Live At Bloomsbury Theatre, London
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
When Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone began playing selected venues together in 2003, it was the first time they’d played material by The Zombies in nearly 40 years. With the help of Argent’s cousin, bassist Jim Rodford (who’d played with Argent in the band that bore the keyboard player’s name), Rodford’s son, Steve on drums and Blunstone band ex-patriot Don Airey on guitar, the duo began breathing new life into The Zombies catalogue. “Live at Bloombury Theatre, London” is a visual document of the band in concert, and they’re well-rehearsed and refined. The guys may have aged, but their music and their skills haven’t.
“Andorra” opens the concert, and the only reason I can see for starting with this relatively unknown Blunstone solo tune is it gives the entire band a chance to stretch out. One thing you’ll notice right away is that Blunstone is firmly planted at the mike and doesn’t move. If he wasn’t moving his lips, you’d swear he was Colin Blue-as-stone. He and Argent are both dressed in black, and Blunstone keeps his jacket on, looking more like a snooty Londoner heading out to dinner than a working singer. But Blunstone’s imitation of a gentleman zombie is a bit of a necessity. In order to produce his mellifluous voice, he has to stand relatively still so his body won’t shake. Trust me, I’ve done my share of singing live and when you run around stage to juice the crowd up you have to make sure you’re not actually trying to sing, because you’ll sound like you’re in a cement mixer, or worse, you’ll run out of breath. Any voice that starts out in a high range like Blunstone’s and climbs even higher during the course of a song needs a steady platform. You don’t see a whole lot of movement from Mariah Carey or Celine Dion when they’re attacking those impossibly high notes. Same goes for Blunstone, whose idea of stage theatrics is to move his arms upward toward the lights. No matter. If you’re into theatrics, you’ll eventually get your share from Argent and Airey. Airey’s fingers jump from string to string during his “Andorra” solo and Argent, hunched over his keyboards like a mad doctor wrestling with his creation, is still a creative perfectionist to be reckoned with.
The jaunty “This Will Be Our Year” is enhanced by the many split screen images of the performers and Argent’s between song history lesson about the “Odessy and the Oracle” album. “I Love You” gets similar historical treatment from Argent, who notes the song was a hit in America by The Hello People (now how’s that for trivia?). “I Love You” offers the first real glance at drummer Steve Rodford (bassist Jim’s son) who’s bathed in blue light and looks still young enough to need a hall pass. Jim Rodford is nimble and bouncy on the bass and Argent, who should have major back problems, remains a hunched wizard on the keys.
“A Rose For Emily” is an intricate, difficult failure. Resurrected from the “Odessy and the Oracle” album, it’s a dated curio. Blunstone grimaces slightly trying to hit the high notes, but he does hit them. Except for the occasional pained look he remains a study in poise.
An inspired Argent briefly huddles with Rodford, Blunstone and Airey then admits to the crowd that the song they’re about to attempt (another “Odessy and the Oracle” track) has never been played live. The Band can smile at the end of “Beechwood Park” because they do a credible job.
Airey gets the job all would-be rockers in the 60s wanted; he gets to sing the “aahs” on “Time of the Season.” Blunstone is out of his jacket now, and although he’s hardly sprinting around the stage, he’s as animated as he’s going to get. Argent’s solos are all the theatrics you’ll need, his hands are a virtual blur as he plays and his head bobs so hard it looks like its going to snap off. Argent doesn’t hold back and it’s an excellent performance all around, with Blunstone hitting some incredibly fine notes.
With Argent seated at the piano making mama proud she paid for his piano lessons, “I Want to Fly” is a showcase for Blunstone. He’s shot partially in silhouette, and there are a few scenes of birds on the wing and clouds thrown in to keep you interested and at ease. Watch closely and you’ll see a master singer at work, shaping his mouth into an “O” so that the words flow with perfect diction. He also breaths from the diaphragm just the way they teach you in lead singer school. Take that, Mick Jagger.
