Concert Review: The Zombies Revisit a Masterpiece at Parker Playhouse

Like with an LP, there were two sides to last night’s Zombies concert at Parker Playhouse. The difference between them was nothing less than the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.

The legendary British rockers are just three shows away from retiring their 50th anniversary live revival of Odessey and Oracle, their psych-pop masterpiece of 1967. Though it contained no successful singles in the year of its release, and essentially broke up the band, it has been widely acknowledged as the Zombies’ equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s or Pet Sounds—the record that expanded the group’s lyrical and musical vocabularies into expansive, colorful and poignant new directions. Odessey’s masterpiece status is no longer in question, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness it played straight through elevates the Zombies’ latest tour to a major rock ‘n’ roll event.

Like any good showmen, the Zombies made us wait until after intermission. The concert’s first half, preceded with pageantry—a booming baritone voice-over introduced the show’s divided structure, accompanied by a video montage on a screen projected behind the stage—was mostly inauspicious. The scorching guitar riffs of the set-opening cover of Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” can still peel the paint off a Tesla, but Blunstone’s vocals needed a few songs to settle in. During “Road Runner,” “The Look of Love” and “I Want You Back Again,” he wandered off-mic and garbled many of the lyrics.

One of the Zombies’ millennial cuts, “Sanctuary,” performed in an all-too-lite stripped-down take, proved something of a dud, and there was no defense for the cheesy hearts that scrolled along the projection screen during the love songs, like GIFs from the early days of ClipArt. Fortunes began to turn with “Edge of the Rainbow,” an un-Zombies-like but joyful soul-rock number channeling Marvin Gaye, and performed with infectious zeal, Blunstone’s powerful pipes having shaken off their rust.

“Hold Your Head Up,” a cover from keyboardist Rod Argent’s post-Zombies band Argent, became the undisputed highlight of Act One, an anthemic fist-pumper whose lyrics about women’s empowerment in the face of adversity resonate in this era of #MeToo and Oprah 2020. Moreover, it provided a scintillating showcase for the indefatigable Argent, whose array of keyboards and synthesizers conjured everything from church organ to carnival funhouse during a dynamic, protracted solo. A fragile, beautiful, solo keyboard rendition of “The Way I Feel Inside” concluded a first act that improved as it went along.

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The main event, however—even at a combined duration of 35 minutes—proved worthy of admission by itself. Like in any movie about the walking dead, the Zombies had multiplied while the boomers and vinyl aficionados in attendance refilled their beers. Original Zombies Chris White and Hugh Grundy joined the quintet, along with backup vocalist Viviene Boucherat and second keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, a regular player in Brian Wilson’s band. It took this many Zombies to realize the rich studio textures of Odessey, which, a half-century since its release, sounded even better live than on record—a titanic achievement.

Argent, Blunstone and company made it look effortless, from the Beach Boys-style jauntiness of “Care of Cell 44” to the rollicking “Friends of Mine,” and, of course, climactic show-stopper “Time of the Season.” This time, the CGI projections, designed by Boucherat, aided rather than distracted from the songs, occasionally deepening their emotional impact. This was never more apparent than my favorite cut of the show, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a haunting and austere antiwar elegy sung by White and amplified by Boucherat’s images of fallen soldiers and a mountain of crosses signifying graves.

Blunstone’s vocals were more sinuous and serpentine on Odessey than on the Zombies’ simpler garage numbers, and he was never better than on aching ballads like “A Rose for Emily,” another tune enhanced by live theatrics, in this case a stage bathed in red light. On down the line, the songs took on new dimensions in the live setting. “Changes” acquired a hypnotic, communal heft, and the exultant “This Will Be Our Year” reminded us, on Jan. 9, why it’s the best New Year’s song ever written—just the balm we need in these tumultuous times.

A spaced-out encore of “She’s Not There” inevitably closed the concert in celebratory fashion, complete with solos from every prominent member, including dueling keyboard and percussion showcases. We left with the knowledge that we’d witnessed music history, anticipating the next full-album performance of a ‘60s landmark: The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” to be played by Brian Wilson in Pompano Beach on May 20.

SET LIST

“Road Runner”

“The Look of Love”

“I Want You Back Again”

“I Love You”

“Sanctuary”

“Moving On”

“Edge of the Rainbow”

“Tell Her No”

“You Really Got a Hold On Me”

“Hold Your Head Up”

“The Way I Feel Inside”

INTERMISSION

“Care of Cell 44”

“A Rose For Emily”

“Maybe After He’s Gone”

“Beechwood Park”

“Brief Candles”

“Hung Up on a Dream”

“Changes”

“I Want Her, She Wants Me”

“This Will Be Our Year”

“Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)”

“Friends of Mine”

“Time of the Season”

ENCORE

“She’s Not There”