Music has a powerful and transformative effect on the imagination of the listener. When I think of the mind, music and voice of Jeff Lynne, the driving creative force of decades of brilliant music in Electric Light Orchestra, I imagine a super villain scenario on par with The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I imagine a young Jeff Lynne—to paraphrase the portrayal of the villainous clown made famous by the late Heath Ledger—speaking to himself in the beginning of his career, “This world needs a different class of pop musician. And I’m going to give it to them.” Yes, wade hip deep in here intrepid music enthusiasts and you may find yourself feeling as woefully inexperienced as an aspiring pianist would be once they discovered the works of Art Tatum. The expanse is vast and awe inspiring, seemingly without limitation and lacking any end point in quality or fidelity. It’s a musical universe rendered on par with the cosmos/sci-fi illustrations that have always littered and adorned Electric Light Orchestra’s artwork.
Here we find ourselves again at L.A. institution The Hollywood Bowl. Much like one month back when we saw Rodrigo y Gabriela here, tonight’s headliner would be joined by the famous Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and conductor Thomas Wilkins following a brief set of purely orchestral numbers. Accompanied by his twelve-member band, Jeff Lynne took center stage sporting his trademark-polarized glasses. The band opened on the supremely epic “Tightrope” (from 1976 album A New World Record) featuring frantic string section accompaniment. It’s evident right at the onset that the classical-inspired works of ELO are primed to take full advantage of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s lush instrumentation. Seminal career hit “Evil Woman” (off 1975 breakthrough Face the Music) is performed immediately after, showing Lynne’s expert use of artful guitar chord variations and his soothing upper register. Lynne heads even further back into ELO’s catalog from there, opting for 1973 cut “Showdown,” a smoothed out stroll of a number that again is wonderfully executed by the skilled performers of the HBO.
Next, rare track “All Over the World” delivered a more straightforward, upbeat pop confection, famously written for the 1980 film Xanadu. This one is all singalong choruses and serene falsettos floating up above delicate stabs from the string section. Most folks likely won’t know that having bought out former ELO member Bev Bevan’s stake in the band’s name year’s ago, Lynne released a new album Alone in the Universe under the moniker Jeff Lynne’s ELO in 2015. On this night he played two songs from that album “Love and Rain” and “When I Was a Boy,” thankfully both nestled comfortably in the same mold as his other outstanding material. On the former Lynne was joined by his daughter Laura on backing vocals. Later, ELO violinist Rosie Langley came to center stage alongside Lynne for A New World Record track “Livin’ Thing.” The set already had felt polished and uplifting in nearly indescribable ways, but here along with Langley’s outstanding bow work this song formulated as pure sonic majesty.
Not impressed enough? Lynne upped the ante with “Rockaria,” somehow impossibly combining a blues-rock number with crack opera vocals from group member Melanie Lewis McDonald. Then, the synergy of rock and classical was pushed even further, adding in first album, 1972 track “10538 Overture” featuring a lush use of acoustic guitars and strings. Lynne let things simmer down beautifully from there on Eldorado cut “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” before taking the final portion of the set to really pull out the big guns.
Yes, the final six songs truly set the controls for the heart of the sun, each somehow managing to outdo the last in pristine musical arrangement. The first of which “Wild West Hero” plays like Lynne’s version of a cowboy song. It’s latter half features a seven-part harmony where the music drops out and a lyric that has the crowd cheering, “Ride the range all the day till the first fading light / be with my western girl ‘round the fire, oh, so bright / I’d be the Indians friend, let them live to be free / ridin’ into the sunset, I wish I could be.” This is complemented by the lovelorn charm of the longing number “Telephone Line” off A New World Record. The crowd already enraptured rise to their feet in glee as the opening keyboards of “Turn to Stone” (off landmark album Out of the Blue) are played. Much of the subtle genius Lynne exhibits is evident in this number: lush pop hooks, driving rocking rhythms and elaborate symphonic flourishes. The poppy “Sweet Talking Woman” furthers the excellence culled from the Out of the Blue album and allows longtime ELO pianist Richard Tandy to sing its call-and-response refrains through vocoder effect.
Lifelong Electric Light Orchestra fans will be unsurprised by what followed. The sold-out Hollywood Bowl crowd cheered as the opening, driving melody of “Don’t Bring Me Down” began. Casual music fans not well versed in ELO are saying to themselves right now, “Wait, they did that song too?” Yes, Jeff Lynne’s work is so pervasive that he’s done numerous brilliant tracks you didn’t even know were his. Hearing this number along with 18,000 some-odd fans is kind of like being transported back into the ‘70s. One imagines a vintage diner with carloads of people pulling up, someone, somewhere blasting the tune from an in-car quadraphonic stereo system. And it all ends from there exactly as it should. Out of the Blue mega hit “Mr. Blue Sky” is a playful ode to finding happiness in spite of dreary weather (or circumstances), concluding the set proper in joyful reverie.
There’s only one encore performed. Regular noise curfew restrictions in effect, the band returns to bang out their unique take on Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” while fireworks light up the sky above the venue.
Music history is littered with flashy personas. Iconoclastic geniuses become the stuff of almost mythic legend. People live inside the fantasy of the looks, styles, methods and epochal moments that music’s greats created decades back. Sometimes, that degree of admiration is deserved. Sometimes though, those held in that acclaim are truly being propped up almost undeservedly. It’s no wonder then that a talent like Jeff Lynne quietly amassed a body of work that’s on par with Pink Floyd’s in terms of brilliant-level work, all without being heralded as one of music’s undeniable living legends. There are musician’s musicians and then there are talents like Lynne. His careful nuance and artful confections are a paragon of high-level craftsmanship. If you’re looking to write a timeless song that will become etched in the framework of the public’s consciousness forever, here is your master tutor, Jeff Lynne.
All Over the World
Love and Rain
When I Was a Boy
Can’t Get It Out of My Head
Shine a Little Love
Wild West Hero
Turn to Stone
Sweet Talkin’ Woman
Don’t Bring Me Down
Mr. Blue Sky
Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry cover)