You've got to give it to Jeff Lynne. Rather than fading away after his greatest commercial success in the 1970s—that being the Electric Light Orchestra—he had the wherewithal to play in a band with the likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison (the Traveling Wilburys) and go on to produce Joe Cocker, Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor and fellow Wilbury Tom Petty, among many others. And then, in recent years, he had the cojones to reclaim his early fame and give himself top billing. That band, Jeff Lynne's ELO, hit Radio City Music Hall Friday night for the first of two performances (the second is tonight), with singing strings, glowing hits and an audience ready to receive.
Give Lynne credit, too, for hiring a proper string quartet to fill the opening slot for the revival of his band, which built its famous sound on the intersection of Beatles-inspired rock music & amplified violins and cellos. The New York ensemble Attacca appeared promptly at 8, and shouts of "we love you, Jeff Lynne" and "louder" suggested either that some audience members didn't know there was an opening act or that they had well-baked senses of humor.
But as they played, quite impeccably, the fourth movement of Haydn's String Quartet Op. 76, No. 5, the audience was for the most part respectfully quiet, and truly exploded in applause once they'd finished. Still, after some less peppy pieces by Michael Ippolito and John Adams and Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 3, the crowd was ready for the violins to be plugged in.
ELO took the stage with "Tightrope," the anthemic opening cut from the 1976 album A New World Record, suggesting to the adoring audience that they weren't just going to be trotting out the hits. Despite having a stockpile of singles, Lynne knew he was playing to devotees and delivered as such. "Evil Woman," the second song of the night, reassured the others that the hits would be heard. Strobe lights, lasers, smoke machines and projected images of stars and planets and their jukebox-styled spaceship—and of animated chains, a woman's eye and a sort of neon soccer ball—reminded everyone that we were there to update and celebrate the golden days of rock show spectacle.
There are really only two standards by which we judge our aging pop stars —at least the ones touring on past successes —and with the huge circular screen behind the band occupied with animation rather than stage shots, any chance of evaluating how wrinkled Lynne and keyboardist Richard Tandy (the only other original member in the band) was eliminated. The only measure left was how well they hit the high notes, which Lynne and Tandy (who handled the modified robot vocals) managed a respectable amount of the time. The dozen singers and players hired to fill the stage sounded convincingly great. They didn't sport the white satin and neon-lit instruments of the classic band, but they sounded the part perfectly well.
As they entered the final stretch, they knocked out a succession of classic songs with McCartney-esque harmonies, with the quintuple-punch of "Telephone Line," "Turn to Stone," "Sweet Talkin' Woman," "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Mr. Blue Sky" leaving the audience on its feet, smiling and weary. They encored much like the Attacca quartet ended its set, with Ludwig van—except in this case, amped-up strings played the famed opening lines of the Fifth Symphony, leading into an extended jam on Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven."
Whether or not they're a retro act, they delivered as promised, and their sunny harmonies can brighten any decade—at least until someone comes up with something to replace the saccharine transcendence of a violin and a vocoder.