The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hermetically Sealed: Jeff Lynne’s ELO and Dawes at the Wells Fargo Center
In a perfect world…. well, that’s it, isn’t it? A perfect world when it comes to tightly-strung, genius Anglo pop maestro Jeff Lynne and his airless-yet-wildly accessible ELO – itself, a differentiation in name and roll call from what 70s fans knows as Electric Light Orchestra, and the intentions of co-founders Roy Wood (who left after the first album in 1972) and Bev Bevan (who left, rejoined, left, then formed Electric Light Orchestra Part II).
When you entered Wells Fargo Center on Friday for Lynne’s ELO with opening act Dawes, you stepped into a world (literally, as dark universes, epic myth, spinning planets, and spiraling-out-of-control earth drama made metaphorically intimate are crucial to their live landscape) apart from the tonic usual, especially any sound relatable to the present. For Lynne’s songs – despite their lonely boy lost sci-fi-lite touch and future-forward sleekness – is singularly, melodically, rooted in the past: Lennon and McCartney, Mercury and May, Shostakovich and Beethoven, Chuck Berry and George Harrison and Barry Gibb. ELO may have released albums such as ZOOM and Alone in the Universe in the 21st Century, but the glory and grandeur of Friday night’s long-sold-out show was a love affair with the 70s and 80s, his and his audience’s.
Combine this smash hit soundtrack’s dip into blue, dark skies, cool stormy rain and rootless space with the facelessness that has borne Lynne out since Electric Light Orchestra’s start (the ever-present sunglasses, the reliance on staged spaceship imagery, the lurch into studio wizardry and production), and the whole heavenly lit and impeccably sounding event was a bit of a mysterioso, an hermetically sealed peek meeting with the Wizard.
Lynne held the stage with his 13-piece orchestra, complete with background singers and a vocalist, Iain Hornal, who not only shared in co-leads with ELO’s captain, but did a handsome take on Roy Orbison’s lilting high voice during the surprise Travelling Wilburys’ song, “Handle With Care.”
Mellifluous multi-part harmonies from Lynne and his chorus of male and female singers had the signature, airless precision of its decade-first-gleaming: the 70s of Queen, 10CC and the Bee Gess. You could bounce a quarter off the wall of voices that made the haunting opening number “Standin’ in the Rain” purr, or the bouncy, ebullient “Evil Woman” and the stop-and-start “All Over the World,” that followed.
Precision figured, too, into the measure of each track. There was not an ounce of fat on any of Lynne’s songs – not in their composition and arrangement (despite strings and improbably popular-but-odd moments such as the weird “Bruce” bridge in the glam, rocking “Don’t Bring Me Down”). In that regard, despite the racing opulence of “10538 Overture,” or the richly comported sadness of “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” each song was diamond-cut sharp and sniper target worthy. Though I did not time each track, I’ll bet a buck each tune didn’t last longer than its original album rendition – which, in-and-of-itself created an even greater bond of familiarity between Lynne and his audience of old. Crisp tart rockers such as “Do Ya,” and swirlers like the gypsy violin-led “Livin’ Thing” could not have lasted longer than four minutes each, then out. As it should be.
I had forgotten two things about Lynne (and yes I have witnessed the miracle of Electric Light Orchestra live: at the Tower doing its Eldorado period, and with the live hovering spacecraft for it Out of the Blue tour at the Spectrum). One is that his sullen voice is still an exquisite sad boy centerpiece to the multi-harmony maelstrom around him. Sans a drop of echo or reverb on the pulsing “Can’t Get it Out of My Head,” Lynne’s melancholy was palpable to the point of dejection.
The second thing was that for all his trebly, Beatles-y highs, chirps and improbable three-hooks-at a-time pop, there is Lynne’s love of disco and danceable, four-on-the-floor rhythm. With that, the tom-tom heavy “Showdown,” the mirror ball-glittering “Shine a Little Love,” and even the aforementioned “All Over the World,” grooved and beguiled in a Rodney’s English Disco fashion that will always bring white people to any dancefloor.
The pre-encore ELO concluded with “Mr. Blue Sky,” a bibbity-bopping ELO clanger (yes, complete with bell clanging middle) familiar to fans of Volkswagen commercials and Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Closing with this scrubbed clean latter-day hit (as opposed to the “Roll Over Beethoven” encore) showed that Lynne had an eye on the younger members of the audience who only know his sound from present day product placement. Maybe the guy who hadn’t toured a minute has plans going forward. For better or worse, most of his best moments remain happily and sumptuously in the past.
Dawes and its moody SoCal-coated brand of big, brothely-made rock opened for ELO, a weird broadly American choice to team with Lynne’s epically English sound. How much Technicolor, Sensurround stuff could one audience handle? A bunch, apparently, as a large part of the sold-out crowd was present and cheering for Dawes’ eight-song set. Bros Taylor (strummy guitars and manly doe-eyed vocals) and Griffin Goldsmith (malleted drums) usually intimate strains of alterna-folk lost something romantic in its wide stage translation. A stirring song such as “Feed the Fire” was just plebian, pedestrian and boring. Yet their tiny love songs and granular, homespun character studies such as “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” the galloping “When My Time Comes,” and the warmly humorous, “All Your Favorite Bands,” benefitted greatly from its arena atmosphere and propelled their best moments into something rousingly anthemic.