Hearing ELO’s music played live has been a “bucket list” moment for decades. A year ago, I was able to get tickets to a concert by The Orchestra. Tickets were modestly priced (under $70) for center-orchestra in the first three rows in a beautiful sounding venue on the campus of CW Post in Westbury Long Island. The warm up bands included Al Stewart and Orleans. But the hit of the night was The Orchestra featuring members of ELO and ELO II although without Jeff Lynne.
A year later, I am in the nose-bleed seats of Madison Square Garden for tickets that cost about the same price listening to Jeff Lynne’s ELO. So which concert was better?
Jeff Lynne’s concert at the Garden included all the things that a small venue concert will not. Great lighting effects, large video screens behind the band, and big sound. But there were production elements that surprised me. To begin with, the five floor to ceiling video walls that were segmented by lighting arrays, were programmed to only show meaningless video backdrops. ELO album cover artwork, sky scenes, outer space asteroids moving about. With at least a dozen cameras covering the musicians, it was most disappointing that these vast displays were not used to enlarge the performers which in an arena the size of MSG, makes it difficult to really see the artists from even the luxury boxes (we were not in them but would have been disappointed had we paid that much).
Then there is the live performance video which if anyone associated with the show chose to watch in its entirety, would note that it’s one-camera shot at-a-time composition was not only jumpy, but shot from camera angles that did little justice to the musician the camera was focused on. Don’t let me bring you down but the lighting on Jeff Lynne with top-down and perhaps from slightly behind left his face shadowed by his own forehead and sunglasses. He looked like a person who had a flashlight shoved up under his chin. The keyboard players were shot from below and string section and vocalists were jumped to and fro that made watching the lack-luster jumbo-trons bothersome. The only part of the show that was overly lit was the audience. And here I can imagine several expensive seats that I would have had a hard time enduring through the many “let’s light up the audience” moments. Even U2 concerts at the garden show greater restraint. Luckily, as we were off to the side, we were spared the blinding light.
As for the sound system, it is hard to make The Garden sound great but the engineers made it work. ELO sounded amazing. Friends we were with loved the concert more than that of The Orchestra although the set list was very similar. But for me, the show while a “bucket list” moment, lacked something. As impressive as the light show was, is that really what gets me going some 30 years later in life? Did the videography make the most of the technology deployed. And for all the strange magic that Jeff Lynne provides, his enthusiasm to touring was regrettably missing. When it came time to introduce the band, he deferred the task to his “musical director”. He sang on all songs but backed away from the microphone often enough to take a breather.
Yes, had I paid multiples more for tickets up close, I might have a different perspective on this live musical performance. After all, my acoustical perspective was from the rafter seats, where the musicians were minuscule and were the closeup video shots were chunky, haphazard, ill-lighted, and suffered from poor camera positions. Where the audio was mixed through massive mono speaker arrays and where the most dramatic elements of the show were the flooding of the audience, the garden actually, with a well orchestrated lighting exhibit which had I been high, might have rendered a different review.
But at this time in my life, live music takes on different take-aways. For one, if I can sit closer to the musicians and hear their pure vocals and instrumentation, then I can more enjoy the music before it gets mixed and amplified. I can better appreciate the craftsmanship of the artist in their performance. I am more one with the performance. There are many things that Jeff and his ELO can do to improve this show and I hope that someone might be listening. His music and performance capability is too great to simply squander away an opportunity that technically is already setup (video walls, cameras and lighting) to not have his producers and engineers find a better way to deliver what to him is less a love of performing but more a love of sharing his music.
That said, the next time I want to drench myself in ELO’s amazing discography, I will go and find really great seats for The Orchestra. Musically, they are more ELO like than Jeff Lynne’s latest performance at The Garden. That said, if you can afford front and center seating, I would say go for it. If you can get seats like I did for a fairer price, you won’t be disappointed. But if you want to see ELO in your face and don’t give a rat’s ass about the light show or sharing the experience with thousands, then find yourself great seats for The Orchestra and let me know what you thought.
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