Family Affair: Among those who graced the Wilbur stage were a husband and wife on bass and backing vocals and a father-and-son rhythm section
With an old album to celebrate and a new one to promote, there is no stopping The Zombies.
No one with the slightest inclination to read a review of a Zombies concert needs to be told that the band’s 1968 release Odessey & Oracle is one of the top-tier nobody-heard-it-at-the-time-but-now-only-the-most-wretched-among-those-who-have-heard-it-don’t-like-it albums. Therefore, it was only a matter of time until the band decided to perform it on tour in its entirety.
Although The Zombies were a bit late to this particular party, no one at The Wilbur on Tuesday night was complaining. It turned out, moreover, that they probably had a good reason for having not having done so until this year. As keyboardist and founding member Rod Argent (click for my interview with him) explained toward the end of the show, the current tour would not have happened if any given performer on the stage that night had been unable to take part. This seemed only fair, as bassist Chris White—who, Argent noted, had not been on stage with the band since 1966—wrote seven of the 12 songs on Odessey & Oracle, credit for the release of which should go largely to Columbia Records A&R man and longtime Somerville resident Al Kooper.
Despite having an ample back catalog that could attract a decent-sized audience any time they wanted to tour, Argent and fellow founder/vocalist Colin Blunstone are clearly committed to having new material to perform. Their 2013 U.S. tour (click for my review of their July 2013 show in Arlington, MA), their most extensive stateside trek in many years, served as a somewhat belated opportunity to promote the 2011 album Breathe Out, Breathe In.
This time around, the band was out to not only show off their 47-year-old masterpiece, but to foster interest what was on Tuesday night the not yet officially released Still Got That Hunger.
The attention paid to the new material was far from perfunctory. Six of the 13 songs that made up the evening’s first set were from Still Got That Hunger. Although “I Want You Back Again” is a rerecording of a song from the pre-Odessey & Oracle days, the lyrics to “Moving On” (“What doesn’t kill me will fill me with life”) and “Chasing the Past” (“I will take tomorrow and give it hell”) made it unmistakably evident that these guys who would otherwise qualify as old age pensioners are living in the present and look forward to a fruitful future. (“Maybe Tomorrow,” another new song, includes a quoted Beatles lyric that, according to Argent, Sony Publishing insisted they remove but Paul McCartney personally approved.)
Of course, a band with as much history as The Zombies certainly has every right to fondly reflect up on its past. However, they did so somewhat mawkishly—but also somewhat touchingly—on the new song “New York,” in which Argent recalls the band’s first trip to the United States in December 1964, the highlight of which was a Christmas Day visit to Brooklyn’s Fox Theatre, where Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles “simply took [his] breath away.”
Other celebratory nods to times gone by included “Caroline Goodbye” from Blunstone’s 1971 solo debut, “Hold Your Head Up,” the 1972 number by Rod’s classic rock band Argent, and the timeless Zombies singles “Tell Her No” (which came off as an interesting Beach Boys-yacht rock mixture) and “She’s Not There.”
When the band reconvened after an intermission, it was with drummer Hugh Grundy, who was a member of the 1961-1967 Zombies line-up, and bassist Chris White, who came aboard in 1962. (Original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004.) Also lending his talents was Darian Sahanaja, who has been a permanent fixture of Brian Wilson’s backing band since 1999.
Members of the Odessey & Oracle line-up (L-R): Rod Argent, Chris White, Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone
Together, they presented Odessey & Oracle—which made up the whole of the second set—without any of the fanfare or embellishment that would have been superfluous for an album of such innate splendor. Instead, the band simply played each song back-to-back, with each member reprising his respective vocal roles, so as to not dilute the cumulative impact. Particularly striking was the physically imposing Chris White’s execution of the evocative “The Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).” Alone at the mic with Argent by his side on the organ, White masterfully captured the terror felt by a young man trapped in the throes of World War I.
With their voices and chops still in prime shape, their enthusiasm clearly undiminished, and a new album that dropped three days after this show, The Zombies are somehow—after more than 50 years—still in it for the long haul.
Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone, left, and keyboardist Rod Argent
When keyboardist and songwriter Rod Argent was in his 19th year of life (1964), his band The Zombies charted two top 10 singles: “She’s Not There” (#2) and “Tell Her No” (#6). When he was 23, The Zombies hit #3 with “Time of the Season” despite having split a year-and-a-half earlier.
Although the band was dead, its popularity was still very much alive.
