The Zombies - Live at Bloomsbury Theatre, London

The Zombies The Zombies
Live at Bloomsbury Theatre, London

3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

The Zombies may have set some kind of rock and roll record for inactivity, going 37 years between recordings. Their live “reunion” recording, “Live at Bloomsbury Theatre, London,” is a 2 CD extravaganza that proves it was worth the wait.

The Zombies were an early pop/rock group formed in 1961 by singer Colin Blunstone, keyboardist Rod Argent, bassist Chris White, guitarist Paul Atkinson and bassist Hugh Grundy. Despite scoring on the charts with the jazzy pop singles “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There,” the group had a relatively short shelf life, disbanding in 1967. “Odessy and Oracle,” their final album, was released a year later, and is considered an early rock classic during a period in rock history when groups cared more about the sales of their 45s than their LPs. (According to the band, the album title was deliberately misspelled.) Their final single, “Time of the Season,” released after the group had broken up, was powered Blunstone’s breathy vocals and Argent’s rapid improvisations. It slowly climbed to #3 on the charts, but it was too late for the group to capitalize on their success. Insurance salesman Blunstone made his way back to music recording under an assumed name, then embarked on a solo career aided by former Zombies Argent and White (who would write, produce, and act as Blunstone’s sidemen). Argent formed what would soon be a highly successful art-rock quartet under his own name. In 2003, Blunstone and Argent were reunited at a charity benefit and decided to carry on for a few more gigs under their old moniker. (No one was using the name anyway. Grundy had retired from the music scene, White was a successful producer and co-writer of many of Argent’s hits, and Atkinson, who became an agent and signed Abba and Bruce Hornsby to recording contracts, died in 2004.) Argent re-enlisted his cousin Jim Rodford to play bass. (Rodford had played in Argent and when the group broke up then moved on to The Kinks where he served as their bassist for 20 years.) Rodford convinced his cousin that his son Steve could handle the drums (sometimes he can’t) and Blunstone brought along Keith Airey from his own band to play guitar. On “Live at Bloomsbury Theatre” the group is occasionally abetted by a string quartet: Peter Hanson (first violin), Louisa Metcalfe (second violin), John Metcalf (viola) and Sophie Harris (cello). Blunstone made extensive use of a string section on his first three solo albums, “One Year,” “Ennismore” and “Journey,” and it’s no coincidence they were his most successful recordings.

“Andorra,” an obscure Blunstone solo cut from “Ennismore,” is a gutsy opener. Steve Rodford is steady, eager, and Argent sounds as if he’s got six hands. Blunstone still has a breathy, boyish voice that can climb to the nether reaches of the scale. Argent backs Blunstone on piano during the first two verses, while guitarist Airey carries the soloing in the last verse as Argent moves over to synthesizer. Airy knows how to solo without sounding loud, flashy or longwinded.

“This Will Be Our Year” is dance hall material that suits Blunstone’s leisurely delivery. Steve Rodford’s a bit heavy-handed for this type of carefree material, giving it a plodding beat which occasionally messes up Blunstone’s pacing, but Argent’s piano fills are effective.

“I Love You” is an old Zombies song, and Blunstone gives his vocal chords a work out, getting a well deserved hand. Argent and Jim Rodford provide excellent harmonies with Blunstone on the top, Argent in the middle and Rodford down low. Stevie Rodford is clumsy on the verses, but knows the stop and go points of the song and has a musical empathy with his father that musicians who play together for decades don’t share.

One problem The Zombies had when they reformed was a dearth of material. They solve the problem by cherry picking songs from the group Argent, as well as Blunstone’s solo career. In 1980, Blunstone teamed up with Dave Stewart for a remake of the Jimmy Ruffin R & B chestnut “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.” The band gives it a hostile left field intro that’s more harsh than good and rocks at a faster pace than necessary -- in fact it’s a gallop. Blunstone tries to keep pace with Stevie Rodford, who’s probably too young to realize the song is a ballad and not The Hustle. Blunstone tries to rescue this one, but Stevie just won’t let him.

“Mystified” is swinging blues with Argent putting in adroit, solid work on piano. He stalks Blunstone’s voice, and combines with Jim Rodford to give Blunstone some brisk vocal back up. He also performs the neat trick of playing two keyboards, keeping the rhythm going on piano while playing an organ solo.

