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Monday, September 19, 2016

Concert Review: Jukebox Heroes From Outer Space

Jeff Lynne's E.L.O. and the Attacca Quartet rock Radio City Music Hall.
Jeff Lynne (center, to the drummer's right) and E.L.O. perform "Telephone Line"
last night at Radio City Music Hall. Photo by the author.
Forty years ago, Electric Light Orchestra were one of the biggest bands on the planet. The group, brainchild of singer-songwriter Jeff Lynne conquered the world with brilliant pop songs and a sound that mixed the British psychedelic-baroque pop of The Beatles with actual orchestral instruments: violin and cellos that chugged along with the band onstage. In the '80s, they ditched the strings for synths, calling it a day in the middle of the "me" decade. This led to Mr. Lynne taking a 25-year break from the rigors of concert touring. In the late '80s and '90s, he applied his producer's touch to projects by Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison, ultimately founding the five-piece supergroup The Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan.

Mr. Lynne is now 68. but remains the focal point of Electric Light Orchestra in concordance with keyboardist and longtime member Richard Tandy.  Last year, they released their first new record in fifteen years. On Sunday night, the current touring version of the band (a twelve-piece, billed as "Jeff Lynne's E.L.O.") played the second of two sold-out nights at Radio City Music Hall. The show spanned the band's vast catalogue and long career, and throughout showed the capabilities of bowed string instruments working in concert with taut, professional rock musicians. 
The "evil eye" from "Evil Woman". Photo by the author.

In a smart, neo-classical twist, Mr. Lynne booked local heroes the Attacca String Quartet as his opening act. These Juilliard-trained players were a strong presence on the big stage, despite the omnipresent, rotating E.L.O graphics that loomed on the giant projection screen behind them. The Attacca players offered a set of short, amusingly titled works by modern minimalist John Adams, ("Toot Nipple", "Alligator Escalator") two experimental pieces: ("Maniacal Swing" by Paul Wiancko, and "Smoke Rings" by Michael Ippolito) To their credit, the audience, there for E.L.O., listened with respect, attention and even enthusiastic applause.

E. L. O. opened with the one-two punch of "Tightrope" and "Evil Woman", the familiar strains of the latter bringing the sold-out crowd to its feet. Like a church service, the audience rose and sat, not according to a set liturgy but based on which tunes in the 18-song set were the most familiar. Early highlights included an elevating performance of "All Over the World" and an exuberant "Livin' Thing," a song that got fresh legs in the 1990s when it was used for the closing credits of the film Boogie Nights

The whole audience sat down for the nostalgic and beautiful "When I Was a Boy," the sole inclusion from Mr. Lynne's 2015 album Alone in the Universe. But they got right back up for the very funny "Rockaria" (pronounced "rockARE-ee-ah") a song about a rock and roll guy trying to hook up with a woman who only listens to opera. This song featured backing singer Melanie Lewis-Macdonald  displaying her classical pipes, flying high above the stave in a fairly successful attempt to bridge these two very different genres. 

The show then visited the very roots of Electric Light Orchestra, which sprung to life as a side project of the band The Move in 1971. "10538 Overture" was an experiment, with Mr. Lynne's former bandmate Roy Wood laying down multitracked cellos over a lyric about a Jean Valjean-esque escaped prisoner. They then flashed forward to the '80s synth era for "Secret Messages" and went back to the '70s for the gentle "Can't Get It Out of My Head." Here, a giant moon hung projected over the stage, bedecked with multi-colored fan lasers creating rainbow bridges for Norse gods to stroll across. The lasers were accompanied by smoke, lights and different CGI films featuring the ELO logo: aa flying saucer that lights up like a Wurlitzer jukebox. 

Hearing these songs live was kind of like being in the presence of a living jukebox, playing familiar songs and getting the mostly older audience up on their feet. The whole evening was oriented toward Mr. Lynne's hits from the past and best-known songs, climaxing with the emotional height of "Telephone Line" and the one-two punch of "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Mr. Blue Sky". These were hit songs from E. L. O.'s '70s peak, and both were greeted like old friends. The band came back to offer one encore, a classical-tinged bash through Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" Here, cellos, violin and finally the full band thundered out the familiar four note motif that kicks off the Fifth Symphony. Classicism had triumphed at last.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.