Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne is the oddly shy rock star.
But that didn’t matter to the capacity crowd on Thursday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland, the opening date of the 70-year-old musical veteran’s 2018 American tour, his first in the U.S. in 37 years.
Wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses, the British mastermind of the distinctive 1970s band unassumingly stood at front and center of the stage, sang, played guitar and had few words to say as he and his fantastic group — now billed as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” — worked their way through his catalog of catchy rock-meets-classical hits amid a classy light and video show.
It’s not often a rock concert starts off with cellos, and they sounded great on “Standin’ in the Rain.” As black-and-white video screens flashed images of a mountain, clouds and rain, musical director-guitarist-vocalist Mike Stevens led impeccable players: Jess Cox and Amy Langley on cello; Rosie Langley on violin; Marcus Byrne, Jo Webb and Steve Turner on keys; Donavan Hepburn on drums; Lee Pomeroy on bass, Milton McDonald on lead guitar and vocals; and Melanie Lewis-McDonald and Iain Hornal on backing vocals.
The sound was pristine, just like on vinyl (particularly 1977’s hit-packed “Out of the Blue”) — in the very best of ways. At least one news article said Lynne waited for decades for technology to develop that would allow him to recreate the lush density of the albums in a live setting. And so he did. Kudos to the sound team, which made the dozen or so artists onstage seem like a full symphony and, maybe even better, made every lyric coming out of the vocalists’ mouths decipherable.
The hits just kept coming, from “Evil Woman,” “All Over the World,” “Do Ya,” “Shine a Little Love” and “Xanadu” to “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
Violinist Langley had a thrilling solo at the start of “Livin’ Thing” and singer Hornal joyously did the Roy Orbison part in “Handle With Care,” the tune by the Traveling Wilburys, which Lynne called “my other group.” In the background, a video flashing images of the Wilburys (Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison) alternated with groovy psychedelic designs.
Lynne’s evocative new (2015) tune “When I Was a Boy,” a lovely piano ballad, sounded like vintage Beatles (Lynne has famously collaborated with them all except John Lennon); later, the band did ELO’s first single, 1972’s “10538 Overture” (with more great cellos).
Things slowed down for “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” and “Telephone Line,” with excellent ringing effects, then pumped up again for “Turn to Stone” and “Mr. Blue Sky.”
For the encore, the band did its souped-up version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” beginning with the famed strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
It ended an evening of near-perfect pop from the retiring rock star, who sadly didn’t bring “Strange Magic” to the arena this time.
Los Angeles folk-alt rockers Dawes were nice openers to the show, ending their set with the apropos sentiment: “May all your favorite bands stay together.”