Though the ‘60s British Invasion band the Zombies originally gave up the ghost in 1968 after reaping a couple of unique, defining hits, they have proven to be leading lights among the musical undead in the new millennium.
The quintet, formally founded in the city of St. Albans outside London in 1961, saw their artistry reinstated and their profile rise anew nearly three decades later with the release of a comprehensive, lovingly produced boxed set, “Zombie Heaven,” and a one-off reunion gig in 1997. A subsequent partnership of vocalist Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent in 2000 ultimately led to a series of regroupings.
The act, still featuring Blunstone and Argent, has been active in Southern California for the last three years, following the release of a well-received new album, “Still Got That Hunger.” Several regional dates, including a stop at Stagecoach, celebrated the 50th anniversary of their landmark baroque pop/psychedelic album “Odessey and Oracle” — which actually saw release in April 1968, a scant month after they announced their breakup, and which (posthumously, fittingly enough) spawned their biggest American hit, “Time of the Season.”
Those appearances only whetted the appetites of loyal Zombies cultists, who filled the Troubadour in West Hollywood for the sold-out opening night of a two-date stand. The rare club appearance – which prefaces a Sept. 20 opener with Arcade Fire at the Greek Theatre – was a generous, warm and largely satisfying sampler of the group’s long and versatile career. The show featured solid support from longtime members Tom Toomey (guitar) and Steve Rodford (drums) and new bassist Søren Koch, who replaced Rodford’s father Jim (Argent’s cousin and longtime band mate) after his death in January.
Like almost any popular English band of their heyday, the Zombies began life playing covers of American R&B hits, so it was little surprise that they kicked off their Troub set with a blasting rendition of Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner.” (They would later essay their medley of the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.”) It was immediately apparent that at 73 the ebullient Blunstone has lost little of his power as a singer; though his style is almost invariably referred to as “breathy,” he is capable of wailing with the sort of force one associates with such contemporaries as Steve Winwood.
Turning on a dime, the band instantly segued into “The Look of Love,” the simmering Bacharach-David ballad popularized by Dusty Springfield, which they essayed at a mid-‘60s BBC session. These choices of cover material offer an indicator of the Zombies’ directions in their own music: sophisticated and intricately penned pop with a strong underpinning of blues and jazz.
The group treated hardcore fans to some of its many magnificent non-hit singles: Argent’s free-swinging B-side “I Want You Back Again” (a frequent feature of live sets by Tom Petty, who was fondly name checked by Argent), which sported a long, lyrical piano solo by Argent in the manner of his youthful idol Bill Evans, and founding bassist Chris White’s “I Love You,” a doomy A-side sung by Blunstone on the edge of hysteria. A more familiar entry was “Tell Her No,” the band’s second U.S. top 10 hit in 1964; the audience sang along with the song’s insistent choral hook.
However, it was to be no mere oldies show. Plainly aware that many of his contemporaries have sustained careers by resting on ancient laurels, Argent pointedly noted that the band had been energized in recent years by writing new material, and stated with some pride that “Still Got That Hunger” had become the first Zombies album since “Odessey and Oracle” to reach Billboard’s top 100.
That recent collection accounted for three performances: the hammering “Moving On,” on which Blunstone very creditably channeled Paul Rodgers; the blues-soaked “Edge of the Rainbow,” which found the singer pushing to the top of his broad register; and the poignant “Chasing the Past,” which was marred somewhat by an overstated solo from Toomey. (“I Want You Back Again” was also re-recorded for the set.) Reaching back a decade further, the smoothly Latinized “Sanctuary,” drawn from the 2001 Blunstone-Argent collaboration “Out of the Shadows,” found Rodford stepping from behind his kit for subdued work on shaker and timbales.
Acknowledging the status of “Odessey and Oracle” as a latter-day classic, the band played a set-with-the-set comprising four of the album’s 12 songs; the sequence of the bounding “Care of Cell 44,” the blissed-out “This Will Be Our Year” and “I Want Her She Wants Me” (the latter sung by Argent) and the inevitable “Time of the Season” found Blunstone, Argent, Koch and Toomey all contributing potent harmony vocals.
It was only in the closing minutes of the show that the Zombies abandoned grace and jubilance for an abrupt left turn into arena-styled rock, with the materialization of a pair of early-‘70s FM radio warhorses popularized by the keyboardist’s eponymous band Argent.
Prefaced by an admonition from Argent that audiences always got the lyrics to “Hold Your Head Up” wrong (“It’s, ‘Hold your head up, woman!’”), the band crushed into an extended version of the lumbering tune that far outran the recorded version’s six-minute running time. Blunstone retreated to the Troub’s upstairs dressing room as Argent embarked on a protracted organ arabesque that quoted everything from Booker T.’s “Green Onions” to Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
The vocalist retook the stage for a rendering of the song that catapulted the Zombies to the top of the charts in 1964: “She’s Not There.” That haunting minor-key reverie is now bulked up on stage with a duel between Argent and Toomey and a brief rhythm face-off by Koch and Rodford, which veered briefly into a jam that recalled the Spencer Davis Group’s contemporaneous hits “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.” A hail-and-farewell closer of Argent’s 1973 hymn “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” sent the house on its way, spent but happy.
The big-shed bombast of the night’s closing minutes occasionally set the teeth on edge, but the spirit of most of the performances and the vibrant originality of both the old and recent material carried the day in the end. And one couldn’t help walking away beaming from the sheer joy that emanated from Colin Blunstone, who sang all night with his arms spread wide in a repeated, ecstatic gesture of welcome, as if he sought to embrace everyone in the audience at once.