by Robert Kinsler
Perhaps it was because the Zombies capped a bill featuring three openers all informed and inspired by their distinctive blend of psychedelic rock and baroque pop, or maybe it was simply that they were playing the wonderful Observatory in Santa Ana, CA, which tends to attract a younger crowd than, say, the Coach House 30 miles south. Regardless the reason, the legendary English outfit’s concert Tuesday night, Sept. 10, 2013, had the feel of a showcase for a buzz-worthy band making a big splash rather than a British Invasion original formed more than 50 years ago.
This Santa Ana set came in sharp contrast to the group’s winning October 2011 appearance in San Juan Capistrano, where the quintet performed just as masterfully but in a more reserved setting, with fans mostly confined to their seats. At the former Galaxy Theatre, however, brave baby boomers were scattered among a majority of 20-somethings who packed the pit and most everywhere else.
All of them fed off the Zombies’ infectious rock during a relaxed, freewheeling performance that covered nearly two dozen highlights from throughout the band’s seemingly short-lived but actually extensive musical journey in a swift 95 minutes.
As they proved two years ago in Capo, when I first saw founding members Colin Blunstone (vocals) and Rod Argent (keys, vocals) – still sharply backed by bassist Jim Rodford (veteran of the Kinks’ ’80s lineup), his noted son Steve on drums, plus guitarist Tom Toomey – the Zombies are no mere nostalgia act. The group attracts a wide-ranging crowd in part because of how it reworks classics alongside newer material, especially from 2011’s outstanding return, Breathe Out, Breathe In.
Not only does that recent material stack up well against old favorites, but their artistic powers – particularly those of Blunstone and Argent, both 68 – have not dimmed.
In the opening round, fired off just before 10:30 p.m., the obsessive B-side “I Love You” (one of a few played here that were penned by original bassist Chris White) found Argent unleashing the first of countless blazing organ solos. Blunstone’s matchless tenor likewise soared to age-defying heights, often amid lush harmonies provided by the rest.
Whether performing early staples, gems from their ignored-then-celebrated 1968 masterpiece Odessey and Oracle (now widely acknowledged as one of the best albums of that decade) or their new stuff, the Zombies appeared to have a blast – as did the audience.
Among the more interesting aspects of the night was noticing younger fans, those who clamor for the new wave of garage-rock promoted by the likes of Fullerton’s Burger Records (sponsor of this gig). They came perhaps curious about a cult influence with a name cooler now than five decades ago and wound up dancing and singing along to the band’s versions of soul standards like “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and its own joys, like the clever love song “Care Of Cell 44” and their biggest smash, “Time of the Season.”
The Zombies also frequently demonstrated how they continue to stretch. Toomey applied a Latin rock feel to the newer song “Show Me the Way,” while a nuanced handling of the beautifully grave piece “A Rose for Emily,” the first of five in a row from O&O, illuminated the group’s still-sparkling vocal magic. Likewise, “I Want Her She Wants Me” featured Argent’s grittier tone while Blunstone’s smoother shine added perfect counterpoint.
All night long Argent impressed on keyboards, adding moods to “She’s Not There,” blasting through “Hold Your Head Up” and letting his fingers dance on a sparse rendition of the Gershwins’ “Summertime,” which ended at about midnight. Rock fans young and old who have yet to see the Zombies live should make a point of doing so next time – which may be sooner than later, as they’re well underway on a new album.
The Observatory also offered an ideal trio of young opening acts this night. Up first were Mystic Braves, a quintet whose driving psychedelic rock recalls ’80s greats the Three O’Clock. With guitars drenched in a surf-rock reverb bellow, the group impressed on the driving “Trippin’ Like I Do” and the flute-anchored “Cloud 9.”
England’s Et Tu Bruce came next, evoking many groundbreaking power-pop outfits from the ’60s and ’70s while ensuring that its finer songs – the blazing “This City” and harmonies-rich “Dress Me Up In Bruises,” from new disc Suburban Sunshine – boasted enough modern-day touches to keep a distance from influential ancestors.
And throughout a crowd-elating 30-minute set, Los Angeles’ Allah-Las conjured up early garage-rock heroes like the Troggs with forceful songs that found young admirers immersed in their effective retro vibe. Haunting set-opener “Don’t You Forget It,” Smiths-minded instrumental “Sacred Sands” and the rousing “Catamaran” were all standouts.
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