Jeff Lynne’s ELO might require a contractually compromised moniker these days and aside from the frontman himself, might not contain a single member of the 1970s supergroup, but they play his music with a precision and authenticity that is nothing short of amazing. As a songwriter, arranger, producer and performer, Jeff Lynne has a musical CV to rival just about anyone else on earth. Given these multiple talents and the adoration he has received for many, many years, you might expect him to be a little brash, a little arrogant. You couldn’t be more wrong. “If it wasn’t my band, I couldn’t be in it” says Lynne in typically modest, effusive terms when describing the talent surrounding him on the stage of London’s O2 Arena tonight. His obvious unease with public speaking results in Lynne only introducing his musical director, Mike Stevens, who was then tasked with announcing everyone else. “Let’s not forget why we’re here” says Stevens when he gets back to the main man. The volume levels under the big top make it clear that we know.
Out Of The Blue was the first record I ever bought and it heralded a love affair with Lynne’s music that endures to the present day. I’m too young to have seen ELO at the height of their powers and never thought I’d get to see the music performed properly (i.e. with Jeff at the helm), so when Lynne came out of live retirement in 2014 it was truly a dream come true. He did it by leaning very heavily on an existing band that was already well used to performing behind an established brand – for ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ is actually ‘Gary Barlow’s Take That’. The result of this though is a level of polish that would shame a squaddie’s best efforts on his footwear. In fact, if I can level a single criticism at Jeff Lynne’s ELO it is that the experience is possibly too good, too controlled. I’ve seen the band four times now and every time has been a joy, but now I’m ready for it to be mixed up just a little bit.
Evidence of this is that tonight’s show is essentially the same one I reported on for RockShot last year. That was Wembley Stadium; the stage was bigger, the production was bigger, the setlist was longer – but all of tonight’s music was hewn from it and played in practically the same order. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of every bit of it, but when you’ve got a back catalogue which is the size and quality of Lynne’s, it would be amazing to hear some more of it. I’m getting spoiled. Five years ago, I didn’t think I’d be hearing any of it.
The show opened with Standin’ In the Rain, the first track in the Concerto For A Rainy Day opus that graced 1977’s Out Of The Blue. It might be considered an odd choice, for its undoubtedly lesser known than some of its contemporaries, but it was a great way to get the strings fired up and there’s a nice building intro before Lynne utters his first word.
What soon followed was wave after wave of classic ELO, the vast majority carved from those magnificent 1970’s. Evil Woman was next, a song I’ll never tire of and one from the 1975 album Face The Music. Along with Showdown (which was also played tonight), it has a sound ahead of its ELO timeline, sounding much more like a late ‘70s tune from the Out Of The Blue era.
There were a few deviations from the trusted formula. All Over The World from the 1980 Xanadu soundtrack received an airing as did When I was A Boy, a song from the 2015 (Jeff Lynne’s) ELO comeback album Alone In The Universe. It sounds so much like the material from the classic years that time could have stood still. There was also a song from “my other band” as Lynne put it. Handle With Care by The Travelling Wilburys echoed around the O2 accompanied by video of George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. It was heady, emotional stuff. Well, it was between my ears at least. Lynne sang all the parts apart from Roy Orbison’s in the chorus. For this, backing vocalist Iain Hornal stepped up to the plate. Last time I saw Hornal perform live, he was playing bass and singing with Yes Featuring Anderson Rabin Wakeman in the summer, and he also fronts his own band. It must be great to be talented. Hornal also made an appearance during the 1976 rock aria Rockaria! where he shared every alternate line with Lynne. As somebody who has shredded his own vocal chords over it multiple times over, I can confirm it’s quite an ask. It was just about the only concession Jeff made to his seventy years in the whole two-hour performance.
And so, the set list continued to unfurl bangers from yesteryear. The 1979 dalliance with disco on the Discovery album was represented by Last Train To London and Shine A Little Love. This latter song is very much of its time and may by just about the campest piece of music ever committed to tape, but the amazing laser show that accompanied it was all twenty-first century. These two tunes bookended the 10538 Overture, an early song that really show off the heavy strings delivered by sisters Rosie and Amy Langley (violin and cello) and cellist Jess Cox. No disrespect to Mik Kaminsky, Melvyn Gale and Hugh McDowell, but the string section in this band are somewhat more glamorous than the original 1970s version, great as they were. I guess the current line-up have the benefit of not being in danger of tripping over their own bell-bottomed trousers.
The close of the show was pure big hitters: Wild West Hero, Sweet Talkin’ Woman, Telephone Line, Don’t Bring Me Down, Turn To Stone and (of course) Mr Blue Sky. The volume of the crowd participation was something else and as in previous encounters with this Mark 2 of the ‘real’ ELO brand, Lynne himself seemed somewhat overcome by it. He really does seem genuinely amazed that so many people want to celebrate what he has achieved and his lack of ego is incredibly refreshing. I for one will wish to celebrate it for as long as he wants to do it, and here’s hoping that that will continue for a few more years yet.
Jeff Lynne’s ELO at the O2 Arena, London. Photography and review by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website here: www.musicalpictures.co.uk.