Concert Review: Moody Blues – April 21, 2010

Maybe you’ve been lucky. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of attending a concert where the performer was truly, really, wholly into it. I was lucky the other night. I saw the Moody Blues in concert.

Yes, the Moody Blues. I know what you might be thinking. A long string of hits, sure. But nothing in the last couple decades. A bunch of guys in their sixties. What could they possibly have to offer beyond nostalgia?

Plenty, as a matter of fact. There are three members remaining from the classic lineup, or as hardcore Moodys fan might say, from the Moody Blues Mk II. Mk I, you may recall, was fronted by Denny Laine — later of Wings — and scored a hit with Bessie Banks‘ “Go Now.” But that lineup folded, and the group that came together to record the groundbreaking Days of Future Passed in 1967 is the one that people remember.

And it’s the one that had all the hits. By 1972 the Moody Blues had racked up an impressive string of hit albums and singles. Tired of the frenetic pace, they took an extended hiatus in ’72, during which time the various members busied themselves with solo albums. All have their moments.

They came back together in 1977 to record Octave, but by the end of that album’s sessions, Mellotron player Mike Pinder threw in the towel; he had had enough of the touring life.

In the early 80s the group — augmented with Swiss keyboard player Patrick Moraz — staged a surprising comeback. They returned to the charts with another string of hit albums and singles, aided in no small part by several music videos. Some of those have aged well, and some are cringingly, horribly dated.

In the mid part of the new century’s first decade, flautist Ray Thomas retired from the group owing to (non-life-threatening) health reasons. As Graeme Edge explained it, “He struggled on the road for two or three years; it was kind of heartbreaking. He finally had to say, ‘I can’t do it any more.'”

So now the group is down to Justin Hayward (guitar, vocals), John Lodge (bass, vocals) and Edge (drums, spoken word interludes). Onstage they’re augmented by a keyboard player, a second drummer, and two female multi-instrumentalists. One plays additional keys and acoustic guitar, and handles high vocal harmonies. The other plays tambourine, guitar, and all of Ray Thomas’ flute parts. She sings as well, and can do a mean karate kick.

Onstage, the band rocks quite credibly for a bunch of older gentlemen. While the supporting musicians do indeed support, there’s little doubt that Hayward, Lodge and Edge still can deliver the goods.

An underrated lead guitarist, Hayward makes it clear onstage that he’s no slouch. In addition to still nailing all of his vocal parts — he sounds exactly the same singing “Tuesday Afternoon” as he did some 43 years ago — he also cranks out a number of impressive (if brief) guitar solos. On “The Day We Meet Again” (one of a surprising three Octave cuts in the current set list) he plays a vintage Farfisa organ.

Lodge still wears leather pants onstage, and though he’s a bit weathered-looking, his playing is none the worse for wear. At one point in the show he strolls onstage with a double-neck axe that’s half Fender P-bass, half Telecaster with left-handed neck. His pipes haven’t failed him, either.

Then there’s Graeme Edge. The band’s eldest member — he’ll soon be 69 — the drummer makes it clear throughout the set that there is nowhere on earth he’d rather be at this moment than on that stage, playing for us nice people. He grins throughout the performance. At one point, he drops a stick. Without missing a beat (literally), his co-drummer takes note of the situation, and tosses Edge a stick — overhand, across the expanse of the stage — while both continue to play. Edge catches it and continues playing as well.

At one point Edge comes out front to do the Ringo thing. Not only does he shake a tambourine and do some spoken-word bits. Though Edge wrote the spoken interludes that are a hallmark of Moody Blues albums (“Breathe deep the gathering gloom…” “There you go, man; keep as cool as you can…” “Live hand in hand, and together we’ll stand…”), original keyboardist Mike Pinder was often the one who recited most of them. Edge told me in a recent interview that “back then, Mike had the big brown voice, and I was still young and high-pitched. But thanks to the ravages of whisky and cigarettes, I’m back down where his voice was now.”

What’s more, Edge dances across the stage at one point, doing that Michael Flatley the-top-half-of-my-body-doesn’t-move Irish dancing stuff.

Is the banter scripted? Sure. When Lodge introduces the rarely-performed “Peak Hour” from Days of Future Passed, his intro isn’t all that different from one night to the next (I saw one show on the current tour, and listened to an audience recording of another, so I know). You want spontaneity, go see a band full of 23 year olds. And see how many timeless songs they can serve up.

No, there isn’t any new material. The band has two hours to make the audience happy, and they balance their set deftly between the hit songs the punters pay to hear (admittedly great songs like “Ride My See Saw”) and deep album cuts that only hardcore fans would know (“Driftwood” from Octave again, featuring Hayward at his most yearning and romantic).

Short of actually dragging a Mellotron onstage (hey, Bigelf does it), the 2010 edition of the Moody Blues re-creates their classic hits in a manner reasonably close to the album versions. Thanks to a device called the Memotron (a reliable and lightweight digital descendant of the Mellotron), the keyboard player reproduces many of Pinder’s classic sounds. While there is a slight 80s feel to some of the keyboard sounds, that’s only fair. The group’s third chart run did span that era.

The PA sound is excellent. “That takes a lot of work and effort, but we’ve always prided ourselves on having a good live sound,” Edge told me. “We’ve always stayed on the pointed end of technology.” The band members all use in-ear monitors rather than old-fashioned foldback monitors. The result is also a cleaner-looking stage setup, and plenty of room for Lodge to roam (his bass was wireless).

I’m lucky to see them. The show is slightly better paced than the 2008 tour, and the song selection is a bit more interesting. The group plays at least one track from each of their seven classic-era albums, and while this reviewer could have done with a bit less of the 80s material, those tunes do rank among the evening’s most well-received numbers.

Tickets aren’t cheap — in most markets the cheapest seats go for $45 and up — but for a show that balances nostalgia with some genuinely exciting rock and roll moments, you could do a lot worse than go see the Moody Blues in 2010.

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