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.”