Monday, October 03, 2011

The Zombies deliver magic in stunning set at The Coach House

Zombies photos courtesy of Bob Steshetz

The Zombies still full of life in San Juan Capistrano

Over the past few years a number of musicians, fellow scribes and even my favorite journalism professor have encouraged me to catch the Zombies, one of the finer (is also less-celebrated and short-lived) bands to emerge from the British Invasion of the ’60s. Sunday night (Oct. 2, 2011) I finally made good on that promise, as the quintet headlined the Coach House on the final date of a stateside tour commemorating their 50th anniversary.

It’s easy to excuse any rock band formed in 1961 of merely playing the nostalgia card decades later, but thankfully that isn’t the Zombies’ approach under the renewed co-stewardship of lead vocalist Colin Blunstone and keyboardist and vocalist Rod Argent. A near-capacity crowd welcomed the group to San Juan Capistrano to hear a mix of material stretching from its earliest singles to songs from the band’s wonderful new studio disc Breathe Out, Breathe In.

The extraordinary range of the band’s material was delivered masterfully across 21 songs by a lineup of players whose powers are undiminished. The Zombies’ initial run lasted only until 1968, when they broke up in part because of the poor commercial response to their album Odessey & Oracle, which, much like Love’s Forever Changes from ’67, has been widely deemed a masterpiece in later year. As Argent explained before the outfit performed a sequence of songs from that album on Sunday, interest in it continues to grow: Foo Fighters covered the winsome optimism of “This Will Be Our Year” on their Medium Rare covers collection; OK Go also recorded a version of it, while Beck has exhibited a repeated fondness for the album, particularly the moodier “Beechwood Park.”

From start to finish at the Coach House, whether on high notes or in tight harmonies, Blunstone’s far-reaching voice soared on that material and other gems plucked from the Zombies’ catalog. Argent proved equally skilled, singing and playing his Kurzweil electric keyboard and Hammond organ with both flash and technical skill throughout the night. But Jim Rodford, a member of Argent and the Kinks before joining the Zombies this decade, is the band’s secret weapon. His harmonizing capabilities and precision on bass helped fill out the lush, gorgeous sound here.

Also featured in the lineup is Rodford’s son Steve on drums, whose powerful attack and in-the-pocket skills add modern-day energy to these Zombies. His mighty approach worked on covers of Argent’s ’70s rock material (“Hold Your Head Up,” “God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You”) while still showing he could pull back for the nuanced delivery of those cherished gems “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season.”

The new album’s title track, on the other hand, allowed Blunstone (above) and Argent (below), both 66, to sing together against the song’s Steely Dan-esque jazz-rock soundscape. Flamenco guitar, courtesy of fast-fingered Tom Toomey, was incorporated on the infectious melodic rocker “Any Other Way.”

Yet some of the most thrilling moments still stemmed from Odessey & Oracle — the sad, plaintive piece “A Rose for Emily,” for instance, the sparseness of which couldn’t have been more exquisite, or the deceptively bouncy prisoner’s tale “Care of Cell 44,” a baroque-tinged slice of dandy psychedelia that continues to defy easy categorization. Their vocal work was distinctive and effortless, and just about every selection was a lesson in how seasoned artists who still care can bring something new to each performance.

Opening were two other strong acts: Southern California’s own Scarlet Furies kicked off the evening with a creative mix of original Americana material and artful remakes (including a stark handling of “House of the Rising Sun”) that impressed the cheering audience. Singer Raleigh Holmes has a beautiful, emotive soprano that shined amid hushed moments (“Straits of Our Love,” “The Breaking”), uptempo rockers (“Better Off Dead”), even a rockabilly take on Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Had My Way.”

Another long-running English group, folkies-turned-prog-rockers the Strawbs, served up 45 minutes of winning acoustic material with smart arrangements that spotlighted the talents of singer-guitarist David Cousins, guitarist Dave Lambert and bassist/guitarist Chas Cronk. Highlights included the political fire of “New World,” the poignant “Copenhagen” and the textured beauty of “Ghosts.”

Setlist: The Zombies at the Coach House, Oct. 2, 2011
Main set: Sticks and Stones / I Love You / Can’t Nobody Love You / Breathe Out, Breathe In / What Becomes of the Brokenhearted / Tell Me Where You Are / Show Me the Way / Any Other Way / A Rose for Emily / Care of Cell 44 / This Will Be Our Year / Beechwood Park / I Want Her, She Wants Me / Time of the Season / Play It for Real / A Moment in Time / Whenever You’re Ready / Tell Her No / Hold Your Head Up / She’s Not There
Encore: God Gave Rock ’n’ Roll to You / Summertime

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