Friday, August 17, 2018

When I Was A Boy: Even Without a Spaceship, Jeff Lynne's ELO Blissfully Blasts Me Back to the '70s -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Jeff Lynne's ELO
w/ opening act Dawes
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
August 15, 2018

Truth be told, there are certain specifics about last week I would be hard pressed to remember. So my apologies if the first rock band I truly cared about--while they were still intact, thus ruling out the Beatles--was, circa 1977 or so, actually Queen or KISS, Aerosmith or Cheap Trick.

But I really think it was Electric Light Orchestra.

As I say, my memory is far from photographic, but I acutely recall buying ELO's 1977 double-LP, Out of the Blue, with its cover featuring a rather striking looking spaceship. And I'm pretty sure it came with a poster inside.

Though I was too young to be going to concerts, I had heard that ELO featured some sort of spaceship as part of its concert stage, and while I don't think I was specifically aware of their shows at the old Chicago Stadium in 1976, 1978 and 1981, I doubt there was any rock act I more wanted to see in my pre-teen days.

But I didn't, and the band would soon call it quits, at least in terms of featuring chief architect, songwriter and singer, Jeff Lynne.

And across all these years, and 762 other rock concerts, I would never have the chance to see Electric Light Orchestra.

Until Wednesday night.

Although Lynne, now 70 and looking roughly the same as he always did, recorded with the Traveling Wilburys and has produced albums for his Wilbury pals--the late Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Tom Petty (Bob Dylan was also in the supergroup), as well as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson and Joe Walsh--he remained largely out of sight in terms of ELO or other live appearances until 2014.

Under the moniker Jeff Lynne's ELO--I won't get into trying to understand and explain the legal issues, but there are no other original members currently playing alongside him, though other "ELO" entities still seem to exist--Lynne and his orchestra played London in Sept. 2014, with a European tour and New York & L.A. shows following over the past few years.

But only this month are they doing a relatively brief run of U.S. dates before another trek through Europe.

And though there is no longer a spaceship, Jeff Lynne's ELO played the Allstate Arena in Rosemont (just outside Chicago) for a single, sold-out show.

I had bought tickets with my pal Paolo as soon as they went onsale last November, and with nearly 2,000 concerts attended between us, each can now say "I've seen ELO" for the first time.

Sure, purists would be right to point out that even in having seen Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their tours together in the 1990s, I can't claim to have seen Led Zeppelin.

Although I've seen "Queen with Paul Rodgers" and "Queen with Adam Lambert," without the immortal Freddie Mercury I don't feel as though I've really seen Queen.

And though they were just as integral to their respective bands as Jeff Lynne, having seen David Byrne, Paul Weller, John Fogerty, Roger McGuinn, Bob Mould and Steve Winwood doesn't equate to seeing Talking Heads, The Jam, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Byrds, Husker Du or Traffic.

But on Wednesday at Allstate (née the Rosemont Horizon), Lynne was front and center sounding vocally fantastic, a dozen accompanying musicians including a 3-piece string section richly replicated the "orchestrations," there was an impressive light and video show with images of ELO spaceships, my ticket said "Jeff Lynne's ELO" and--excepting a Traveling Wilburys track and one recent tune--all the songs played had been recorded by Electric Light Orchestra during the 1970s. 

So with no disrespect to Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy, the late Kelly Groucutt and other members of ELO back then, this felt like the real thing--or close enough--as far as I could tell.

And the whole evening was really fantastic.

The opening act was an L.A. band called Dawes, who I'd come to know and like a bit--musically, not personally--a few years back.

They have a nice enough low-key sound, and tunes such as "Things Happen," "From a Window Seat" and "All Your Favorite Bands" were pleasant to hear.

But 8 songs and 45 minutes were more than enough, and I was further reminded just how much better--and deeper--rock music was in the 1970s than it is today, when earnest blandness passes for "pretty decent."

Around 9:15pm, ELO opened with "Standing in the Rain," from Out of the Blue, and proceeded to play 19 songs as well as I could want.

The setlist matched that at all recent tour stops and other than some pleasantries from Lynne, there wasn't much overt emotional engagement beyond the music itself.

Those who read my concert reviews with regularity know I often detract for such things, and did in fact about Monday's otherwise stellar 3+ hour Smashing Pumpkins concert at the United Center.

But not only did the ELO material sound wonderfully fresh for me in a live setting--including resplendent renditions of "Evil Woman," "Showdown," "Do Ya," "Livin' Thing," "Rockaria," "10538 Overture," "Sweet Talkin' Woman," "Telephone Line," "Don't Bring Me Down," "Turn to Stone" and "Mr. Blue Sky"--the 90-minute set felt perfectly paced, never risking overindulgence as did the Pumpkins.

I admittedly don't know every song on every ELO album, but the only MIA tune I might've wanted to hear was "Strange Magic."

That could well have accompanied the only encore, a rollicking "Roll Over Beethoven" (a remarkably badass Chuck Berry song ELO recorded on their second album, after the Beatles also famously covered it).

But "When I Was a Boy" from Jeff Lynne's ELO's 2014 Alone in the Universe album sounded lovely among all the classics, two cellists and a violinist made the exquisite "Can't Get It Out of My Head" especially gorgeous and even a song I'd long forgotten--"Wild Wild West," the closer on Out of the Blue--was sublime. Throughout the night, the sonic depth created by all the musicians onstage was truly quite powerful and impressive.

And while Paolo and I may well have been among few in the older, suburban crowd to also have seen the dance-poppy Erasure three weeks ago, ELO's blast through the disco-ish "Shine a Little Love" from 1979's Discovery prompted me to comment that it was likely a song that duo's Vince Clarke was well aware of in fusing dance and rock music with his first band, Depeche Mode (per songs like "Just Can't Get Enough" and "Dreaming of Me").

Though Lynne was quite gracious about being back in Chicago and thanking the adoring crowd, he was mostly rather taciturn, leaving introductions of his bandmates up to a sideman (Mike Stevens, I believe).

But even this worked rather movingly, as during the Traveling Wilburys "Handle With Care" an otherwise abstract video backdrop briefly showed the other legendary members.

Just a glimpse of Lynne's close friend Tom Petty--who died last October--brought a lump to my throat while eliciting a roar from the crowd, repeated for George Harrison. (Roy Orbison was also shown, as was the surviving Bob Dylan.)

No spoken words were needed for the most poignant moment of a truly great show, classily handled with care.

And kindling more flashbacks to when I was a boy.

For although I didn't see ELO back in 1981, that was the year of the first concert I attended of my own volition, albeit with my dad, at the same venue in rather similar seats:

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

...who I would see 9 more times over the years, including last summer just two months before Tom passed suddenly on October 2.

"Moving in line then you look back in time," it's a "Livin' Thing," indeed.

And like "Mr. Blue Sky" of whom he sings, I really don't know why Jeff Lynne had to "hide away for so long."

But for reasons both sentimental and sensational in the here and now, it was certainly nice to have him--and his ELO--back.

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