Zombies' mix of classic and cheesy falls short in nostalgia fest


October 11, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

'It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice; there are two other possibilities," art-rocker Frank Zappa once said. "One is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia."

While I have often complained that nostalgia is the bane of great rock 'n' roll, there is a way for some veteran acts that are no longer in their prime to revisit the past without evoking the scent of death.

Several years ago, Cheap Trick did a memorable run at Metro, where the band performed its first four albums in their entirety on successive nights. A short time later, Brian Wilson performed all of the Beach Boys' brilliant "Pet Sounds"; his recent rendition of "Smile" was less successful, only because that album is a lesser work.

Last year, legendary psychedelic rocker Arthur Lee and his new version of Love played "Forever Changes" at the Park West, complete with strings and horns, and it was a transcendent night. On Friday, the group returned to the same venue to open for another reunited band from the '60s, the Zombies, and while there were moments of brilliance, it was a much less satisfying evening.

There is something about playing an entire classic album live that forces a veteran band to become something more than an oldies act: The musicians have to focus in order to sustain the mood of the era when they were at their creative peak, and they must challenge themselves to play songs they may never have rendered in concert before.

While Love gave us several tunes from "Forever Changes" on Friday, they suffered from the lack of orchestration and context. Earlier songs such as "Orange Skies" and "My Little Red Book" fared better, and the group provided a pleasant surprise by reuniting with its original guitarist, the still-fiery Johnny Echols, an African-American innovator who deserves to be mentioned beside Jimi Hendrix. But the set never rose above the level of pleasant and competent to become something extraordinary.

The Zombies were even more problematic. Founding members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent have discussed rendering 1968's timeless "Odessey and Oracle," and they delivered passionate performances of a few of the album's lesser-known songs, as well as the spectacular hit "Time of the Season." Unfortunately, they mixed in even more material from their new "Out of the Shadows" and assorted mediocre solo efforts, and these cheesy lounge-act ditties sounded like soundtracks for bad TV commercials.

These lesser tunes -- which were occasionally extended with pointless jams that found self-indulgent keyboardist Argent tossing in riffs from "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Chicago" -- only served to undermine the beauty and power of early hits such as "Tell Her No" and "She's Not There" and the material from "Odessey and Oracle." What's worse, the classics were preceded by shallow, self-important synopses of the band's history, insulting an audience that had taken a $25 gamble to see whether the musicians were still as good as they kept telling us they were back in the day.

They weren't, but they could have been -- Blunstone's voice in particular is still a singularly amazing instrument -- if only they hadn't veered from the script of the albums that made us love them in the first place.