Gig review: Jeff Lynne's ELO at First Direct Arena, Leeds
There are few who know why Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne appears to have worn his aviators in perpetuity for the best part of 50 years, but the sheer sonic sunniness of his back catalogue might have something to do with it.
Maybe the affably shy Brummie is as blinded by the brilliance of his craft as everyone else. Having relaunched his group as Jeff Lynne’s ELO four years ago, he returns to Leeds’s First Direct Arena for the first time since 2016 still cresting the resurgent wave of success he rode in on; his music’s writ-large pomp grandeur remains, like the man in the shades, ageless and wonderfully uplifting.
Support comes from Northampton singer-songwriter Billy Lockett whose soulful piano-led balladry, if not as opulently extravagant as the main act, at least conveys near-equal emotion. He seems overawed to be warming up the crowd for Lynne, but beneath his shaggy curls, he does an admirable job, nailing the brooding Covered in Chaos, delivering a satisfyingly wigged-out cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game and drawing warm applause for Empty House, which he dedicates to his late father.
With no sign of a follow-up to 2015’s comeback Alone in the Universe, ELO remain firmly enamoured with the greatest hits. Upon a stage flanked by towering column-screens, Lynne leads them through a wonderfully-paced performance so packed to the gills with smashes that he can afford to dispense with a supremely fun Evil Woman and All Over the World inside the opening quarter-hour.
There is no filler; so many of the 70-year-old’s songs have become embedded in popular consciousness that every cut, from the glam holler of Do Ya to the falsetto sweep of Livin’ Thing, conveys a sense of warm bonhomie. It’s the live equivalent of cueing up the pub jukebox.
In deference to his advancing years, Lynne leans on backing vocalist Iain Hornal for some of the more vigorous delivers in Handle with Care and Rockaria!. When he unfurls his warm voice in full though, the cracks fade away timelessly; superb renditions of Wild West Hero and Telephone Line conjure chills, either side of a buoyant Sweet Talkin’ Woman.
As the majestic widescreen euphoria of Mr Blue Sky lifts Leeds to the heavens in unadulterated joy, an abashed grin escapes from behind the sunglasses. ELO might be flying high – but the magician at the controls is still winningly down to earth.