The Band dusts off “A Rose For Emily” from the “Odessy and the Oracle” album. One listen and it’s not hard to figure out why the album was well received by critics but stiffed on the charts. “Rose” is an esoteric, hard to fathom curio that Blunstone, Rodford and Argent attempt to sing as a round. Unfortunately, Rodford reaches for vocal nirvana and his voice cracks – ah, the hazards of live recording! It’s a dense song that worked in the experimental 60s but not in the light of sobriety. “Beechwood Park,” also from “Odessy and the Oracle,” is next; most likely to give the audience a flashback of what music was like in ‘67. Unlike its predecessor, “Beechwood Park” has a discernable form. Blunstone mails this one in, but Argent continues to add excellent instrumental color to the background, his rich Hammond playing reminiscent of Procul Harum’s organ player Matthew Fisher (the guy who made “A Whiter Shade of Pale” sound like Bach).

Sticking to their Zombies persona, the band charges into the inevitable – a version of “Time of the Season.” It’s a little faster than the original (once again you can point the drumstick at Stevie) and as a result, Blunstone has to strain a bit, but with Jim Rodford’s bass digging into the beat the verses are funkier. Argent plays his solos with the same flair he did when the song was recorded (ouch) forty years ago. There are tons of air guitar songs – here’s one for would-be keyboardists.

The previously unheard string section slides into action on “I Want To Fly,” a quiet ballad elevated by Argent’s classy piano playing. Not having Steve Rodford pounding away helps as well (Stevie takes a break on this one). Blunstone is allowed to sing the way he does best, in a murmuring, secretive tone that turns every phrase into a tear. Yes, given the right vehicle, Colin Blunstone can still make you well up. As the music takes wing, “I Want To Fly” will make you feel as if you are indeed soaring with the eagles.

“Keep on Rolling” is an Argent throwaway that was so out place on Argent’s second art-rock effort “Ring of Hands” it wasn’t included until it was reissued in CD. Time hasn’t been kind to this slap dash jolly rocker. Fortunately, Blunstone doesn’t have to bear the embarrassment of stepping to the mike -- that falls on Argent, who is hustled at an unnecessarily fast pace by Stevie, who should really go back and listen to the music he’s trying to recreate -- so he doesn’t desecrate. Argent does a great Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation though, and the crowd loves his playing, if not his pluck.

The first CD ends with “Hold Your Head Up,” Argent’s biggest hit. The original was sung by its composer, Russ Ballard. Blunstone is a more than able replacement, supported by Argent wailing proudly. Stevie’s cavemen beat gives the song a bit more drive than the studio version, so this is a case where Stevie being a few beats faster than the original works. “Hold Your Head Up” is Rod Argent’s chance to show he’s still a dervish on the organ and he doesn’t disappoint, and Airey pulls off the descending guitar part originally assayed by composer Ballad by playing it on slide (ah, technology).

The second CD starts out like the first, with a daring, obscure choice... So what did Quasimodo seek in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame?” “Sanctuary.” The rickety opening piano run in “Sanctuary” sounds like it ought to be part of the sound track to a silent film, but then it shifts to a Bosa Nova, with Stevie manning the bongos. “Sanctuary” turns The Zombies into a resort band on the beach of Rio, and it works because of Blunstone’s sweet-as-honey vocalizing and Argent’s ongoing ability to adjust to any style and fill an arrangement.

“Pleasure,” an Argent tune from their second album “Ring of Hands” is up next. The album version featured joyous speaker-filling harmonies by Jim Rodford, Argent and Russ Ballard; with the addition of Blunstone and the subtraction of Ballard (and the fact its live and you can’t hide), the harmonies are a little ragged. Surprisingly, it’s Blunstone who’s the culprit in this song. He pushes a bit too hard, harkening back to the notion that the song has to be right for his voice. Hardly a catastrophe, but it’s noticeable. But Argent’s the lead vocalist here, so Blunstone’s only out of place during the choruses. Argent so accurately recreates his solos it sounds like he’s in the studio.

