Strange Magic – Jeff Lynne’s ELO in Concert

by John M. Borack

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“I love their ‘Mr. Blue Sky’

Almost my favorite is ‘Turn to Stone’

And how ’bout ‘Telephone Line’?

I love that E.L.O.”

– Randy Newman, “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band”

 

Some artists and their music are able to leave an indelible mark on your psyche, particularly if you’ve been a fan for many years. For me, the Beatles are at the top of that list, followed by the Ramones. Not far behind is the Electric Light Orchestra; I vividly recall purchasing the “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” single as a 12-year-old and quickly becoming enraptured with the gorgeous melody, the somewhat mysterious lyrics and the sumptuous strings, with Jeff Lynne’s perfectly understated lead vocals out in front.

As the years went by, I would discover that Lynne and the band had many more musical tricks up their collective sleeve, as their lush, meticulously crafted – and damned catchy – tunes were all over both top 40 and AOR radio. 1976’s A New World Record became my ELO drug of choice, but I also loved their orchestrated workouts – their “Chuck Berry Leads the Symphony into Jeff’s Studio” reworking of “Roll Over Beethoven” is the stuff of legend – as well as their later, more calculated, radio-ready ditties such as “Hold On Tight” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll is King.”

Fast-forward a few years – okay, more than a few – and my teenage daughter Kayla had also become an ELO fan, thanks in large part to hearing many of their hits performed by some talented local high school students at the Huntington Beach, CA Academy of Performing Arts. A good friend of mine, teacher/musician/big time ELO freak Michael Simmons (who’s led indie power pop bands such as sparkle*jets UK and the Yorktown Lads), led the charge in teaching the kids the intricate vocal and instrumental parts to most of ELO’s best known songs, and after we saw their show, Kayla became quite enamored of the music at approximately the same age I did.

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Even though I adored the records (as well as most of Jeff Lynne’s productions), one thing I never had the opportunity to do over the years was see ELO in concert. So when I found out at the eleventh hour that there was to be a one-off performance by Jeff Lynne’s ELO at the 1,200-seat Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles this week (in support of the new Alone in the Universe record), I knew I had to find a way to be there. I also knew Kayla had to be there with me.

Fortunately, a friend of mine alerted me to a presale that was happening the day before tickets were to be released to the general public. Even more fortunately, less than one minute before said presale, she sent me a Facebook message with the link to the presale, along with the necessary password and instructions to “Go there NOW.” Unfortunately, I was in a restaurant having dinner and the only way I had to access the ticket website was my cell phone, which is always a dicey proposition at best in these cases. Fortunately (which now has a 3-1 lead over “unfortunately” if you’re keeping score), I was somehow able to access the website in nothing flat and secure two tickets for one of the first ELO shows in nearly 15 years. (I later found out how extremely fortunate I was, as the word on the street was that tickets were selling for upwards of $1,000 each on the secondary market.)

As the house DJ at the Fonda spun some cool tunes (Sweet’s “Fox on the Run,” Paul McCartney’s “Jet” and Cheap Trick’s version of the Move’s “California Man” among them), Kayla and I waited in anticipation for the show to begin at our spot approximately 25 feet from the stage. Jeff Lynne and his 12-piece band – which included ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy, two cellists, and a violinist – hit the stage and launched into a spirited version of “All Over the World,” from the Xanadu soundtrack. As the capacity crowd went absolutely bonkers, the tone of the evening was set when Lynne sang “There’s gonna be a party all over the world.” And indeed there was inside the Fonda: for the next 90 minutes, the adoring throng cheered, clapped, swayed and sang along as Lynne and the band made their way through a hit-packed set that also included a nice surprise (a beautiful reading of the fan favorite from the Out of the Blue record, “Steppin Out,” about which Lynne remarked, “We do this one better now”), and a handful of songs from the excellent Alone in the Universe (the sweetly nostalgic “When I Was a Boy” and the sprightly, Tom Petty-like “Ain’t It a Drag” being the highlights).

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Lynne was in fine voice throughout, and despite a couple of minor flubs and fudges, the set was pretty damned transcendent. The arrangements didn’t vary much from the recorded versions of the tunes, and the band put them across with just the right amount of energy and passion, while also managing to include every aural detail and nuance that helped make these tunes the soundtrack to so many folks’ lives. Lynne seemed humbled by the audience reaction, and at the completion of nearly every song gave the crowd two awkwardly adorable thumbs up as they cheered wildly – Lynne’s version of the Ringo Starr signature dual peace signs, perhaps? Speaking of Ringo, he and his wife Barbara Bach were in attendance, along with other luminaries such as Olivia Harrison, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Peter Asher, and Eric Idle. Seeing Ringo Starr in the flesh was enough to cause my Beatle nut daughter to get extremely excited and say, “I’m freaking out a little bit.” (Don’t tell her, but her dad was, too.)

From time to time, I’d look over at Kayla and notice her singing along and dancing to her favorite tunes (such as “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Turn to Stone” and “Mr. Blue Sky”) with a big smile on her face. Other times I’d glance at my friend Michael Simmons as he gazed at his musical idol Jeff Lynne with a mixture of awe and unbridled glee. As for myself, certain songs transport me in a way I can’t adequately describe, and some that were played on this night, such as the strangely magical “Can’t Get it Out of My Head,” hold deep and special meanings for me. When Lynne and the band launched into it, I shed a few tears then closed my eyes and let its beauty wash over me, just like I have since I first heard it age 12.

So yes, quite the amazing experience, and one I hope to repeat if Lynne follows through on his recent promise of more shows in Spring 2016. Should you have the opportunity to catch Jeff Lynne’s ELO live, don’t miss it. Aside from the glorious, life-affirming, insert-your-own-superlative-here music, here are three special moments from the evening that I’ll carry with me for a while:

Michael Simmons, in a text to me after the show: “That was awesome. I was glad to share that with you.”

Kayla, after we arrived home: “Thank you so much for taking me, daddy.”

Michael Simmons to Jeff Lynne, as Lynne was leaving the stage after a rousing encore of “Roll Over Beethoven”: “Thank you.”

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Set list:

“All Over the World”

“Evil Woman”

“Showdown”

“Turn to Stone”

“When I Was a Boy”

“Livin’ Thing”

“One Step at a Time”

“Strange Magic”

“Don’t Bring Me Down”

“Steppin’ Out”

“Sweet Talkin’ Woman”

“Can’t Get It Out of My Head”

“When the Night Comes”

“Ain’t It a Drag”

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King”

“Telephone Line”

“Mr. Blue Sky”

“Roll Over Beethoven”

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