Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids Michigan, July 23, 2019.
Parsing this band’s name closely pays off. This isn’t an Electric Light Orchestra reunion by any means; rather, it’s reclusive ELO main man Jeff Lynne, touring North America with the music that made his bones for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Armed with fistfuls of Top 20 hits and key album tracks, Live Nation’s deep pockets, a dozen top-notch hired guns — including progressive rock role players Milton McDonald (Anderson Bruford Wakeman & Howe) on guitar and Lee Pomeroy (Anderson Rabin & Wakeman, Steve Hackett, It Bites, Headspace) on bass — and visual production rivaling Pink Floyd, Lynne delivered the goods to a pumped-up, near-capacity crowd Tuesday night. Sure, the show was polished and manicured (and doubtless click-tracked and auto-tuned) within inches of its life — but it was also irresistible to the ears and dazzling to the eyes, an unalloyed pleasure from start to finish.
The spectacle hit first. Five giant vertical screens pumped out pulsating patterns and colors, spinning 45 rpm labels, or the iconic ELO spaceship (hovering as a between-tunes screensaver) Computer-controlled lighting flashed, strobed, pivoted and changed color on a dime; side screens spotlit key performers in the moment (focusing on band members as much as or more than on Lynne). And, just at the point of maximum overload — lasers!
Really, the only thing missing was a giant mirror ball. (The crowd’s cell phones doubled nicely as lighters for the slow tunes.)
But, even more remarkable, the music stood up to the visual blitzkrieg. I got tired of ELO in their pomp; hearing “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” incessantly across the radio dial back in high school will do that. To Lynne’s credit, though, he knows his catalog’s worth; two-thirds of the setlist stemmed from his biggest era — from Face the Music’s “Evil Woman” through Xanadu’s “All Over the World”, with generous helpings of A New World Record, Out of the Blue and Discovery. And from the gorgeous balladry of “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” and “Telephone Line”, through the tongue-in-cheek classicism of “Livin’ Thing” and “Rockaria!” and the Beatlesque pop-rock of “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Mr. Blue Sky”, to the fluffy disco stylings of “Shine A Little Love” and “Last Train to London”, it all sounded marvelous. Deeper, proggy tracks like “Showdown” and “10538 Overture” just functioned as irresistible icing on the cake.
And really, it was hard to miss alumni Bev Bevan, Kelly Groucutt or even Richard Tandy with a killer band like this. Lynne, McDonald, Pomeroy, musical director Mike Stevens and drummer Donavan Hepburn were a rock-solid rhythm section; Marcus Byrne generously supplied the signature moments on piano and vocoder. String players Jessie Murphy, Amy Langley and Jess Cox brought grit and grace to the orchestral lines, supplemented by Jo Webb and Steve Turner on keys. Ian Hornal spelled Lynne on some higher lead vocals, even channeling Roy Orbison for a duet with opening act Dhani Harrison on the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care”; he and Melanie Lewis McDonald chipped in plenty of hooky cowbell parts and handclaps along with backing vocals. With six singers on stage, moments like the a cappella section of “Wild West Hero” became breathtakingly lush highlights of the night.
And Jeff Lynne? Well, laid-back is his unmistakable trademark. Often seeming bemused by the audio-visual thunder, his low-key lead vocals and languid acoustic strumming were consistent throughout the evening, calmly but firmly stamping the music as his own. Which made the night’s encore, when he unleashed his inner Chuck Berry on both voice and guitar for the extended rave up on “Roll Over Beethoven”, even more thrilling — the sturdy rock foundation on which all this pure pop was built.
— Rick Krueger