Friday, 15 April 2016

Jeff Lynne's ELO - Sublime Symphonic Comeback for Mr. Blue Sky - Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle, 14.04.16

"Good evening Newcastle,” a man dressed in a blue jacket and silver aviator shades announces, a grin across his bearded face threatening to split it in to. “Thanks for coming out, it’s all really wonderful.” Under a mop of shaggy brown hair, Jeff Lynne appears to have stepped out of his time travelling spaceship, fresh from 1977, such is his striking resemblance to his younger self. On closer inspection, his face is more lined and careworn, but that is the only discernible change of almost forty years. It’s almost as if he is in possession of an Elixir of Life or the Holy Grail.

Lynne most definitely does hold the latter, or at least its equivalent in songwriting terms. His band Electric Light Orchestra dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the seventies, thanks to his extraordinary knack for a tune. Combining baroque pop, prog-rock, disco and classical influences, they were a sprawling, multi-faceted outfit whose Beatlesque stylings and Brian Wilson harmonies were dismissed as chart fodder by sneering critics. Their extravagant live performances, at their peak, featuring a hydraulic spaceship prop that was as temperamental as it was overblown, only served to reinforce their reputation as an unnecessary extravagance.
Jeff Lynne's ELO performing live in
Newcastle in 2016. (Courtesy of Newcastle Chronicle.)
But the songcraft of their affable Brummie mainman is, and remains, extraordinary, and in 2014, Lynne resurrected the outfit – under the name Jeff Lynne’s ELO for legal reasons -  to critical and commercial acclaim. Their first reunion date, at London’s Hyde Park, sold out in ninety minutes. Their new album Alone in the Universe was certified Platinum within ten weeks of release. This UK arena tour – that will culminate with a hotly anticipated show in the Legends Slot at Glastonbury Festival – outpaced similar ticket demand for Rihanna and Bruce Springsteen. For the notoriously stage-shy Lynne, it’s a miraculous comeback and he seems genuinely touched by it all.

Unearthly lashings of whirring synthesiser echo around the sold-out Metro Radio Arena, heralding the symphonic bombast of opener Tightrope, as ELO take to the stage under a bank of lasers. Joined by longtime pianist Richard Tandy as the lone surviving member of their heyday, Lynne’s group is a well-drilled unit, with backing singers and a trio of string players in addition to the rhythm section. Together, they create a Spector-brushed Wall of Sound, all lush melodies and orchestral flourishes that add a sparkling grandeur to proceedings. Renditions are note-perfect; they roll out the dancefloor-rock of All Over the World with warm panache, inject a fluid funk undertone to Shine a Little Love and underpin the surging Secret Messages with a frantic electronica rumble.
Jeff Lynne's ELO performing live in Newcastle
in 2016. (Courtesy of Carl Chambers.)
But Lynne is the master of ceremonies, exuding a warm charm with his every gesture. When he doesn’t make it to the microphone for the first line of Evil Woman, he grins endearingly at his faux-pas. Perhaps due to a life lived away from the stage, Lynne’s voice is remarkably well-preserved – when he hammers out Rockaria!’s awesome boogie-down exclamations, and deploys his falsetto over the sublime Livin’ Thing, the venue erupts in deliriously happy dancing. Spine-tingling renditions of Can’t Get It Out of My Head and Steppin’ Out are brushed with a soft, luxurious feel that caresses the senses, and the folk-twinkle of Wild West Hero is a yearning highlight. When he gives a tour debut to 10538 Overture, there is no doubt that Lynne knows how to craft a live show as it rides another crest of euphoria.

That crest gets larger and larger as ELO storm through a closing half-hour, delivering hit after hit after hit. Telephone Line leads into Turn to Stone; Don’t Bring Me Down gives way for Sweet Talkin’ Woman. They unsurprisingly close out with the gorgeous, sunshine-kissed Mr. Blue Sky, possibly the most buoyant slice of pop-rock ever committed to record. They depart with a single song encore – their intricately reworked version of Roll Over Beethoven, featuring some nifty fretwork – but not before Lynne gets everyone to take part in a “Geordie selfie” for the scrapbook. It’s a rare show that features no missteps or flaws; but based on the evidence, Glastonbury is going to be in for a hell of a time when Jeff Lynne rolls up on Sunday afternoon.

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