, allied to a set of classics that few in the pop songbook can match and the audience’s reaction to them, made for one of the most memorable gigs of the year.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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Each week David Randall presents ‘New to GRTR!’ on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, with the emphasis on independent artists and labels. During December he replays favourite tracks including power plays featured during the year. This show covers the period January-March and was first broadcast on 1 December 2019.
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