JEFF LYNNE'S ELO: OUR VERDICT
More than thirty years after Jeff Lynne first walked away from the Electric Light Orchestra to spend more time travelling with some Wilburys, he was back in his hometown to roll back the years at a packed Arena Birmingham.
Now styling the band as ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ for legal reasons, the line-up doesn’t contain any of the other original members (not even Richard Tandy, who toured with Lynne under the same band name back in 2016), but die-hard fans need not worry: Lynne retains access to ELO’s full repertoire of tracks, and the band of twelve backing musicians who join him on stage recreate perfectly the sound of the original band in their seventies’ heyday.
With twelve studio albums’ worth of original ELO material to choose from (plus a ‘Jeff’s Lynne’s ELO’ album in 2015) it must have been tough work deciding what to include and what to leave out of the 95-minute set. A lesser songwriter might have been tempted to focus exclusively on the three biggest-selling albums from the band’s golden 1975-79 period, and favourites from these certainly feature prominently. We started off with Standin’ in the Rain from 1977’s Out of the Blue, and later in the evening also got Wild West Hero, Sweet Talkin’ Woman (two of my personal favourites) and Turn to Stone from that same album. Their 1976 breakthrough album, A New World Record, was represented by classic rock standards Do Ya, and Rockaria, plus the more sublime pleasures of Livin’ Thing. Meanwhile the futuristic disco-sound of Discovery (1979) got the crowd on their feet and dancing through such classics as Last Train to London, and Shine a Little Love.
But it was great for ‘ELO-completists’ (like me) to also hear tracks from each of the first three lesser-known albums, most notably 10538 Overture from the eponymous 1971 debut, and (when they needed to slow things down a bit so we could all catch a breather) Showdown from 1973’s On the Third Day. Even 1975’s Face the Music got an airing through a tub-thumping rendition of Evil Woman. Despite all of that, there was still time to slip in When I was a Boy from Alone in the Universe (2015), All Over the World from the soundtrack album, Xanadu (1980), and even a Travelling Wilbury’s cover (Handle with Care). Personally, I could have foregone these in order to hear something from Eldorado (1973) Time (1981) and perhaps even Secret Messages (1983), but when you’ve got a back catalogue as rich as Jeff’s you’re always going to leave someone disappointed.
Crucially, though, what definitely wasn’t disappointing was the quality of the show. You might have thought that at 70 years of age Jeff Lynne would be struggling to maintain a voice that could still hit the high notes for which the band were famous – but not a bit of it. His voice was as clear and sharp, even on the falsetto sections of Don’t Bring Me Down (Discovery,1979) as it was on the original recordings. And, whilst Milton McDonald performed most of the lead guitarist duties, when Jeff got his hands on his trusty Les Paul he proved he could still turn out guitar licks with the best of them, even on the pacier numbers. Special mention must also go to musical director Mike Stevens, whose superb twelve-person ensemble didn’t miss a note or a beat all evening. The production standards were outstanding throughout: if you closed your eyes you could have been listening to the albums at times, such was the smoothness. It was great to sit in a gig where the guy on the mixing desk actually focused on creating a cohesive sound rather than just a wall of noise.
Eventually, of course, all good things must come to an end and, in true rock ‘n’ roll style, Jeff saved the best till last. Inevitably, it was the instantly-recognisable Mr Blue Sky that brought the arena to its feet and demanding more. And we were not to be disappointed: after popping off-stage (no doubt for a quick fortifying mug of Horlicks), the band returned to finish off in the only way they could: with a rocking rendition of their famous 1972-cover version of Roll Over Beethoven from ELO 2.
I would have loved to have heard The Diary of Horace Wimp, Can’t Get in Out of My Head, and Hold on Tight, which seemed to be the most obvious omissions. But, as the old adage goes “Always leave the audience wanting more.” And, like the great performer that he is, Jeff Lynne certainly did that
Is it too much to hope that Birmingham’s finest might find time to come back one more time to play some of the rest of his repertoire? Let’s hope not