Blunstone takes center stage to perform two songs from his superb first album, “One Year.” “Say You Don’t Mind” makes full use of the string section and is tailored for Blunstone’s romantic voice. There’s a note at the end you fear he’ll never hit (he is after all, in his sixties!) but Blunstone plows forward and nails it. “Misty Roses” was originally written and recorded by troubled folkie Tim Hardin. Hardin’s performance was predominantly acoustic and a mirror into his very screwed up soul. Blunstone’s studio version was recorded with a string quartet; here it’s Airey on acoustic with Blunstone (like Hardin’s version), until the middle part of song where the quartet solos with jaw-dropping effectiveness. This will indeed get you misty. “Say You Don’t Mind” and “Misty Roses” are the highlights of the entire performance and rightfully get the evening’s longest and loudest round of applause.

“I Don’t Believe in Miracles” is another Russ Ballard tune that was performed by both Argent and Blunstone, who made it the first song on his second solo album, “Ennismore.” Blunstone once again hits an operatic high note at the end that seems impossible for a set of sixty year-old lungs. (See what happens when you live a clean life kids? You can enthrall an audience and hit incredible notes like Colin. There’s also show-stopping version on “Argent Live” that’s worth listening to if you can find it. The song builds, beginning with Ballard alone at the piano and gains steam as a new instrument joins in after each verse until it’s an emotional avalanche.)

A trusty version of “Old and Wise” follows “Miracles.” Wow, these guys are pulling out material from everywhere. Blunstone was one of the eight gazillion guest singers Alan Parsons used on his albums during his heyday in the eighties. This is one of their less memorable songs, but Airey finally gets a chance to strap on the electric guitar and show why he’s such an in-demand studio session man, and Stevie figures out a beat that enhances rather than hurts.

“Care of Cell 44” is another dippy song from the overrated “Odessy and the Oracle.” The story of a jail sentence set to pub music, it’s a disjointed patchwork of maudlin ideas that makes incarceration sound like the narrator’s cell mates were Keats and Shelley. It wasn’t attractive then, and it’s less so now. The mod “Indication” starts badly and falls apart quickly, with Stevie once again exposed as a percussive neophyte. If the song wasn’t bad enough, Argent’s solo is taken from the Christmas classic “Comfort and Joy.” He also takes a page from Lionel Hampton’s book and hums loudly to himself while soloing. All indications are this song should be skipped.

The big hit “Tell Her No” is as strong and entertaining as the original. Blunstone works his voice with precision and Stevie’s in his element. It’s a fast pop tune that needs his revved up beat. Blunstone’s voice threatens to crack during “She’s Not There” and Stevie’s back in hyper drive, but daddy Jim holds the song together by being animated but sensible. Argent finally goes outside the lines a bit, soloing like a mad monk, and Airey’s solo flies with equal abandon.

“God Gave Rock N’ Roll To You” is so identified with Russ Ballard and the Argent band you wonder if Blunstone can pull it off. (Sorry Kiss fans, but God didn’t give rock n’ roll to you, only the ability to approximate Kabuki Theater. Their version is an atrocity, which is in step with most of their schlock. There I said it.) Blunstone’s higher pitched voice shouldn’t work, but it does, and when Argent and Rodford join in on the chorus you’ll want to sing along. It’s a hugely successful version that would have ended the CD on a high note. Instead the CD ends with a version of “Summertime.” I’ve never liked this song, especially when Janis Joplin shrieked her way through it. But Blunstone’s soft tone is right for it, Argent lays out another light-handed solo and the strings are back to give it some bounce. It’s not the inspiration triumph that “God Gave Rock and Roll “was, but its a lot better anyone could hope for.

The solid bass lines of Jim Rodford, Rod Argent’s concert master chops and Colin Blunstone’s still phenomenal pipes are worth the price of admission. Drummer Stevie Rodford must have misunderstood his dad when he told him he was going to be with the Zombies. He must have thought Jim said, “Play like a zombie,” because Stevie often takes the Bam Bam Rubble approach to providing a beat, pounding on his kit as if it was made of granite and his sticks were jack hammers. When Stevie’s off his game he tends to blindside Blunstone, who wisely tries to continue singing at his own pace. Guitarist Keith Airey doesn’t have to do much to collect his shillings, but whenever he’s called upon, Airey performs admirably.

“Live” would be a great addition to any classic rock fans collection. It’s the time of the zombies…



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