Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Zombies thrill and inspire at the Coach House

The Zombies in the closing moments of their amazing concert in front of a capacity crowd at The Coach House on Saturday night, September 3, 2016 Photo: Robert Kinsler

It may have been the Who that released "Long Live Rock" back in the early 1970s, but leave it to a band dubbed the Zombies to best personify the song's mantra "Be It Dead or Alive!" Because of all the British bands formed at the dawn of the 1960s, the Zombies remain the most "alive" in terms of artistry, exceptional music making and the supernatural ability to create new songs that rival the groundbreaking material recorded during their infancy.

The English quintet (which features founding keyboardist/vocalist Rod Argent and lead singer Colin Blunstone, as well as long-time bassist Jim Rodford, drummer Steve Rodford and guitarist Tom Toomey) performed a set lasting just under 100 minutes at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. Had that fast-moving set been twice as long, it would likely have felt just as brief.
From left, Jim Rodford, Colin Blunstone and
Steve Rodford. Photo: Kim Kinsler

On the second night of their brief West Coast Tour, the Zombies were able to effortlessly blend top-tier material from their 1965 album Begin Here and their 1968 masterwork Odessey and Oracle, as well as their outstanding 2015 disc Still Got That Hunger with spoken introductions providing the enthusiastic audience with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the the group's lengthy career. When Argent or Blunstone sprinkled in the names of Tom Petty, Paul Weller , Dave Grohl or Paul McCartney, it was to enhance understanding the creation of specific songs or the growing influence of the Zombies.

Whether performing their own songs, or reworking classics by greats such as Solomon Burke or Smokey Robinson, the Zombies effortlessly fused rock, soul, pop and jazz together into a sound that thrilled; heck, at times blues and psychedelia were key ingredients of the songs. The icing on the cake were the group's incredible harmonies and Blunstone's time-defying tenor that remains the dazzling wonder it was 50 years ago.

While the crowd packed into the legendary Coach House cheered in delight when the Zombies unleashed their best-known songs (including "Time of the Season" and "Tell Her No"), the performances were so uniformly strong that ultimately this was a night that was not just about any single song, but really about the Zombies overall artistic stamp and enduring legacy.

Here are just a few of the things that stood out for me during the incredible concert:

  • The group opened with "I Love You," with Blunstone having to reach incredibly high notes acapella, bringing cheers from the crowd and palpable power to the concert's earliest moments. 
  • When the Zombies performed a cover of Solomon Burke's "Can't Nobody Love You," the track retained its soulful roots, but was layered with the Zombies' distinctive vocal harmonies.
  • "I Want You Back Again" really showcased how musical drummer Steve Rodford's approach is behind the kit, extending from the way he exacts rhythm and drum fills with a master's touch. And then, there was Argent's incredible jazzy solo on the keyboards.
  • The four-song run of songs from the band's Odessey and Oracle added up to an obvious highlight, and the songs were each delivered with perfection. The baroque pop of "Care of Cell 44" was buoyant and enchanting. "Time of the Season" retained its magical psychedelia sweep known from the iconic 1968 recording, but was bolstered by live dynamics that added to the concert version.
  • "Sticks and Stones," a Ray Charles song covered by the Zombies on their 1965 debut, featured an extended keyboard solo where Toomey put aside his guitar and added some interesting percussion to help propel Argent's work on the keys.
  • "She's Not There" is one of the Zombies' most beloved gems, and the song's performance at the Coach House retained the luster of the studio version with an prolonged keyboard solo and blazing guitar solo showcasing the power of a timeless classic.
  • The Zombies closed the night with an inspired take on the Argent classic "God Gave Rock and Roll to You," which had the grandeur of a Queen classic, with the audience on their feet and singing along on a night this writer will long cherish. Forget about the overwrought early '90s KISS remake of the song and check out the Zombie's anthemic live track somewhere on YouTube.

Opening the concert was singer-songwriter Bruce Sudano, who impressed with his acoustic-flavored blend of blues, folk and lyrical realism, all of it strengthened by the work of lead guitarist Randy Mitchell. Standouts included the gritty realism of his opener "These Shoes," a folk blues reworking of "Bad Girls" (a hit for his wife Donna Summer that the couple co-wrote), aptly-dubbed "Common Sense" and the beautiful "With Angels on a Carousel."

The Zombies' setlist at the Coach House (Saturday, September 3, 2016)
1. I Love you
2. Can't Nobody Love You (Solomon Burke cover)
3. I Want You Back Again
4. Goin' Out of My Head (a cover of Little Anthony & the Imperials' 1964 hit)
5. Moving On
6. Edge of the Rainbow
7. I Don't Believe in Miracles (Colin Blunstone song)
8. Care of Cell 44
9. This Will Be Our Year
10. I Want Her She Wants Me
11. Time of the Season
12. Sticks and Stones (Ray Charles cover)
13. Tell Her No
14. You've Really Got a Hold On Me (Smokey Robinson cover) / Bring It On Home to Me (Sam Cooke cover) - medley of the two songs
15. Caroline Goodbye (a hit off Colin Blunstone's 1971 Chris White-produced debut album)
16. Chasing the Past
17. Hold Your Head Up (Argent cover)
18. She's Not There
19. God Gave Rock and Roll to You (Argent cover)

Review by Robert Kinsler

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