Livin' Thing: Jeff Lynne's ELO Triumph at First U.S. Show in 30 Years

Tight new version of group offers vintage classics, fresh gems at celebratory NYC gig

At Irving Plaza on Friday, Jeff Lynne's ELO revived the band's hits and performed new tracks from 'Alone in the Universe.' Credit: Vladislav Grach

Higher and higher, baby. Now this was a momentous occasion: Jeff Lynne's ELO playing their first real American show in 30 years, an intimate gig at New York's tiny Irving Plaza that sold out within seconds. Some of us had waited years for this night — probably including Jeff Lynne, who looked touchingly shy in the presence of a live crowd. Electric Light Orchestra songs tend to be so eerie and isolated — it's strange to stand in a room full of your fellow fans singing along to songs as profoundly lonesome as "Telephone Line" or "Turn to Stone." (There was hardly an audience member not singing along.) But it was a night to celebrate, dance and bust out the air-cello moves.

Lynne definitely picked the right moment to reactivate ELO, waiting until he had a top-notch album ready to go — the excellent new Alone in the Universe, their finest since 1981's Time. They stole the Grammy Awards back in February — who can forget the sight of Beyoncé up on her feet, clapping along to "Mr. Blue Sky" (even if Jay Z was sitting down)? Or Paul McCartney dancing in the aisle until a pesky cameraman shamed him back into his seat? Clearly, the world has been fiending for Lynne's strange magic, and tonight the man proved he's in peak form — 18 songs in 90 high-energy minutes, ranging all over his songbook from early rockers ("Evil Woman," "Showdown") to creep-show weepers ("Can't Get It Out of My Head," "Steppin' Out") to his all-too-brief new-wave rockabilly phase ("Rock & Roll Is King"). What a glorious night.

He took the stage in his trademark beard-shades-and-'fro uniform, along with a 12-piece band: two cellos, a violin and three keyboardists, including Richard Tandy, the only other link to the Seventies line-up. (Tandy handled the all-important vocoder passage during "Mr. Blue Sky," inspiring one of the night's warmest ovations.) The stage was hung with lightbulbs and the giant jukebox-as-spaceship ELO logo, except with "JEFF LYNNE'S" added to the name, apparently lest anybody mistake this for one of the other electric light orchestras. And they didn't waste any time, diving right into the controversial Xanadu period with "All Over the World." (John Lennon, a few weeks before his death: "I like the ELO singing 'All Over the World.' I can dissect it and criticize it with any critic in the business.") The large band replicated the studio sonics, but with a real sense of warmth and cheer — especially when they tackled the impossible-to-sing quadruple-time break in the middle of "Turn to Stone."

"Sweet Talkin' Woman" gave it up to the ladies in the string section — Lynne did some mock-conducting during the intro. And he vamped up "Don't Bring Me Down," his goof on the Stones' Exile version of "Stop Breakin' Down," which makes it the closest thing we'll ever see to a Number One hit for Robert Johnson. The wounded romanticism in his music really comes across live — in an ELO song, there's usually a fast-walking girl and a slow-talking boy, and the girl usually gets away, leaving the boy to spend his blue days and black nights dialing her number and singing his sad songs to her phone (though not her not-invented-yet answering machine). "Rock & Roll Is King" is the only song he sang all night where he gets the girl — and even there, she's too busy dancing to pay any attention to Jeff.

He made his rep as a studio obsessive rather than a showman — he must have been born with those shades on — so it was poignant how taken aback he was hearing these songs sung back to him by such a raucously enthusiastic crowd; at a loss for words, he kept resorting to the Macca thumbs-up gesture. But it's tough to think of another rock auteur who's always written such lovingly detailed backup vocal parts. "Livin' Thing" is a musical Inside Out, all the voices in one lonely man's head arguing about whether it's safe to fall in love or not ("I'm takin' a dive!" "I'm takin'! I'm takin'!" "Don't you do it, don't you do it!") until the string section finally pushes him into taking that dive. An inspirational sound — especially with so many other human voices chiming in.

There are obviously too many ELO classics to fit into a mere 18-song set — no room for the disco "Shine a Little Light," the Coffee Achievers jingle "Hold on Tight," the surprise 1986 comeback "Calling America." But there were no weak spots. One of the highlights came when Lynne sang the new "When I Was a Boy," his "Imagine"-style piano ballad about being a dorky kid in his room, catching a few precious moments of pop music on his radio. (As he recently told Rolling Stone's Andy Greene, "I used to go under my bed listening to the crystal set.") Yet Lynne has always sung in the voice of that boy. And part of the thrill of seeing ELO live in 2015 is experiencing that legacy not as part of the past, but as a livin' thing.

Set List:
"All Over The World"
"Evil Woman"
"Showdown"
"Turn to Stone"
"When I Was a Boy"
"Livin' Thing"
"One Step at a Time"
"Strange Magic"
"Don't Bring Me Down"
"Steppin' Out"
"Sweet Talkin' Woman"

"Can't Get It Out Of My Head"
"When the Night Comes"
"Ain't It a Drag"
"Rock & Roll Is King"
"Telephone Line"
"Mr. Blue Sky"

Encore:
"Roll Over Beethoven"