For some reason, I’ve not delved into the Moody Blues during my relatively recent absorption of classic progressive rock. Over the past 5-10 years, I’ve come to know the music of Rush, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Kansas, Styx, ELP, Pink Floyd, and many newer bands quite well, but I haven’t ventured much past “Nights in White Satin” in the Moody Blues catalog.
I’ve long believed that seeing a band live is a great way to become acquainted with their music. Seeing Kansas live many years ago was a great introduction to their music for me, and the same proved true for the music of Styx when I saw Dennis DeYoung live for the first time. Thus, when I saw that the Moody Blues were going to play at Ravinia in Highland Park, IL, this summer, I jumped at the chance. In the meantime, I prepared by listening to Days of Future Passed, as well as many of the band’s hits.
I’m pleased to say that the band sounds as good today as they did fifty years ago. Currently featuring a seven member band, three original members remain: Justin Hayward (guitar and vocals), John Lodge (bass and vocals), and Graeme Edge (drums). Four new musicians round out the group: Norda Mullen (flute, guitar, backing vocals), Julie Ragins (keyboards and backing vocals), Alan Hewitt (keyboards and programming – presumably for symphonic parts), and Billy Ashbaugh (drums). I found the presence of two drum-kits odd before the show began, but once it started, I saw that Ashbaugh was taking the brunt of the drumming load. I assume age is catching up with Mr. Edge, but he still contributed adequately.
The show opened perfectly with a rousing rendition of “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band).” I honestly can’t think of a better way to start a rock concert. They did a fantastic extended version with a great guitar solo from Justin Hayward. Saxophone came courtesy of Julie Ragins, who did a great job. Very King Crimsonesque. The band’s greatest hits made up the remainder of the first half of the show. Not knowing their music as well as I should, I didn’t recognize everything, but I thoroughly enjoyed everything I heard. The aforementioned and “Isn’t Life Strange” were highlights for me.
Musically, the band was excellent. However, the sound mixing was absolutely terrible. The bass felt overpowering from the kickdrum (my parents were sitting elsewhere in the venue, and they said it felt like someone was pounding on their chests), while the bass guitar was lost in the mix. The vocals were hard to understand because they were too low in the mix, and the guitars, while clean, were often hard to make out because of their low volume. Nora Mullen’s flute was about perfect in the mix, although there were a few points where it could have been louder.
While Ravinia is an outdoor venue with a covered pavilion, that does not mean that sound quality is bad. In fact, the sound system was excellent when I saw Ian Anderson play there a few years ago. Last night’s sound issues were clearly related to whoever did the mixing. For such great music, it really was a shame. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the show, as did just about everyone in the pavilion.
After an intermission, the band played Days of Future Passed in its entirety. I was really excited to hear this because I’ve come to really enjoy the album over the past couple of months, and it clearly had a profound impact on progressive rock. It’s influence is clear even in recent times, with The Tangent’s Le Sacre Du Travail digging obvious roots in the classic 1967 album. I was hoping the band would choose to play the album with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, since Ravinia is their summer home, but sadly they didn’t for whatever reason. This seems like a missed opportunity to me, but playing the programmed symphonic parts still worked quite well.
Even though most people were probably there to hear the hits, I’m glad the band chose to play this more artful album in its entirety. It shows their creative and progressive side, and even if it goes over the heads of many people, it was still a smart move to play it. The music sounds as fresh today as I’m sure it did half a century ago. The musicianship over the course of the album was excellent, and they sounded exactly the same as they did on the album. Quite impressive.
Sadly, for the thousands of people sitting in the lawn area, it started to pour about halfway through Days of Future Passed (one of many reasons I get pavilion seats when I go to Ravinia – you never know what the weather is going to do in Chicago). Even though I was in the pavilion, I was sitting close to the edge. When the rain picked up, it seemed like I was also down by a river, and I got a bit wet when it started to rain sideways. Yes, this distracted from the music a bit, but that is half the fun of Ravinia. In late summer you get cicadas adding to the rhythm section, and in early summer you get rain. It is what it is.
Obviously, the band began wrapping things up with “Nights in White Satin.” What a treat that was! One of my favorite prog songs, it was a pleasure to hear it played live by the band who wrote it. With the band members getting older all the time, we probably won’t have that opportunity for much longer. Vocals from Hayward sounded identical to the album. If you closed your eyes, you would swear you were back in 1967.
As the music morphed into the symphonic closing of “Nights in White Satin,” the three original members left the stage while the new musicians remained. After a standing ovation, the boys trotted back out for a dual encore of “Question” and “Ride My See Saw.” The energy in the pavilion by that point was electric, with the aging crowd really getting into the music.
One of the best parts of the concert was seeing how much fun the entire band was having. They were so appreciative of the audience’s applause and cheers, and they clearly enjoyed playing this music even after all these years. Even the new members, who did an excellent job of not overwhelming the original members, were having a lot of fun. Julie Ragins, whose vocal harmonies were excellent, was grinning from ear to ear most of the show. She was having the time of her life. This music clearly transcends genres, for the new members of the band were all relatively young, and there were a fair amount of young people scattered throughout the venue enjoying the music.
Other than the sound mixing issue and the rain, the only problem during the concert was the amount of talking. Why people pay a lot of money to go to a concert and then choose to yap the whole time is beyond me. The couple behind me were talking quite loudly during one of the songs they didn’t recognize, which I found to be remarkably rude. Normally the talking is minimal at Ravinia concerts I’ve been to, but not last night. Usually I go to Ravinia to see the CSO perform, which obviously solicits a more mature and reserved crowd of people. Also, I’ve seen the conductor turn around and signal for the audience to shut up on multiple occasions. It’s funny every time. See – another reason the Moody Blues should have played with the CSO! Ha.
If you get a chance to see the Moody Blues, definitely do it. They sound as good today as they ever have. Justin Hayward’s vocals haven’t aged at all (Lodge’s have a bit, but they are still quite good). Their signature vocal harmonies are amazing, and seeing how much fun the band was having made the concert even better than it already was. I may have overlooked the Moody Blues in the past, but no longer. I’m now a fan, and I will be for life.