“Keep on Rolling” is a mediocre tune to listen to, but impressive to watch. Argent attacks his piano like a pumped up Jerry Lee Lewis, shaking his mop as he riffs on the honky tonk arrangement. The guy never looks at the keys as he plays impossible solos at supersonic speed – I guess after forty years in the business you really do know what you’re doing. Rodford bops with his bass and Airey grinds his guitar as Steve Rodford beats against the demons of the blue light. Poor Colin looks lost, rocking out just isn’t his thing, but he steps in and provides a tasteful back up vocal when called upon.
The production and performance elements are on display non-stop in “Hold Your Head Up.” There’s more split screening, black and white imagery, and the nifty trick of shifting the camera back and forth between Argent and Steve Rodford. When Stevie bangs the drums the camera zooms in on him; it bounces back to Argent then back to Steve as he bangs out the next note.
There’s a bit of a visual change up in the band’s stage set up for “Sanctuary,” a Bossa Nova based tune. Somebody should have given Stevie a stand for his bongos, he plays them while sitting them in his lap with one hand while jostling a shaker with the other, not a difficult task, but you wonder how Stevie handles all that multi tasking while keeping the bongos from sliding across his lap.
Other highlights abound. Jim Rodford introduces “Pleasure” as “A song from the second Argent album we performed on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971.” He’s as shocked as the audience at the passage of time, and then the band proceeds to make time stand still with their performance. Two of the Zombie’s biggest hits, “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” are as revelatory as the first time you heard them forty years ago (or whenever). The band jams admirably on “She’s Not There” doubling the length of the song as Airey airs it out and Argent plays as he’s sprouted extra hands.
Argent acknowledges that an American group (Kiss) had a big hit with “God Gave Rock N’ Roll To You” but adds, “We did it first,” and the group’s sharp performance reclaims the song in their name. Airey is on the mark as he plays Russ Ballard’s guitar intro and the quiet middle section, and the trio of Argent, Blunstone and Rodford blend well together as a vocal force. The performance brings a smile to Blunstone’s face and will please you too.
Aside from Colin Blunstone’s lack of stage presence, there are relatively few minor drawbacks. The incessant use of a smoke machine occasionally overpowers the performers and leaves the camera lens looking as if it was slathered with Vaseline. Hopefully you like the color blue, because the sets are deep blue too. The spotlights occasionally flash in reddish hues red, but more often than not – they’re blue – which makes for a dark picture. Crisp, but dark. And these aren’t boy toys up on stage either. Argent, Blunstone and Jim Rodford were approaching or at 60 when this was filmed. Blunstone, who once sported the looks of an English playboy, is thinning down the middle and now looks more like Larry Fine of The Three Stooges, not mention he’s got some form of ache (at 60?) chewing up his right cheek. Otherwise he’s in pretty good shape for a member of AARP. The diminutive Rodford is also balding and without the facial hair he sported in Argent looks more like a Keebler elf than a musician. Rod Argent certainly doesn’t look his age, although looking like Weird Al Yankovic is no bargain either. Worse, he needed to do some pruning of his nose hairs prior to the filming, because they stick out of his proboscis like spreading elms. Airey and Steve Rodford will have to suffice for those viewers who like their performers to look as good as they sound, and neither is on camera for very long. Steve Rodford is bathed in blue light whenever he’s on camera, looking as if he’s stuck in a transporter beam in a “Star Trek” rerun. Airey is fun to watch during his solos because he’s adept at making the easy look more difficult, grimacing, squinting, and flailing as he plays. He still has a ball when the cameras not on him, grinning at Steve Rodford and hugging Blunstone when the show ends. Looks aside, it’s all about the performance, and the Zombies deliver.
A personal complaint is that the two best performances on the CD, Colin Blunstone’s “Say You Don’t Mind” and “Misty Roses” are omitted. It’s not hard to figure put why. Although they received the longest ovation on the CD version of the concert, they’re associated with Blunstone alone, not the Zombies, not Argent. Too bad, because watching the string section work out during “I Want To Fly” is a treat; seeing them perform even more challenging material would have helped cure some of the visual stagnancy.
“Live At Bloomsbury Theatre, London” harkens back to when groups cared about the songs first and let the gimmicks take care of themselves. Musicians may appreciate the DVD more because the sound is sharp and Argent gives a keyboard clinic every time he solos. This professional, near prefect live performance will leave you staring at the screen like a satisfied zombie – and sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that.