During the Zombies’ moment in the sunshine of chart attention in the mid-1960s, people would observe their qualifications as school-leavers and talk of the English group as the most well-educated of hitmakers. The further education they would receive in the ensuing years would teach them much about the bizarre ups and downs of the music industry.
After the heady success of “She’s Not There” in 1964 and a further U.S. hit with “Tell Her No” the following year, the Hertfordshire five-piece found the commercial going rough. So much so, they’d called it a day by the time the famously-misspelt “Odessey & Oracle” album began to cause a stir on American radio in 1968. Their “Time of the Season” was mistimed indeed, as keyboardist-writer Rod Argent formed the new band Argent and lead singer Colin Blunstone, incredibly, opted for a day job in insurance, before starting a solo career.
One of the consequences of such vagaries was that the Zombies never performed the album live. Blunstone and Argent have been recording and touring together again, first under their own names and latterly the group’s, for the last seven years. But apart from an anniversary outing in 1998, the band (now sadly deprived of guitarist Paul Atkinson, who died in 2004), has not performed together since that premature divorce.
Now they have, and the inquisitiveness of a new, young audience to investigate the Zombies’ belated coolness was reflected in demand for tickets for no fewer than three shows at the Empire, where Blunstone and Argent were reunited with bassist/vocalist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy.
The shows advertised that remarkably overdue live debut of the seminal “Oracle” set, which was saved for the second half of a warmly rewarding and genuinely heartfelt performance. For starters, Blunstone and Argent were accompanied by their regular touring band, which includes bassist Jim Rodford, once of both Argent and the Kinks.
Their opening set included early group tracks such as “I Love You,” the quintessential beat-group piece “Sticks & Stones” and the bluesy “Can’t Nobody Love You.” But it also meandered through the respective solo output of the two main protagonists, reviving Blunstone’s interpretation of “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” a 1981 hit in collaboration with Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics member).
A string section joined him for the poignant “Misty Roses” suite, made for the Argent and White-produced 1971 album “One Year.” Then as now, the Tim Hardin song perfectly suited his evocatively breathy delivery. Blunstone went on to prove that the vocal peaks of “Say You Don’t Mind” are still within his reach, before Argent gave a reminder of his nimble brilliance as a keyboard player on “Keep pn Rolling,” the barroom blues original by the band that took his name. Blunstone assumed Russ Ballard’s vocal role for their stirring 1972 hit “Hold Your Head Up.”
The performance of the fabled album was appropriately teased by an enthusiastic introduction by Al Kooper, the musician who takes much of the credit for championing the album’s emergence. Explaining that he simply had to be in London for these performances, he recalled a similar journey he made 40 years ago, when a vinyl-buying session led him to take “Oracle” back to Columbia’s Clive Davis, who had been planning to “sign off” on the record before Kooper argued for its U.S. release.
The original group was augmented by the current one, making for a busy stage and a vibrant recreation of this remarkable, atmospheric record. White, 65 that day, excelled on lead vocals on “Butcher’s Tale,” and the evening built to a gentle crescendo as the ensemble joyously delivered “Time of the Season.”
We knew, of course, that a powerful postscript was around the corner, and it duly arrived in the form of “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There.” Improbable as it seems, the Zombies are ready to work a new Oracle.