When you're equally obsessive about baseball and music, there will inevitably be times when your passions conflict and tough decisions have to be made. Last night was a prime example: Stay home and watch the Chicago Cubs make their first NLCS appearance in twelve years — or go up to Milwaukee and see the Zombies perform their 1967 masterpiece Odessey and Oracle in its entirety?
Since the Cubs were only playing the first game of a best-of-seven series — and since I've loved the Zombies even longer than I've loved the Cubs — Rod Argent, Colin Blunstone and the gang ultimately won out. After all, Odessey is one of the few albums that's remained in steady rotation on my turntable (and various digital devices) for over thirty years. I'd previously only known the Zombies for their trio of U.S. hits — "She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time of the Season," all of which I'd fallen in love with via late-70s trawls through my Aunt Geri's 45 collection — but the full measure of the band's brilliance was finally brought home to me in 1984, when my mom's then-boyfriend lent me his Time of the Zombies collection, a 2-LP set which contained Odessey and Oracle in its entirety.
The "artist plays classic album in concert" trope has admittedly become a bit overdone in recent years, but this show was worth taking a chance on for a couple of reasons. One, Odessey and Oracle is a gorgeous jewel box of an album, as near to perfection in terms of songwriting, performance, production and sheer emotional resonance as any 1960s British record ever came. Two, the tour is being musically assisted by Darian Sahanaja, a.k.a "Brian Wilson's secret weapon," and a man whose skills and integrity have never failed to impress me in the two decades or so that we've been friends. If Darian was along for the ride, I figured, there was little danger of half-baked performances or period-inappropriate arrangements; no out-of-place synth squonks or chorus-drenched guitar excursions for this lot, then.
As it turns out, Darian only appears on stage with the band during their second set — the one in which they perform Odessey. The Zombies are actually carrying one-and-a-half bands on this tour; the first set of the night, a mixture of early hits and songs from their new record, Still Got That Hunger, is performed by Argent and Blunstone with Argent's cousin (and co-founder of Argent the band) Jim Rodford on bass, Steve Rodford (Jim's son) on drums, and Tom Toomey on guitar. For the Odessey set, the original Zombies rhythm section of Chris White and Hugh Grundy takes over on bass and drums, while the Rodfords move over to percussion, Jim joins White's wife Viv Boucherat on backing vocals, and Darian comes on to work the Mellotron and other keyboards and add some backing vocals of his own.
I've seen some iffy reviews of the band's first set on this tour, which have mostly taken issue with the preponderance of new songs and Argent and Blunstone's between-song chattiness. But while I would have certainly loved to hear more old favorites and obscurities (I would have completely lost my mind if they'd played "I Could Spend the Day"), most of the new songs were actually really good — and I found Argent and Blunstone's anecdotes about specific songs to be both illuminating and incredibly charming. The band was tight, Blunstone's vocals were quite powerful (and far more so than I would have expected); and if the inevitable "Hold Your Head Up" jam went on a tad too long for my taste, the presence of a re-arranged "I Want You Back Again" (which featured some glorious Vince Guaraldi-esque piano chords from Argent) and Blunstone's solo gem "Caroline Goodbye" in the set more than made up for it.
After a short intermission, which gave my wife Katie and I just enough time to split a Pepsi — the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center turns out to be located in a high school, so nothing stronger than soft drinks was available in the foyer — the Odessey set got underway, and I don't think my words can do it adequate justice. I've seen Arthur Lee and the Baby Lemonade-resuscitated Love play Forever Changes, Brian Wilson play Pet Sounds and the Soft Boys play most of Underwater Moonlight, to name three of my other all-time favorite albums; but as incredible as those experiences were, none of them hit me like last night's performance did. Not only was each song beautifully, perfectly essayed, but it was as if each was intentionally vying with the others to make me go, "Okay, THIS is my favorite track on the album. No, wait — THIS one is!"
For me, the two emotional high points were "Hung Up On a Dream," whose breathtaking, dream-like beauty was so additionally overwhelming live that I actually started crying, and "The Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)," which saw Chris White take center stage, assisted only by Argent on pump organ and Darian on Mellotron. The anti-war message of the latter song has only become more profound over the ensuing decades, and there was something additionally poignant about seeing White — who now looks like a retired businessman — bring the frightened young narrator of the song to life on stage.
If the evening had ended with "Time of the Season" and a full-band jam on "She's Not There," it would have been more than enough, but Darian invited us and a few of our friends backstage afterwards to shoot the shit and meet most of the band. I was repeatedly struck by what a humble lot they are — Colin Blunstone, in particular, still seems a bit shocked by how phenomenally well-loved Odessey has become, and he told us a hilarious story about Paul Weller ambushing him backstage at one of their recent London performances, enfolding him in a massive bear hug and telling him, "You don't know how much this means to me!" ("Our playing the album, not the hug," Colin helpfully clarified.)
Chris White and Hugh Grundy were incredibly lovely, as well, and came off like guys with whom you could happily pass several hours in the pub. They happily posed for several photos with our group, and I'm not sure which memory will stay with me longer — White's performance of "Butcher's Tale," or the comical fart noises he was making with his mouth while this ridiculous photo was being taken:
It was also a real pleasure to finally meet Jim Rodford, who I first became familiar with in the late 70s, when he joined the Kinks on bass. I told him that I'd seen about fifteen Kinks shows between the years of 1983 and 1995, and that — as the Kinks' longest-serving bass man — he'd been at center stage for all of them. He grinned and said, "You must be a real glutton for punishment!" "Though probably not as much as you," I replied. "Fair point," he laughed...
A truly wonderful — and incredibly memorable — evening, to be sure. If you're a Zombies fan and still have a chance to see this tour (I think they're heading west from here), you absolutely must go. I have absolutely no regrets about choosing them over the Cubs, who wound up being dominated by Matt Harvey of the Mets last night, and lost 4-2. Still plenty of baseball to be played, though. This will be our year? Still hoping...