If you haven’t heard any of the aforementioned Zombies songs, which is impossible, then maybe you remember “The Way I Feel Inside” from the movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
No? Well then you’ve heard Rod Argent playing piano on the theme to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Rod Argent and his longtime bandmate Colin Blunstone will be undead only in the sense of being very much alive when the current incarnation of The Zombies creeps into the Regent Theatre in Arlington on Sunday. Argent spoke with me about his life and career, past and present.
When did you and Colin Blunstone decide to start working together again?
We got back together again because in 1999, I did a charity concert for a jazz musician friend of mine called John Dankworth, who was building a new theater and was trying to raise money for it. Colin was in the audience, and he come [sic] up and just sang on the spur of the moment “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There.” We had such a ball going it that afterwards he said, “Why don’t we just put six gigs together for fun?”
So we put a fabulous band together, and it was so nice that, completely unplanned, that has turned into 13 years of touring around the world. No planning at all. It just grew to that, which is extraordinary.
Was the audience expecting it? What was the reaction?
Oh, they loved it, they really did. And it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and they absolutely loved it.
It’s got to the stage now where it’s very important to us to actually get excited about new material. For the last album [2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In] to get really great reviews both in the US – people like Huffington Post – and in the UK was very gratifying, actually.
The young Zombies (l to r): Rod Argent, Chris White, Paul Atkinson, Colin Blunstone, Hugh Grundy
Have there been any covers of your songs that have particularly impressed you?
I think the obvious one is the Santana version of “She’s Not There,” which I thought was absolutely great. And that completely knocked me out because I’ve always loved Santana, and the fact that that song brought them back to Hit Parade status, chart status, again after quite a few years without a hit gave me a kick.
Dusty Springfield did a version of one of my songs called “If It Don’t Work Out,” which I thought was terrific as well, on the Everything’s Coming Up Dusty album. I wrote it for her. We were on tour with her in the UK. At the end of one week she said to me, “Would you write me a song?” And I wrote it that weekend and played it to her. She loved it. It turned out to be the first track on the album but it was never a single.
Is it true that you had difficulty entering the United States back in the early days of The Zombies?
Oh yeah. The unionization of the music business in the States was enormous at the time. It was extremely difficult to come over, and it had to be in exchange for other musicians. I know one point we came in exchange for Duke Ellington who was really – is still – one of my heroes, actually. I thought that was amazing.
When did it sink in that Odessey and Oracle (1968) was considered to be a classic in some circles?
It started about 12, 13 or 14 years after it came out. People started to talk about it, and it gathered momentum.
Paul Weller, when he was #1 with The Jam and the punk explosion, completely floored us by saying that it was his favorite album of all time.
About a week ago he was on Radio 4, which is a pretty up-market radio station in the UK. He was talking about Odessey and Oracle and he said the same thing again, and he played “Beechwood Park” from it. That was really nice.
And many people started saying similar things about it – emerging artists and well-known artists. Tom Petty wrote in the Zombies box set (Zombie Heaven) that if The Zombies were around today, they’d rule the world, or something really, really nice.
Dave Grohl, from the Foo Fighters, last year on a Scandinavian television show was asked, “What is the track that changed your life?” And he thought about it and he chose “Care of Cell 44” from Odessey and Oracle.
It goes on and on. The Vaccines, who are a very hot teenage indie band in the UK, last year made a 45-second video on the Net saying that it was their favorite album.
How large does the legacy of your post-Zombies band Argent loom?
We always play “Hold Your Head Up,” and that’s a really highlight of the set, actually. The majority of that song was written by Chris White, the bass player for The Zombies, who became sort of a silent member of Argent, in the sense of being a co-producer and a co-writer. He actually wrote “Hold Your Head Up” out of an idea from when he heard us playing a version of “Time of the Season.” We played a sort of experimental version of “Time of the Season” and took it into a different improvised area. He was in the audience and loved what he was hearing and wrote a song around it. That song became “Hold Your Head Up.” It has a real link with “Time of the Season.”
Al Kooper, who was a vocal champion Odessey and Oracle when CBS Records wanted to pass on it, lives in Somerville, a town next to Arlington. Will you be seeing him while you are in town?
Very possibly. He supported us about a week ago in Philadelphia. It was the first time that we ever played together. It was lovely seeing him, and he said that might well be coming up to the Arlington show.
Without Al, [Odessey and Oracle] wouldn’t have been known by anybody. He took it to Clive Davis and said, “Whoever’s got this album, you’ve got to buy it and release it.” [CBS president] Clive Davis said, “Well we’ve got it, but we passed on it already.” [laughs] Al said, “Well you can’t. You have to put it out.”
So he had everything to do with that album coming out.
With Et Tu Brucé
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