When Jeff Lynne’s ELO sold out three nights at the Hollywood Bowl back in 2016, there seemed to be two contingents of thought, at least in my music-nerd social media orbit: those who dismissed the band as generic prog-rock dinosaurs more suited to the county fair nostalgia circuit, and those who recognized the significance of Lynne leaving the confines of his platinum record–plastered home studio and actually taking the stage after three decades away.
Electric Light Orchestra have so many great songs, songs that even their detractors tend to know the words to — and this includes non-boomers and non–Generation Xers, too. The band’s layered harmonics, spacy effects and straight-up gorgeous melodies lend themselves perfectly to film soundtracks, and it's the kiddies, in fact, who tend to appreciate them maybe more than old-timers who lived through the period when they were considered not cool.
“Mr. Blue Sky,” for example, is on the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy, which cleverly ties the music into the story by having its protagonist, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), carry around and listen to a Sony Walkman for the entire movie. His “mixtape” has not only the ELO hit on it but also David Bowie's “Moonage Daydream” and The Runaways' “Cherry Bomb.”And it happens to be my 11-year-old's favorite Spotify playlist.
So when did so many people start to think ELO were as cheesy as, say, REO (Speedwagon, I mean)? When did this band — who possess the hooks of The Beatles, the cosmic vibes of Pink Floyd and the symphonic flair of Queen — lose that standing? Was it the roller disco cheese-fest of Xanadu? Did the flying-saucer concept, which once seemed so imposing and exciting, simply not age well when stacked alongside similarly art-directed albums from other dramatic rock bands of the era like Styx, Boston. et al.? Or did classic rock radio just overplay all of it — especially hits such as “Don't Bring Me Down” and “Turn to Stone” — to the point that they lost their ability to evoke a nostalgic tingle?
Clearly for a lot of music lovers in L.A. this weekend, none of the above is true. Jeff Lyne's ELO sold out two nights at the Forum, a venue they had not played since their last tour 37 years ago. This tour, by the way, is a 10-city excursion and I'm guessing it will sell out each date. Lynne is the only original member and he's honestly all that is needed here. His vocals sound just as they did in the ’70s, something that cannot be said of a lot of his peers — from Elton John to Robert Plant — even if he never really reached for the notes they did.
But Lynne also depended more on the orchestral elements inherent in the band's music (hence their name) and even employed a vocoder on some songs, making for an otherworldly and futuristic (for the ’70s) feel. Onstage this past weekend, he was joined by a musical director, what looked like three guitarists, a drummer, pianist, two keyboardists, backing vocalists, a violinist and two cellists. They all contributed to the rich and textured sound of the show, one of the most flawless and visually stunning arena shows I've seen in a long time. Complete with monstrous lights, lasers and the mandatory ELO spaceship hovering behind the band on video screens, the show was as grand and engrossing as a blockbuster movie — a ’70s blockbuster movie, that is.
Speaking of Electric Light Orchestra's cinematic qualities: My favorite songs are tied into two more filmic moments. “Livin’ Thing” is perfection as it closes out the credit roll in Boogie Nights, while “Strange Magic” has been used in countless love scenes, usually set in the ’70s and early ’80s. Maybe that's why I can't help but worship both tracks (I'm a retro queen). It felt a little anticlimactic to hear the former early in the set, but it was even more disappointing not to hear the latter at all. The group didn't play “Magic” at the Hollywood Bowl shows, either. And no “Xanadu” this time, which we did get two years ago at the Bowl.
The Forum did get another very special number Lynne didn't do during his last L.A. dates: a rollicking rendition of “Handle With Care” by “his other band,” as he called it, The Traveling Wilburys. Just to remind everyone how epic that lineup was, the number featured video footage of members George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison singing along. The fact that only Lynne and Dylan are still alive made for a bittersweet moment in the show, but it was also a reminder that our rock gods must be appreciated while they still have the desire to share.
In his famous sunglasses, Lynne was mostly still while he played guitar and sang, but he was having fun, giving us all a ride on the old spaceship once again. We didn't want to get off either.
All Over the World
Do Ya (The Move cover)
When I Was a Boy
Handle With Care (Traveling Wilburys cover)
Can't Get It Out of My Head
Shine a Little Love
Wild West Hero
Sweet Talkin' Woman
Don't Bring Me Down
Turn to Stone
Mr. Blue Sky
Roll Over Beethoven