Not breaking any huge news here, but the world’s almost out of Traveling Wilburys.
Thankfully, we somehow still have Jeff Lynne’s ELO swirling through the cosmos, dropping heavenly harmonies from their laser-lit spaceship.
Who’d have thought, back in the ‘80s, that Lynne, of all people, would be the last arena-rocker standing from the Wilburys? Yes, that Jeff Lynne, the ‘fro-rocking studio wizard who for ages seemed more content manning the boards for Petty, Orbison and the Beatles than singing his own ‘70s hits?
But on Sunday at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Lynne’s modern-day ELO sounded like a band both far out of time, and landing exactly where they’re needed most, enthralling a sold-out crowd of 12,600 with a night of ambitious, meticulously crafted pop perfection and lean, mean roller-disco rockers.
Quick history lesson: Jeff Lynne's ELO is not the same, not exactly, as the original Electric Light Orchestra -- not the one behind Evil Woman and Mr. Blue Sky, or the one inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. Gone are his old, classic bandmates; even keyboardist Richard Tandy, ostensibly still a member, was absent on Sunday.
No, this really is "Jeff Lynne's ELO” everyone came to see, and for good reason. The 71-year-old singer, songwriter and producer, having legally reclaimed the initials (if not the full name) to his most successful project, has in the last few years toured more than he has in decades; this was his first Tampa show in something like 40 years. And he might be enjoying it even more than he did way back when.
With a band of 12 behind him, including three keyboards and a three-piece strings section, Lynne had plenty of ammo to bring his exacting pop architecture to life. He traded his own aching lead vocals with several singers throughout the night, happy to let a wave of strings and Moogs and vocals wash him over. His signature productions, always so airy and HD-crisp, felt bolder, beefier, larger than life, without sacrificing the precise harmonies and pizzicato power-plucks of songs like Sweet Talkin’ Woman or Evil Woman. The pristinely executed classical-rock arrangements of Turn to Stone and Mr. Blue Sky showed that, for all the love lavished on Queen and Elton John of late, Lynne’s comfortably in their league as a composer.
And he can go sweet and simple, too. When I Was a Boy sounded as Beatle-y as a song can sound without being written by the Beatles. The pristine, chamber-poppy Livin’ Thing was pure joy set to a fiddle, and Xanadu, ELO’s 1980 hit with Olivia Newton-John, wasn't far off. And he got a standing O for the powerful, prog-tinted soul-stirrer Showdown.
The disco-symphony sweetness of All Over the World and Last Train to London were either extremely your bag or they weren’t; at the very least, Lynne deserves credit for dropping them into a major tour setlist some 40 years after disco supposedly died. And if the sweeping strings and maudlin synths of Wild West Hero and Telephone Line crossed a line of saccharinity, at least they did so proudly, with Lynne’s architectural ambition and laser lights on full display.
Anyway, those softer moments were a small price to pay for any song where ELO went fully electric. The boisterous piano pulse of Evil Woman, chug-a-lugging blues of Rockaria! and ageless shag-carpet shuffle of Don’t Bring Me Down pulled fans to their feet. But Amalie Arena might hear a better rock performance this year than Do Ya, a song that dates back to Lynne’s pre-ELO band the Move. That song’s roaring power chords basically sounded like every great Cars song that came after.
And while the Traveling Wilburys may be endangered, Lynne isn’t letting them go extinct just yet. For Handle With Care, he brought out a special guest to share lead vocal: Opening act Dhani Harrison. Hearing Harrison sing his father George’s lines, with Lynne filling in for Dylan and Petty -- as vintage footage of the whole supergroup played behind them, no less -- was touching, sort of a cross-generational testament to Lynne’s legacy.
There aren’t many producers today who write ‘em like Lynne did, crisp yet complex and uncompromising. ELO’s return to proper touring hasn’t sacrificed a bit of that vision. The rest of the Wilburys, wherever they are, would be proud.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.