Justin Hayward faced a question of balance Tuesday night at the Coach House and got the answer about half right.
Having fronted the Moody Blues for 30 years, should he take the opportunity of a rare solo showcase to display unexpected facets and declare a measure of independence? Or, faced with a nearly full house of more than 400 Moodys fans, should he take the easy, sure-to-please approach by providing familiar renditions of faves from the archives?
In a commendably generous early show that lasted nearly two hours--not half bad for a 50-year-old with a second set to play--Hayward spent much of his performance knocking at the door marked “the unexpected,” behind which lay some potentially satisfying answers.
But, in the end, he refused to go through it into a realm of real adventure, forsaking balance in favor of the nostalgic security of a home stretch of big hits that sounded much as they did in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on such Top 10 albums as “Days of Future Passed” and “A Question of Balance.”
The reason for Hayward’s temporary foray from the still-running Moodys is “The View From the Hill,” the Englishman’s first solo album since 1980. It doesn’t take radical departures from the Moody Blues’ recent style of polished pop decked out with a too-lush plumage of choir-like harmonies and fanfares of chiming, string-simulating synthesizers.
But as Hayward began the evening, he went for something different--just his voice and an acoustic guitar, as far from lush and polished business-as-usual as he could get.
While his voice struggled to limber up on the first number or two, the solo-acoustic setting quickly established a note of Paul McCartney-like songbird sweetness, something that doesn’t come through so directly on record.
The simple and direct approach helped redeem “Children of Paradise,” a new-album song that gets a syrupy, John Denver-style treatment on record.
Joined subsequently by bassist Mickey Feat, then by two adjunct Moody Blues members--keyboard player Paul Bliss and drummer Gordon Marshall--Hayward continued to thrive by keeping things more basic than you’d expect from a man who made his name with a plush and poppy take on progressive rock.
With the Moody Blues, and in his solo material, Hayward is a voice of yearning romanticism and high idealism stated in the haziest terms. You don’t get grit, and you don’t get the ballast and staying power that come from putting hazy ideals to a clarifying test by knocking them against some harsh realities.
A sense of wanting to be weighty but never getting beyond slogans is a weakness that keeps the Moodys from being a very substantial band. But Hayward’s work in and out of the band balances that lack of weight and resonance with an appealing and lasting strength--a cornucopia of lovely melody and a purity of intention that is almost chivalrous.
One of the most impressive gifts that this least macho of rock singers possesses is his way of becoming choked with emotion to the verge of tears, yet all the while sounding dignified and uncontrived. Despite a bit of creakiness here and there, Hayward’s voice registered with almost all the range and clarity it has had on peak recordings.
The middle section of the show was highlighted by a couple of sweet, melancholy ballads: “Broken Dream,” one of six songs taken from the new album, and the 1978-vintage “Forever Autumn,” in which the rich, romantic swell of lovely sorrow, tinged with sampled flute sounds for a touch of olde English stateliness, was the next best thing to a four-minute walk on Wuthering Heights. Hayward paid a nice nod to the Moodys’ more ambitious, progressive-rock side with “The Actor,” with its episodic structure and undulating moods and dynamics.
“Something to Believe In,” a new-album track, was marred by the chirpy, pingy keyboards that undermine the CD, and Hayward abandoned all good sense by allowing an obtrusive and pointless drum solo during an otherwise lean, hard-charging “Story in Your Eyes,” one of the occasional rockers that balance out the Moodys’ generally lofty repertoire.
As a host, Hayward did not use the solo occasion and the intimate surroundings to go beyond gracious pleasantries or an occasional quip; there were no detailed stories on his lips.
But with the home stretch in sight, the show had achieved a bit of the unexpected--a substantial accomplishment considering how much of a nostalgia act the Moody Blues has become. (Bassist John Lodge, flute player Ray Thomas and drummer Graeme Edge, all holdovers from the 1966 lineup, remain Hayward’s comrades in the band, which still plays big venues helping baby boomer fans call back their days of young romance and trippy philosophic questing.)
A few more key departures from the usual drill, and Hayward could have clinched a victory over pure nostalgia. Instead, he turned into a human jukebox, playing the most famous hits--"Tuesday Afternoon,” “Nights in White Satin” and “Question"--in the most familiar way, with strings and old mellotron synthesizer parts replicated with up-to-date digital technology.
The fans loved it, naturally. But they almost certainly also would have enjoyed it had Hayward stripped down one or more of those sweeping, epic-scale hits into duo or trio form, perhaps with just bass, guitar and light percussion or a touch of flute, giving them a new way to enjoy a familiar pleasure and an exceptional voice.
Rather than face a real question of balance by attempting a tightrope walk between the old and the new, Hayward took a graceful but predictable swan dive into his safety net.