There was one thing and one thing only which disappointed me about this concert: the absence of keyboardist Richard Tandy from the line-up. The only other member of the classic band (besides leader Jeff Lynne) still involved, he has been suffering health issues recently and so has sat out the 2018 tour dates. Perhaps at his own request, no mention of this was made during the show, not even when Lynne introduced the audience to his ‘right-hand man’, guitarist, vocalist and musical director Mike Stevens, who then introduced the rest of this expansive line-up.
That aside, this show was as good as you’re going to get. A collection of hit songs, plus a few deeper cuts and surprises, all performed live by an ensemble cast of 13 people, fronted by one of British popular music’s most successful, most enduring and most gifted performers. One who, until fairly recently, eschewed the whole idea of going out on the road. Now, with Stevens alongside him and a carefully-selected band complete with a string section and three keyboardists, there seems to be no stopping the man.
This time around, the band opened their set with ‘Standing In The Rain’, a cut from 1977’s mega-selling ‘Out Of The Blue’ album. Having a closer spot this time than I had two years ago, I focused less on the visuals and more on the actual playing. Lynne, or more correctly Stevens, has selected a remarkable group of players to bring this painstakingly-orchestrated material to life. They all played magnificently, and Lynne himself sounded in good voice overall, though his advanced years did betray him in one or two places. He has little to say to the audience, other than a simple “We love it here in Liverpool, thanks for having us” there was not much else from the man who wrote and produced all this music, which still holds up well four decades on. Yet the atmosphere did not suffer for it, the songs were strong enough to stand up for themselves. Hit followed hit, from ‘Evil Woman’ to ‘Showdown’, through disco-flavoured numbers like ‘Last Train To London’ and ‘Shine A Little Love’ to harder rockers like ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ or ‘Do Ya’, all of it had this crowd in raptures.
One of my favourite moments was the performance of ‘10538 Overture’, a number we didn’t get last time. But there was so much to savour from this concert, they played 19 songs in a set which approached two hours, with little fanfare as they launched into classic song after classic song. Lynne even reached back to his Traveling Wilburys days to play ‘Handle With Care’; with supplementary vocal from Iain Hornal. When the ensemble eventually launched into biggest hit ‘Mr Blue Sky’ the place just erupted, almost as though the arena was about to lift off like the spaceship seen on ELO album covers. Following that, the whole band took their customary picture with the audience as backdrop before exiting, only to return for regular encore ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. The Chuck Berry song gave Lynne and guitarist Milton McDonald ample opportunity to trade guitar licks and send this capacity crowd home happy.
One of the shows of the year for me without a doubt; he may have had to wait until technology caught up with his vision, but now he has that as well as enough people on the stage to recreate his music live, Jeff Lynne finally seems as happy on the road as he has done in the studio.
Support act was Northampton singer-songwriter Billy Lockett; his set of soul-tinged pop numbers was going over well and then he dropped the mother of all clangers: he plugged an upcoming date of his own in… Manchester! The reaction he got answered his own question (“was that bad?”) as he recovered from that moment (“well, that didn’t go as well as hoped!”) to carry on with his set. He was backed by a drummer and a guitarist who occasionally switched to bass, while he himself sang and played keyboards. The trio were actually a really good live act, not my cup of tea in truth but despite the faux-pas, he won enough over to ensure his show at the Deaf Institute will be well-attended next year.