DVD Review: Electric Light Orchestra Live: The Early Years

DVD Review: Electric Light Orchestra Live: The Early Years 
Eagle Vision
All Access Review:  A-

No retina-frying, rainbow-colored lasers, no massive orchestras, no “Independence Day”-like space ships or fog machines … this is the Electric Light Orchestra in the raw, stripped down to the essentials. All of that other stuff was simply window-dressing, as this new DVD, packed with a trio of electrifying, if low tech, live performances from ELO’s good old days, proves.

From the start, in the late 1960s, ELO set out to be different, vowing to pick up where The Beatles of “I Am the Walrus”-style experimentation left off. That is flying pretty close to the sun, but this hairy, bearded Icarus didn’t burn to a crisp. And it’s a testament to the incredibly sophisticated, dynamic pop sensibilities of Jeff Lynne and company – much of the cast changing from year to year in typical revolving-door fashion for the bnd - that the crazy idea ELO started with, that classically influenced strings and wind arrangements could envelope rock and roll in mystery and magic without cutting its amplified power, actually kept them flying high on the charts throughout the ’70s.   

Beginning in 1973, with a blazing four-song segment of an ELO show at Brunel University in the U.K., “Electric Light Orchestra Live: The Early Years” traces the band’s development as a wonderfully bombastic concert act. Full of bravado, a rambunctious and rowdy ELO, its string section energetically sawing away against Lynne’s bedrock guitar riffs, stomp through “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” and a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” with vim and vigor, while “King of the Universe” and the classical masterpiece “In the Hall of the Mountain King” boldly surge and whirl about in a dizzying displays of adventurous virtuosity.

Then it’s on to German TV’s “Rockpalast” show for a six-song set from 1974 that features ELO joyously covering “Orange Blossom Special” in an unexpectedly countrified hoedown and showcasing one of their most recent hits, the sweeping wide-screen panorama of sonic delights that is “Showdown.” The pristine camera work is far more professional, with a good variety of shots, than the gritty, oddly colored and somewhat amateurish filming of that Brunel University performance a year earlier, and ELO hams it up, especially electric cellist Hugh McDowell, who is all over the stage and at the end, he’s seen wildly playing his instrument above and behind his head during another, even hotter version of “Great Balls of Fire.” Filmed before the release of ELO’s Eldorado: A Symphony, ELO performs no songs off that album, preferring instead to plumb On The Third Day for half of this short set list.

And seen in this context, the “Rockpalast” performance nicely bridges the wooly, almost unhinged glory of the Brunel University gig and the DVD’s grand finale, a blissful, mesmerizing performance at London’s New Victoria Theatre that the “Fusion” TV series captured. A little back history: 1975 would find ELO blowing up in the U.S., with its Face the Music LP blitzing the American Top 10 for the first time. “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” were big hits in the U.K. and the U.S., and in 1976, ELO made a triumphant return to London - the New Victoria Theatre providing the setting.

Here is the ELO we know and love, still missing all the big stage production bells and whistles that would come later, but playing in a such a way as to allow the gorgeous pop craftsmanship of such classics as “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head,” “Strange Magic” and “Evil Woman” to positively glow, as does “Eldorado Overture.” The performance is more subdued than Brunel or “Rockapalast,” but there’s a sense that ELO is more aware of its own artistry at the New Victoria and that there’s a time for wheeling around the stage while vigorously jamming away the violin, as Mik Kaminski does so brilliantly elsewhere on this DVD, and playing cellos over your head and there’s also a time for letting touch and feel and beautiful tonality of voices and instruments come shining through without all the blustery madness getting in the way.

All the performances are great in their own way on “Live: The Early Years,” and this is an amazing document of the different stages of ELO’s career, the growth and maturity of New Victoria clashing with the youthful frenzy and gleeful rock of Brunel. If this isn’t essential, it’s pretty damn close.

Peter Lindblad

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