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Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra makes flawless landing in Hollywood Bowl debut

Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra
Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra during its Hollywood Bowl debut on Sept. 9.
(Genaro Molina)

Given the breathtaking melodies and arrangements propelling Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night, it’s a wonder that the venue’s stage and shell didn’t blast off into the cosmos as the concert was ending.

Performing the first of three consecutive nights in a long-overdue appearance at the Bowl, the singer, songwriter, producer and pop-polisher Lynne and a dynamic backing band teamed with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra to play songs from another symphony, the Electric Light.

ELO’s exquisitely produced, aerodynamic hits, including “Evil Woman,” “All Over the World” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” ignited FM radio throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s, soaring through arenas and into a generation’s collective memory. 

The result four decades later was a dazzling concert that seemed beamed from another galaxy. Under the direction of conductor Thomas Wilkins, the Bowl Orchestra added a monumental depth to “Living Thing,” and made the disco strings on “Shine a Little Love” swirl with a wild physicality. When original ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy’s robot-synthesized voice saluted “Mr. Blue Sky” during the jubilant curio of the same name, the crowd might have been “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” witnesses watching a spaceship land.

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Fans have seemingly been waiting light years for Lynne to return to his classics. Proof? How the sold-out crowd, during a roaring version of Lynne’s ode to longing “Turn to Stone,” bellowed word-for-word that classic, double-time vocal break: “Yes I’m turning to stone ’cause you ain’t coming home/ Why ain’t you coming home if I’m turning to stone? /You’ve been gone for so long and I can’t carry on/ Yes I’m turning, I’m turning, I’m turning to stone.” 

That instrument-free refrain only lasted a few bars, but when the music — electric and acoustic guitars, synthesizers, sheets of strings and a backing track adding layers of studio effects — returned, it did so with a blast that likely echoed across the Hollywood basin.

Donning his omnipresent sunglasses and the same wavy mop-top he’s worn since the mid-1970s, Lynne between songs seemed overwhelmed by the attention, as if he hadn’t fully grasped the continued magnetism of his best work.

That’s understandable. Lynne, 68, attempted to resurrect ELO for a tour about 15 years ago, but interest had so waned that he scrapped the whole thing. Since then he’s focused on producing, all the while watching a new generation of fans latch on to his exquisitely crafted work. This time around, the tours are selling out.

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Friday illustrated why. An effervescent celebration from a marvelous creator, the concert affirmed what critics at the time only begrudgingly acknowledged: that Lynne’s way with songcraft, arranging and production was a singular achievement. It’s no accident Lynne titled this round of dates the “Alone in the Universe” tour.

Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra
Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra
(Genaro Molina )

Occasionally bombastic? Sure. “Rockaria!” opened with an operatic female vocalist delivering the first lines of an aria, only to be interrupted by Lynne and band countering with a Chuck Berry-inspired rock ’n’ roll riff. The subject? A lyrical duel between that opera singer and her would-be rocker suitor.

And Lynne’s debt to the Beatles was evident throughout. When he performed the first ELO single, “10538 Overture,” from 1972, echoes of Lennon seemed actionable. (In fact, Lynne later produced two posthumous Beatles songs, “Real Love” and “Free As a Bird,” as well as working with George Harrison.)

At the peak of the band’s career — “Out of the Blue” in 1977 — Electric Light Orchestra’s maximalist rock seemed specifically designed for arenas.

The band’s visual motif, a multicolored flying saucer, was an apt metaphor for the music. Lynne and band harnessed state-of-the-art technology — synthesizers, vocoders, electric violin and lots of echo and reverb to augment the traditional rock band setup — as a means to explore new frontiers while staying in communication with rock ‘n roll’s past.

Despite the spectacle — the band’s most extravagant tour featured them performing in a stage rigged to look like a flying saucer — Lynne’s best lyrics on Friday took place on earthen, rain-drenched city streets or under the glare of a glorious sun.

His voice expressed deep longing and a sense of isolated desperation during “Telephone Line.” “Hello, how are you? Have you been all right, through all those lonely nights?” sang Lynne, seemingly on the phone with his significant other — before revealing her absence.

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The ballad “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” was set on a boat adrift at sea, the shoreline in the distance, where Lynne mulled heartbreak under the stars, obsessed and alone.

And on the act’s 1976 hit “Livin’ Thing,” Lynne’s energy zipped through the Bowl like he was a surfer hitting a barrel: “Sailin’ away on the crest of a wave/It’s like magic/Oh, rollin’ and ridin’ and slippin’ and slidin'/It’s magic.”

Through it all, Lynne, his band and Wilkins’ orchestra presented a sound that swirled with excitement and majesty. When, as an encore, they teamed for “Roll Over Beethoven,” ELO’s mash-up of Chuck Berry and Ludwig van Beethoven, the tussle between the classical past and the rock ’n’ roll uprising generated fireworks.

Literally. Lynne riffed on Berry’s lyrics as Roman candles lit the sky and the masses gazed upward. It was almost like they were expecting liftoff.

There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit


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