There were no surprises. The Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit was packed to the gills, most in attendance were nearing retirement, and Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra sounded nothing short of sensational. The only uncertainty was why now? After nearly four decades, Jeff Lynne’s ELO has made an unprompted return to North America on the heels of an unforgettable stint at Wembley Stadium and a tour across Europe. The band hasn’t released a new album in almost three years and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
Accordingly, the anticipation in downtown Detroit was palpable, as wayfarers migrated from far and wide to receive the musical genius that is Jeff Lynne. Faithful pilgrims gathered in all corners of the city, united by a common love of falsettos and synthesizers. What quickly became apparent, was that still (after 50 years of timeless music) Jeff Lynne continues to fly under the radar. A wet and humid day in Detroit incited curious locals to ask, “Whatca hear for?” to which the answer prompted equally-curious responses like, “Jeff who?” “Electric what?” Naming the hits drew a glint of familiarity, but I was still perturbed by the realization that Jeff Lynne has yet to become a household name. This was utterly contrasted by a fellow ticketholder in line attempting to recall the members of The Traveling Wilburys: “Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and…somebody else…[prolonged pause] Bob…something.” Disappointing and refreshing at the same time.
On stage, was projected an animated version of the iconic ELO spaceship nestled into a platform of keyboards, backing vocalists, drums, and a three-piece string section. The arena went dark just after 9pm, and then came to life with the full-bodied intro of “Standin’ in the Rain.” Lynne’s voice was virtually identical to the iconic sound of ELO circa 1976. And while none of the original bandmembers are involved, the electric symphony was impossible to differentiate from the original album recordings. The setlist has gone unchanged since it’s official debut earlier this month in Oakland, and plays like a greatest hits album from start to finish.
Standin’ in the Rain (Out of the blue, 1977)
Evil Woman (Face the Music, 1975)
All Over the World (Xanadu, 1980)
Showdown (On the Third Day, 1973)
Do Ya (A New World Record, 1976)
When I Was a Boy (Alone In the Universe, 2015)
Livin’ Thing (A New World Record, 1976)
Handle With Care (Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, 1988)
Rockaria! (A New World Record, 1976)
Can’t Get It Out of My Head (Eldorado, 1974)
10538 Overture (No Answer, 1971)
Shine a Little Love (Discovery, 1979)
Wild West Hero (Out of the Blue, 1977)
Sweet Talkin’ Woman (Out of the Blue, 1977)
Telephone Line (A New World Record, 1976)
Don’t Bring Me Down (Discovery, 1979)
Turn to Stone (Out of the Blue, 1977)
Mr. Blue Sky (Out of the Blue, 1977)
Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry cover)
And while the performance can’t be faulted, the setlist could use some revision, especially in the beginning. In a perfect world, an ELO concert would begin with “Believe Me Now” (played completely in the dark) segued into “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” (at which point the stage illuminates). As it currently stands, the opening songs are too predictable for such a creative juggernaut. Nevertheless, what was obvious was that the current cast of bandmembers handle the complex scores brilliantly. The all-female string section could just as easily manage a Bach suite, and the backing vocals are in perfect harmony with Lynne. In particular, the male vocalist who fills in for Roy Orbison during “Handle with Care” was especially impressive.
The set really kicked into gear with the 2015 hit, “When I Was a Boy,” which marked a turning point in the show. What followed, was an endless string of fan-favorites with notable emphasis on A New World Record and Out of the Blue, all of which sounded as fresh and tight as ever. Lynne was not a towering figure on stage. He exuded limited movement (mostly to wet his palate in between songs) and conveyed a humble presence—no orgasmic facial expressions during guitar solos and very little pandering to the crowd. He addressed the audience at the volume of polite conversation, and used these interludes to praise the crowd for being “so fantastic.” At times he employed light humor.
“My musical director will introduce the band, because I don’t remember their names…just kidding.”
Easily, some of the most hair-raising moments, however, could be found in the final six songs. “Wild West Hero” was arguably better than the album version, with acapella harmonies that would send The Eagles cowering in shame. The introductory dial tone of “Telephone Line” provoked some of the loudest cheers of the night and “Mr. Blue Sky” made for an exceptional finale, and an appropriate one given the day’s gloomy weather. Sure, I would have loved to hear “Shangri-La,” “It’s Over,” and a few more Traveling Wilbury numbers, but I’ll trust that Lynne knows best.
The experience of witnessing Jeff Lynne’s ELO for the first time teeters on the edge of being religious. The simple fact is that most bands just aren’t this good in person. Most vocalists are not this controlled on stage, and the un-weathered longevity of a rock n’ roll front-man is virtually unheard of. And because of Lynne’s subtle nature, it’s easy to forget his tremendous role in the pantheon of post-60s rock. A man admired and loved by some of the world’s most influential music makers. A vocal savant who shared a microphone with the likes of Dylan, Orbison, and Petty. A production mastermind who repeatedly captured the interest of McCartney and Harrison at the peak of their solo careers. A man who could have easily been “the fifth Beatle” and no one would have batted an eye.
It’s true, I traveled almost 400 miles last night in honor of Jeff Lynne’s ELO and I’d do it again tomorrow for the sake of that unmistakable sound, which comes around all too seldom. Yet, perhaps the greatest irony of last night was that (unlike the opening act, “Dawes”) Lynne asked virtually nothing of the crowd. Ironic in that, a man who’s given the world a treasure chest of timeless song, had (almost) no requests in return. There were no “I can’t hear yous!” or “Stand ups!” or “Sing along if you know the words.” At the end of the night, all 12 members of ELO locked arm-in-arm around Jeff Lynne in a single-file line facing the audience. In typical Broadway fashion, they took a solitary bow, at which point Jeff asked for only one thing: “If you don’t mind, we’d like to take a selfie with all of you.” Of course, we couldn’t say no.