Halfway through Side Two, during the Zombies‘ first complete New York concert rendition of their 1968 studio masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, singer Colin Blunstone summed up the gently enchanting durability of that record and his band’s gift for resurrection in the bright, marching glow of “This Will Be Our Year.” In an improbably feathery tenor for a man who recently turned 70, Blunstone crooned the title chorus with the other surviving, original members of the group to his right: keyboard player Rod Argent, bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy. “This will be our year,” Blunstone sang, “took a long time to come.”
The Zombies’ absolutely triumphant Friday concert at the New York Society for Ethical Culture was part of their current U.S. tour honoring a pair of milestones: the release of a fine new album, Still Got That Hunger (The End Records), by the lineup of Argent, Blunstone, Argent’s cousin and bassist Jim Rodford — who played in the Seventies band Argent and the Kinks — drummer Steve Rodford and guitarist Tom Toomey; and the first American shows by the 1961–68 band in 50 years. (Original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004.)
In the first set, the current group covered that half century with fluid aplomb, showcasing more than half of Hunger amid a sharp whirl through the Zombies’ pre-Odessey history, including 1964’s “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” and a 1965 medley of the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” (actually cribbed from a Miracles live album). There was a solo detour for Blunstone, his 1971 single “Caroline Goodbye,” and an arena-spirit revival of the 1972 Argent hit “Hold Your Head Up.” The dynamic, connective tissue was Rod Argent’s pop-art spin on American R&B piano and hard-bop organ — unprecedented during the British Invasion’s jangling rain of guitars — and Blunstone’s ability to hit, and hold, the stratospheric peaks in “I Love You,” a 1965 U.K. B-side, and the chorus of “I Want You Back Again,” a ’65 waltz-time modal-jazz single recut and recharged for Still Got That Hunger.
The torch ballad “Edge of the Rainbow,” a fresh original on Hunger, was vintage in every other way, a bracing reprise of the way the Zombies — like so many British beat groups — found LP material and club-set ammo in American standards like the Gershwins’ “Summertime” (featured on the Zombies’ 1965 debut LP). Another new song, “Maybe Tomorrow,” came with a Beatles quote — a closing flourish from Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” — and a story: Argent recalled how the Beatles’ publishers ordered the Zombies to pull the track from Hunger right before pressing, until McCartney intervened with a personal reprieve. And in “New York,” Blunstone’s eternally-boyish brio underscored the buoyance in the music and wonder in the lyrics, a memoir of the Zombies’ ’64 landing in that city, onto an all-star bill at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre. “City of a million dreams,” Blunstone sang, “you gave one up to me.”
Early in that set, Blunstone gave the adoring crowd a lesson in the peculiar arithmetic of Odessey and Oracle, the Zombies’ commercial Waterloo. Made in the summer of 1967, in the inspiring wake of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album — with its charmingly misspelled title and iconic cover art by Terry Quirk — was released in Britain and America in 1968 to virtual silence. When it was reissued in the U.S. in 1969 — as the final track, “Time of the Season,” became a belated two-million-selling single — the Sixties quintet had already split in frustration.
Argent, Blunstone, White and Grundy first played Odessey and Oracle in its entirety in Britain in 2008. The church-like propriety of the Society for Ethical Culture, complete with pews, suited the holy aura of the record’s live, delayed arrival in New York. The acoustics, particularly the room’s boxy reverb, were a little less welcoming to Odessey‘s choral subtleties. At times, the expanded band’s sunny din in “Maybe After He’s Gone” and “I Want Her, She Wants Me” — the Sixties four with extra voices, guitar and keyboards — overwhelmed Blunstone’s lower range.
But that was a small drawback to the greater lesson of Odessey, in performance: the compelling restraint in its enriched-pop drama and the earthy romanticism of the writing. “Care of Cell 44” was a jaunty delight ringed with shadows — a relationship torn apart by prison; “Maybe After He’s Gone” was devastated pining, Blunstone’s voice hanging like stranded devotion in the falling-harmony chorales. “Brief Candles” seesawed between plaintive intimacy and arch, British–Beach Boys grandeur, with Argent, White and Blunstone each taking a verse, against nothing more than Argent’s baroque piano, before the payoff chorus. In “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” Argent and White evoked harrowing carnage with striking minimalism: Argent on an antique pump organ and White on vocals, not quite on pitch and a little back from his mic, perfectly capturing the shy horror of a teenager in the trenches.
Either half of this night would have been exhilarating in its own right. Together, they were a story still busy being told — in classic-pop history, psychedelic monument, continuing aspiration and enduring friendship. “There is not another place that I would rather be than here,” Blunstone sang in “Chasing the Past,” a song from Still Got That Hunger about not living in yesterday yet ringed in the Odessey-like echoes in Argent’s stalking piano and throaty-organ break. Tonight, the Zombies proved that the right band can have it both ways.