Concert Review: Jeff Lynne’s ELO Revives ’70s Symph-Pop Greatness at the Forum

A brilliant catalog returns to U.S. stages and gives the strings-starved people what they want.

Jeff Lynne's ELO
James McCauley/REX/Shutterstock

“We’re not lazy. It just seems like it,” quipped Jeff Lynne, explaining to an audience at Los Angeles’ Forum Sunday night (in the second of two shows there) that it had been 37 years between trips to the venue for ELO. It seemed possible for a moment that Lynne would expound a little more on his live work ethic, or why he’s changed his mind about taking ELO’s music on the road after decades of sitting it out, embarking on the first thing that can really be considered a U.S. tour in close to four decades. But there was no further exposition coming from Lynne, a man of few public words and possibly the least effusive major rock star of all time. When it comes to chatting an audience up, he’d sooner turn to stone.

But the ELO catalog speaks for itself, even if his ongoing vested interest in it hasn’t, always. And it was a glorious thing to behold Sunday night, as sampled all too fleetingly in a 19-song set that reprised the closest thing to truly Beatle-level pop the 1970s had to offer (and this arguably includes the Wings ouevre). “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” isn’t just a signature song title, it’s a 40-year-plus affliction for a lot of fans, whose itch to hear this music played live by something other than a tribute band has gone egregiously unscratched. For all we know, Lynne is giving the people what they want because he has grandkids to put through college, but even if we still can’t see through those abiding shades, his acquiescence feels like an act of good will. You probably shouldn’t rule out long-overdue victory lap, either.

For anyone who remembers the “Out of the Blue” tour in the late ‘70s, there was no on-stage flying saucer for the ensemble to step out of, although the vintage UFO iconography was represented on occasion on rear screens. The grandiosity was pretty much left to what was happening on stage, with Lynne being joined by seven core band members, three string players and two backup singers. But you could almost mistake this for an “Out of the Blue” tour redux, with five of the songs coming from that 1977 double-album and four more from the ’76 disc that preceded it, “A New World Record.” Any illusion that you’re back in that time is furthered by the fact that the 70-year-old Lynne looks and sounds exactly like he always has (or at least since he got his ‘fro under control earlier in the mid-‘70s). The only thing to shatter the illusion is that there are no other original members on board — not even Richard Tandy, who was around for the Hollywood Bowl three-nighter two summers ago — although, granted, most audience members wouldn’t notice the difference, if maybe not for the fact that today’s string trio all look nicer in a dress than Mik Kaminski.

Only two numbers in the set post-dated 1980’s “All Over the World,” from the “Xanadu” soundtrack. (The title song of that OST was performed on opening night in Oakland last week, too, then dropped — sorry, synth-pop roller-boogie buffs, and Lisa Loeb, who lamented its absence after the show.) One was the wistful “When I Was a Boy,” the sole inclusion from the pair of 21st century albums that have found Lynne picking up the ELO name again. The other was a song “from my other band,” the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” which had Lynne handling most of the vocals that were dispersed among the supergroup on the verses, but leaving the chorus to backing vocalist Iain Hornal. Lynne, being a smart man, knows he can fill in for George Harrison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan but not for Roy Orbison. The song was a reminder that Lynne had a rich musical life in the years he abandoned the ELO brand and even making solo albums, though the real testament to that was in the pre-show PA selections, which consisted of tracks Lynne worked on as a super-producer after switching careers.

This is not a tour for anyone looking to Lynne to revive deep tracks; he didn’t wait this long to resume things not to give the (non-geek) people what they want. The only thing you’d really characterize as a vintage album track was the excellent choice of opener, “Standin’ in the Rain,” presumably chosen in part because of its nifty, orchestrated prologue part, which gives the show a shot as something that briefly feels like an overture without delving into the entirety of a “Fire on High.” It also makes for a good bookend to “Mr. Blue Sky,” which closes the main set with a similarly symphonic coda, although that one’s smash status (and endless numbers of synch licenses in the 2010s — go figure) make it a natural set-ender with or without the added bit of album-version pomp. An asterisk in the album-cut category goes to the beautiful “Wild West Hero,” which counts as a fairly obscure nice surprise of a pick here in the land that inspired it, but was actually a top 10 hit in Lynne’s native UK.

L.A. and New York fans have been a little more spoiled than some others Lynne will be visiting along this relatively brief 10-city U.S. tour. Two summers ago, ELO played three nights at the Hollywood Bowl with the in-house orchestra, followed by two nights at Radio City Music Hall. One swell addition to the set since then, besides “Handle With Care”: “Do Ya,” the outright rocker from Lynne’s original band, the Move, that got revived as an ELO hit years later. (Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, who covered the song between the Move and ELO versions, have also been reviving their version on tour; it’s a good year to be alive if you live for that riff.) The addition serves as a nice reminder of Lynne’s less remarked-upon side, as a guitar hero, something he only let seep out from around the edges in ELO. Hearing him peel off his Chuck Berry licks in the traditional closer, “Roll Over Beethoven,” was a joyful reminder of the harder-rock path not taken, and something that made for a heck of an accent as he spent that decade retraining his attention on strings.

Lazy loaded image
Chris Willman

One transition in particular in the setlist nicely pointed up the breadth that Lynne managed to cover in the ‘70s with ELO. It was probably just coincidence that he juxtaposed two such opposite songs, but it was a kick hearing the ensemble segue from the debut album’s “10538 Overture” to 1979’s “Shine a Little Love.” The former number belied Electric Light Orchestra’s original intent, which was basically to turn the cello-laden outro of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” into a whole ethos, for an album — or three. The following selection, from ELO’s disco period, if we can call it that, threw over the Beatles for the “Saturday Night Fever”-era Bee Gees, just as effectively. In-between were a lot of symphonic experiments, concept albums (could we still get a full-album “Eldorado” show? No? Oh well), bubblegum, splendor and musical wit, the ambitious likes of which we haven’t much seen again in pop, but which anyone should be all too happy to experience getting its better-late-than-never live revival when we’re needing it most.

Not surprisingly, Sunday’s show brought out an unusual amount of music and TV names for a second show, on top of the celebs who’d showed up for the Forum opener. Among those spotted in the crowd night two: Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, Greg Dulli, Neil Finn, Stewart Copeland, the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, No Doubt’s Tony Kanal, Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley, Lisa Loeb, John Stamos and Haley Joel Osment.

Dawes will never be mistaken for an ELO sound-alike band, but it would be hard to think of a better choice of opening act for this tour, since they are the recurring answer to the musical question “what band would you recommend to a fan of melodic ‘70s rock who insists they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” “You guys could have been a lot less nice to us than you were,” singer/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith crowed at the end of Dawes’ eight-song set, which understates just how well-received the group was by a base demographic that doesn’t necessarily count new music exploration high among its midlife priorities — although Dawes is also a hometown band that gets its fair share of airtime alongside ELO on the highly targeted local Triple A radio station KCSN. The group hasn’t done any local shows since releasing its sixth album, “Passwords,” but mentioned that everyone would be welcome back to their yet-to-be-announced L.A. headlining gig in January if this blind date went well.