The concert concept of performing a classic catalog album in full has become the norm in recent years among heritage acts who want to keep filling seats into there fifties, sixties and seventies, and no album is more classic than Odessey and Oracle, The Zombies’ 1968 masterwork that spawned their immortal hit “Time of the Season,” but was released after the band broke up.
So it was never played live—that is, until 2008, when it was performed in England, long after it had been acknowledged by the likes of Dave Grohl and Rolling Stone, as one of rock’s all-time great discs.
The sold-out crowd at the Upper West Side’s Ethical Culture Center on Oct. 9—and those at the other cities on The Zombies’ current Odessey and Oracle U.S. tour—can be exceedingly grateful that they’ve now brought the show over here, in a two-part performance featuring the current Zombies–besides founding members Rod Argent, keyboards and vocals, and vocalist Colin Blunstone, bassist Jim Rodford (formerly of Argent and The Kinks), Rodford’s son Steve Rodford on drums, and superb session guitarist Tom Toomey–in the first half, and the surviving originals (bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy–guitarist Paul Atkinson having died in 2004) joining for the second Odessey and Oracle half.
The new band came out individually, Argent, one of the most important keyboardists in rock history, showing uncommon class in coming out ahead of Blunstone, one of rock’s most important vocalists. Indeed, Blunstone can almost be consdered his generation’s Tony Bennett, thanks to his own joyful stand-up singing that remains ever bit as good as it ever was.
Opening with The Zombies’ 1965 B-side “I Love You” (later a 1968 U.S. hit for People!), Bunstone led the group through some of their other key tunes along with new ones from its aptly-named and just-released album Still Got That Hunger, including “I Want You Back Again,” originally a minor chart hit in 1965 but remade, with Argent’s newly acquired Steinway piano, on Hunger.
“It’s progressed a couple steps from the original while staying true,” Argent explained at Ethical Culture Center, a comment that could be applied to the entire gig and band. And noting that Tom Petty covered the song on a recent live album, he added, “If it’s good enough for Tom Petty, it’s good enough for us.”
Blunstone recalled how the band recorded six tracks during sessions back in the beginning—and how good he was at falling asleep while waiting for his vocal turn. So he was semi-conscious after being abruptly awaken in order to sing the group’s hit “Tell Her No,” and a mumbled portion of the lyric remains unintelligible—yet was sung letter-perfect at Ethical Culture.
Blunstone also confessed to being nervous performing before R&B heroes like Chuck Jackson, The Shirelles and Ben E. King when The Zombies performed at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre during their first trip in 1964 to America–“the land of Miles and Elvis, and Jerry Lee and Ray,” according to the new album’s “New York,” which was also played in the opening set. “For some reason, they loved what we were doing.”
He then explained why he started writing songs: “I watched the dominant writer of The Zombies [Argent] arrive in a Rolls Royce—and I rode off on my bicycle!” He then sang his original “Caroline Goodbye,” off his 1971 debut solo album One Year.
Argent told a beautiful story about getting Paul McCartney’s needed approval for the new album cut “Maybe Tomorrow,” since it quotes The Beatles (“Just like the Beatles used to say, I believe in yesterday”), and without permission, the album release would have been disastrously delayed. He also thanked those in the audience who had participated in the album’s crowdfunding campaign, with the rest of the band joining him in grateful applause.
After “Maybe Tomorrow” Argent performed his big hit with his ’70s progressive rock band Argent, “Hold Your Head Up,” which he co-wrote with Chris White: Blunstone left the stage while Argent revisited one of the great organ solo’s in rock, then returned to finish his vocal and end the set with the Zombies’ first and signature hit, “She’s Not There,” also featuring a landmark Argent keyboard solo.
The second set relived Odessey and Oracle in order, Blunstone having explained that while the 50th anniversary of its recording is actually 2017, after recently glimpsing his reflection in a window he felt it best to celebrate its “48 and a-half anniversary” now.
Which isn’t to say that any of the band, who were mostly dressed casually in dark jeans and t-shirts (Argent wore blue jeans and early on, a black leather jacket with Union Jack sleeves, while Blunstone had a dark gray outdoor jacket over a t-shirt), looked any the worse for wear—let alone sounded even the slightest big older.
An early highlight was “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” sung fine by White, accompanied only by Argent on a Victorian era pump organ resembling the one on the original recording. Otherwise Blunstone did the vocals, with backing by Jim Rodford (who was present at the Zombies’ first recording session) and White’s wife Viv Boucherat. At times Steve Rodford joined Grundy on drums, with Toomey staying on as guitarist—though now wearing a then fashionable blue patterned shirt.
There was another guest during the second set who merits special mention, Brian Wilson collaborator Darian Sahanaja, who had assisted these original Zombies on keyboards and harmony vocals when they regrouped to first perform Odessey and Oracle, in London in 2008.
“We hadn’t performed together since 1966,” noted Argent, “and we had to find a pump organ and a way to reproduce every single note on the album.”
When it was proposed to bring the album with the original band to America for this tour, “if one guy couldn’t do it, we wouldn’t do it,” said Argent, who then introduced that one guy—Sahanaja.
The Odessey and Oracle portion ended, as does the album, with “Time of the Season,” Argent—who turned in another unbelievable organ solo–getting the crowd to sing along on the “What’s your name?” and “Who’s your daddy?” questions, Toomey cracking up as he did his best on the “ooh”s and “ah”s. They all then reprised “She’s Not There” in order to allow everyone on stage to “get a piece of it,” as Argent put it.
But the most telling song of the evening had to be the third song on Side Two of Odessey. What with an excellent new album and SRO tour, it most certainly looks like, for the venerable Zombies, “This Will Be Our Year.”
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