Restringing ELO: Jeff Lynne Puts the Orchestra Back in Electric Light Orchestra With Symphonic Gigs at Hollywood Bowl

Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging
Jeff Lynne's ELO at The Hollywood Bowl.

Number two on the list of things ELO fans spent decades assuming we’d never see again: an ELO show. Number one on that list of improbables: an Electric Light Orchestra show with orchestra. There were few, if any, of those literalized moments even back in the day, so the three appearances over the weekend of what is now officially billed as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the latter’s namesake venue amounted to proof for the faithful that if you hold on tight to your dream for, say, 40 years, it might even come true.

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It’s hard to know whether this was the famously uneffusive Lynne’s dream or not, although his very few remarks to the crowd Friday night did include an emphatic appreciation for the mad skills of in-house conductor Thomas Wilkins. For somebody who helped pioneer the use of mass orchestration in rock in the early 1970s, Lynne seemed to have lost interest in it by the end of that decade and certainly the early ‘80s, at which point he’d dropped the “orchestra” from ELO’s acronym-ed name and sound alike in favor of synths. So maybe getting hooked up with a fully symphonic contingent felt like old home week for him, or maybe it was just an arranged re-marriage. But for enthusiasts, it didn’t disappoint as a true Halley’s comet of rock shows.

Whatever the antonym of “touring monster” is, that’s Lynne: the three Hollywood Bowl shows constitute three-fifths of ELO’s entire American tour, with the final two dates to follow at Radio City Music Hall Sept. 16 and 18. With the exception of a very few one-offs or TV tapings or abortive starts (including a canceled 2001 tour), Lynne and ELO were essentially inactive, gig-wise, between 1982 and last fall’s resumption. Why Lynne has chosen to focus the new touring on Europe and treat the presumably also lucrative American market as a two-city afterthought isn’t clear, but it made for a lot of out-of-state plates stacked in the Bowl’s lots.

The 18-song setlist is essentially the same as what Lynne has been doing overseas without symphonic accompaniment, focusing mainly on the run of hits that began in America with “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” inarguably the prettiest song of 1974. No true obscurities, but fan service was provided mid-set in the form of the debut album’s “10538 Overture,” marking the more modest origins of Electric Light Orchestra as a sort of tribute act to the cello-driven sound of “I Am the Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields.” ELO’s adaption to the disco era also got its due, with the Bee-Gees-on-even-more-helium froth of “Shine a Little Love.” But the real highlights were the mid-period ones that made full use of the strings, then and now, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion — namely, the hilarious opera/rock crossover anthem “Rockaria!” (with backup singer Melanie Lewis-McDonald cast in the role of Beverly Sills) and the Ludwig/Chuck mashup “Roll Over Beethoven” (at album, not single, length, allowing for the crowd to get its money’s worth of the advertised closing fireworks).

Lynne’s recalcitrant personality was as elusive as ever in all of this, as he continues to wear his trademark curly hair, beard and shades as just as much of a helmet as anything Daft Punk ever put on. He did evince some fatherly pride in bringing daughter Laura out to sing a few backups, in what he said was the 36-year-old’s first time performing in concert — and berated himself by saying “What a twerp… what an oaf” after he prematurely sent her packing from the stage. Lynne occasionally handed over a verse’s worth of lead vocals or a lead guitar part to a band member, only stretching out on his own with some unexpectedly extensive soloing to wrap up “Beethoven,” when he revealed that you can take the boy out of the Move but you can’t completely take the moves out of the boy.

Last fall’s Alone in the Universe was the second album to come out under the ELO banner since he broke the band up circa ’86, and, not surprisingly, given his control-freak tendencies, the album is a one-man affair, save for some credited tambourine and background vocal parts. But live, he still does bring along keyboard player Richard Tandy, one of the original players who didn’t piss him off by taking part in the unauthorized ELO II configuration many years back. It’s a younger crew filling out the other roles, including an all-female string trio, with Rosie Langley moving to the front to play the featured part on “Livin’ Thing,” looking decidedly leggier in her split gown than the Mik Kaminski of yore.

The recent album drew plaudits from fans for adhering so faithfully to the ELO sound, if not for coming up with anything nearly as classic as Eldorado, and the standout among the two fresh songs performed Friday was “Love and Rain,” partly because of how much it resembled the tune that had come just two songs before, “Showdown,” in its background vocal and guitar sound. Given how ELO was pioneering in the late ‘70s in terms of controversies over pre-recorded parts, you might wonder how much was canned here (or whether more might be at Radio City, when there’s no orchestra around). It’s fair to say that the familiar choral effects heard on a couple of occasions were not emanating from the handful of mics onstage, but when the show got to the motor-mouthed a cappella bridge in “Turn to Stone,” it felt like surprising proof that Lynne really has cracked the code of how to stack vocals that masterfully live as well as on tape.

Anyone who thinks that spontaneous moments should be part and parcel with rock and roll is always going to have a problem with ELO. But then, anyone who thinks that the catalog of songs being celebrated here is one of the great pop accomplishments of the 1970s is going to have a problem with anyone who has a problem. Advantage: Lynne, along with the approximately 51,000 enthusiasts getting to see this extravaganza over three nights in Hollywood. Craft counts, and it takes as small a dosage as this 90-minute set to ensure that anyone who stood in danger of finally getting it out of their heads after the last 40 years won’t be able to get rid of these blissful earworms for the next 40.

Set List:

"Tightrope"
"Evil Woman"
"Showdown"
"All Over the World"
"Love and Rain"
"Livin’ Thing"
"When I Was a Boy"
"Rockaria!"
"10538 Overture"
"Can’t Get It Out of My Head"
"Shine a Little Love"
"Wild West Hero"
"Telephone Line"
"Turn to Stone"
"Sweet Talkin’ Woman"
"Don’t Bring Me Down"
"Mr. Blue Sky"
"Roll Over Beethoven"