Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Zombies - Still Excellent 40 Years Later

That's right: 40 years. That's 105 in rock-n-roll time. A major part of the British invasion of 1965-68, The Zombies broke up before the release of their second album, Odessey and Oracle in 1968. That album was never played live, even though it contained their huge hit, Time of the Season. In the late 90s, after Odessey had become a cult favorite among critics and music geeks worldwide, genius composer and keyboardist, Rod Argent, and angelically breathy vocalist, Colin Blunstone, reformed and finally performed to throngs of worshippers, first in England and then the U.S.

I am one of those worshippers. While we vacationed on the Connecticut coast last week, Keith happened to notice in the local paper that The Zombies were playing at the Mohegan Sun Casino down the road a ways. "Don't you like The Zombies?" he asked as we sat on his mom's couch, surrounded by piles of summer reading materials: literary mysteries, People Magazine, and several newspapers (bought in a frenzy of Internet deprivation). "I love The Zombies," I replied, putting all the emphasis I could on the word "love."

After determining that they were playing that very night, we made babysitting arrangements and headed deep into the rocky, forested Indian reservation that now holds North America's largest casino. Before you get all, "A Ca-SINO?!" on me, let me say that some of the best shows I've ever seen were at iffy venues that shouldn't have been any good, but against all odds, were beyond excellent: Johnny Cash and The Carter Sisters in a tent at the Marin County Fair; Sun Ra and his Arkestra at The Market St. Cinema (a former porn theater and strip club) in San Francisco; McCoy Tyner playing two sets in the middle of the afternoon in the SFSU Student Union building, which is made entirely out of cement and has no meeting places in order to deter would-be snipers. The point is: don't ever miss a show because of the venue.

The show took place in the Earth Casino (as opposed to the even bigger Sky Casino next door) in the Wolf Den--one of those open theaters in the middle of the building where everyone could peek over the railing to see the show, but filtered through a wall of slot-machine noise. Because it was free, we had to wait in a very long line consisting almost entirely of 63-year-old guys and their dates, who all had the look of former high school jazz ensemble students. Everyone was very eager to get in the club, but because of the advanced age of the audience, the stress of waiting manifested itself in murmurs of emcouragement and optimism that the 350 seats would not fill up before the 8 p.m. show time. With age comes patience, I guess.

The Earth Casino is decorated in such a way that if you removed all the gambling paraphernalia, you would be standing inside the largest tribal meeting house in world history. Everything is in Earth-tones, decorated with tradtitional Native American patterns. Raw timber beams criss cross above you in graphic configurations, framing gigantic shields seemingly made of mastodon leather (what else could be that leathery and that big?). Life-sized animatronic wolf statues perch high above you on false stone pillars, occasionally wagging their tails, flattening their ears, and eyeing the gamblers below hungrily. It was, as they say, a weird scene.

Once seated, the casino noises faded away completely (but unfortunately not the cigar smoke). I noted that everything I had seen so far was incredibly high-tech and expensive (yes, even the raw wood timber pillars), and that included the sound board nearby so I had a good feeling going in. This feeling was magnified as the Zombies started their set with a cover of I Love You, a 1968 release by People. Nice.

The Zombies look about ten years younger than they really are. Colin Blunstone is still handsome and has a wonderfully sweet stage presence, smiling serenely and swinging his arms slightly to the beat. His voice is so lovely--none of the nasal quality of youth, just smooth and lilting. If you listen to it long enough, endorphins will rush about your brain for a nice floaty feeling. Rod Argent appears to have a serious gym membership going on and is doing some musically weird-ass stuff with his keyboards; kind of jazzy, kind of proggy in parts. I would like to just watch his fingers to try and figure out what's going on back there, but no such luck. He's the musician as magician. The band was TIGHT. The Zombies have always been musicians' musicians: lyrical, mysterious, musically intelligent.

Plus they're happy to be playing all these songs live. I've never seen such a happy band. "This is our second time here," enthused Argent. "We love playing at the Wolf Den and playing for you--it's wonderful." I get the feeling that if you met The Zombies and started acting all crazy and fan-like, they would smile, pat your arm, and say, "You're TOO kind!"

More highlights: A swinging, prog-rock(?) cover of What Becomes of The Broken Hearted, an early-80s synthesized hit for Blunstone. Three songs from Odessey, plus Time of the Season: A Rose for Emily, Beechwood Park, Care of Cell 44. Time of the Season was so sublime--incredible keyboard solo by Argent while Blunstone stood still in the middle of the stage, occasionally snapping his fingers by his thigh, intently listening to his bandmate play. That got a great big standing O to acknowledge one of the best pop songs of all time. It's fun to see an audience of older guys pumping their fists in the air with big smiles on their faces. Much enthusiasm for Tell Her No, as well, an underrated 60s hit.

Two Argent solo songs: Hold Your Head Up and God Gave Rock 'N' Roll To You, had me thinking about the Zombies premature breakup. I imagine the dialogue went something like this:

Rod Argent: Hey gents--give a listen. I've written a new song to herald in the 70s! (Plays a bit of Hold Your Head Up.)

Zombies look on with blank, open-mouthed expressions.

Colin Blunstone: B-b-but I thought we were a psychedelic pop band, known for our astounding harmonies sailing over glittering minor-key melodies.

Argent: We ARE. I just want to rock out a little sometimes. Is that so bad?

Blunstone: I can't be wailing over this thumping, driving beat. I'll get vocal nodules for certain!

Argent: FINE. I'll do it myself then. I'm taking the bass player from The Kinks with me. Maybe you'll see us around in 40 years.

Blunstone: Smashing. I'll try my hand at insurance then. I understand the benefits are excellent.

In any case, it's very exciting to have them back together, touring, and enriching our lives once more. The show filled me with ecstasy and wonder. You can't ask for more than that.

Last song of the evening:

Wait! There's more:

- The Zombies are coming to a casino near you this summer. And to The Wonder Ballroom in Portland, July 23rd.

- "Live at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London"(2005) is a live recording of the entire "Oracle and Odessey" album, as performed for the first time in 40 years. Critically acclaimed--Colin's mature voice: dreamy!

- Sure, you know Santana covered The Zombies, but so has Beck, Elliott Smith, Of Montreal, and Action Camp, among many others.

-The History of The Zombies (NRK Lydverket) - the narration isn't in English but the footage and the interviews are fantastic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was there and loved the show. But I'm a cute, much younger gal and came on my own to see my guy, Colin. It was exciting from start to finish