The last time I sat in the 3 Arena in Dublin was for one of U2’s flatulent Innocence And Experience shows which proved, once again, that all of the smoke, mirrors and lighting tricks can’t definitively mask the inevitable: U2 have long had the drabs and have real difficulty writing new material.
As far back as July 2009, and off the back of the release of the ‘No Line On The Horizon’ album, Michael Ross wrote a superb long piece about U2 in The Sunday Times in which he referenced some of the issues then affecting the group’s output. Ross, with his usual insight, referred to ‘the recent predicament of a band seemingly unable to write structured songs, settling instead for riffs and word salad lyrics’ and, if anything, U2’s plight in this respect has only worsened in the years since.
One could never lay the same charges at Jeff Lynne’s door. Indeed his most recent E.L.O. record, ‘Alone In The Universe’, ranks not only among his but also 2015’s best and most refreshing, built on the usual foundations of simple sounds bound in layers of bubble-wrap and arrangements that, betimes, are God-given. Indeed the only concern for those fetching up in Dublin’s docklands to see Jeff Lynne’s first Dublin live date in almost thirty years was much more specific: could his voice, almost seventy years old now, sustain a full ninety minutes in the white-heat ? The previous night, the exceptional American song-writer, Jimmy Webb, had struggled manfully through a live performance on RTÉ Television’s The Late Late Show and suffered the slings of many of those watching for his troubles.
As with much of the contemporary Jeff Lynne narrative, however, any fears were quickly dissolved, and then some. The previous week, he’d been in the same venue and about to sound-check when, on medical advice, he was deemed un-fit – very late in the day – to perform. But tonight, promptly re-scheduled and to a full-house, the group is quickly out of the traps and into a mighty ‘Tightrope’: the end-of-tour carnival was away. And beneath that distinctive high tenor, the souped-up band, now numbering twelve, is horse-strong.
In an interview with Terry Staunton in 2012 around the release of the ‘Long Wave’ album, a collection of re-worked covers and old songs from the 1950s and 1960s, Lynne explained how ‘simplicity appeals to me’. ‘If you can hold a simple melody’, he went on, ‘and you don’t disappear up your own arse with complicated lyrics, you’ll end up with a championship winning song’. It’s a familiar formula and one from which, during his fifty year career, Jeff has hardly strayed. Yes, he’s refined the sound, tone and delivery at regular intervals over the decades but, ultimately, he’s still dealing in prime silverware.
Tonight bore all the hall-marks of the end of a first chapter of an unlikely comeback novel: only one track from the current album, ‘Alone In The Universe’, in a set pulled largely from ‘E.L.O’s Greatest Hits’, with the odd surprise along the way. With a prominent date on the Glastonbury main stage later this summer, Lynne’s revival really could develop in any number of directions and to a crowd far removed, in every sense, from that assembled here. Not, of course, that our hero would ever let on: he says little or nothing throughout and, as ever, just looks like he walked onto the stage quite by accident. And perhaps he did ?
In the interests of detail, the usual staples – ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’, ‘Strange Magic’, ‘10538 Overture’, ‘All Over The World’, ‘Telephone Line’ and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ are all present and correct, delivered through a huge wall of sound by a band that includes three string players and two additional keyboardists in support of Richard Tandy’s piano. Indeed Tandy – Lynne’s long-serving side-kick and, along with the spaceships that dominate the lighting design, one of the few remaining links to the group during it’s commercial and creative pomp in the 1970s – must often look wistfully across the vast stage. Bearing the look of a parish priest about to lead a Taizé group at an evening’s folk mass, there was a time when, as part of a seven-man E.L.O. line-up, he delivered that sinewy keyboard sound on his own. The work of three men, indeed.
‘Secret Messages’, the keyboard-led title-track from E.L.O.’s 1983 album of the same name is a wild-card at the half-way point, lost to the many here who stopped buying the group’s records after 1979’s ‘Discovery’. While ‘Shine A Little Love’ and especially ‘Rockaria’ see the band move through the gears and test the bend a little, in full flight and at peak power. With the live strings boosted by huge layers from around the stage this, in every respect, is a real deal. A fact borne out too by Lynne himself who, behind his aviator shades, delivers every number with his eyes closed.
He prefaces ‘Steppin’ Out’ – another lesser-regarded gem from the ‘Out Of The Blue’ double album – with a subtle dig at the original and, when the band assembles at the front of the stage to formally conclude the end of the tour and pose for a crowd-backed ‘selfie’, he just looks bemused, awkward even. Or maybe he’s just taken with the sold-out Dublin crowd who, an unfortunate outbreak of ‘Óle Óle Óle’ apart, roared him home all night ?
And yes of course, the whiff of nostalgia courses through the current narrative but the arrangements and the sense of scale at play here ensure that this is still at a safe distance from arena-sized karaoke. A joy from top to tail, we skipped up the quays in the rain immediately afterwards, listing the many, many songs they chose not to play. And fearing for whoever is unfortunate enough to follow them on-stage at their festival appearances this summer. Because, on this form, there really isn’t much point.