Go figure: The year Jeff Lynne finally comes to town with his ’70s symphonic rock band ELO — 38 years since their last Minnesota performance — the Twin Cities tribute group that has played their songs for almost 15 years is on hiatus.
David Russ, drummer and co-vocalist in the local troupe ELnO, claims this is not a coincidence.
“We really didn’t want to overshadow Jeff,” Russ cracked.
Russ and his bandmates are just some of the many rock diehards geeking out over next Thursday’s long-awaited appearance by ELO at Xcel Energy Center. Many U.S. fans have never had the chance to see the slick, harmonious, mega-produced disco-era British band that was omnipresent in their childhood.
“ ‘Out of the Blue’ was the first record I ever bought, and I still love it,” said Heidi Krueger Erickson of St. Paul. Her big sister Cheryl is coming from Richmond, Va., to join her at the show because “of course she was the cooler older sibling who got me into them.”
Starting with a 2014 concert at London’s Hyde Park — now the subject of a pledge-drive-leading PBS TV special — Lynne’s return to the road with his Electric Light Orchestra was a long time coming. It was never a foregone conclusion, either.
Known for the hits “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic” and maybe a half-dozen more tunes you maybe don’t realize you know so well, the group had been largely written off in the decades since, seen by many rock fans as emblematic of the bloated, overproduced rock of the disco era.
The original ELO splintered in 1986 as Lynne moved on to become a producer; a rather successful one, too. He co-helmed mid-’80s albums by George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison before forming the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with them and some guy from Hibbing, Minn.
Several of his former bandmates toured in the interim as ELO II, which led to legal disputes with Lynne and partly explains why no other members from back in the day are in the current lineup. That doesn’t bother most fans, though, including Grand Forks-reared singer/songwriter Andy Lindquist, who saw the last Lynne-led ELO Minnesota performance at the St. Paul Civic Center in 1981.
“Jeff is a musician’s musician, and it shows with what they’re doing now,” said Lindquist, who saw the new lineup last year in Glasgow, Scotland, and is also hitting the Xcel Center gig. “Every harmony, every little part you hear on the records, he is on top of it. Modern technology has actually made it easier for him to play this stuff live than it was back in the day.”
Former 89.3 the Current and KQRS radio personality David Campbell traveled to Chicago last year to see the new ELO. He agreed with Lindquist.
“It’s Jeff’s show all the way,” said Campbell, who is also a singer and guitarist in the ELnO tribute band.
Campbell, Russ and their bandmates started ELnO whimsically as something of a dare for a one-off cover-band party at First Avenue in 2005. “The idea was: What’s the hardest, most over-the-top band we can try to replicate?” Campbell recounted.
While they maintained that ironic sense of fun — see: the big wigs they all wear on stage, fashioned after Lynne’s agelessly bushy look — ELnO’s members were never tongue-in-cheek about trying to do the music justice.
“Honestly, those records are one of the main reasons I became an audio nerd,” said Russ, who is also a reputable producer and studio operator. “From the first time I heard them, I was fascinated with trying to figure out how they sounded the way they did.”
As strings and synthesizers became more commonplace in rock music over the past decade or so, many fans and critics have come back around and recognized ELO for its sonic innovation and just plain infectious songs. Several prominent TV commercials also brought the band to light again.
ELnO’s popularity picked up along the way, too, and the one-off tribute show became a full-time band.
“We would always hear at gigs, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I knew that many ELO songs,” Campbell said.
The tribute group is only playing a couple private gigs in the coming months as it looks for a replacement for singer/guitarist Jeff Ham, but the members expect this week’s show by the real ELO to only add to the enthusiasm once they play out again by year’s end.
In fact, as he and his bandmates pondered the ticket-buying options to this Xcel Center show, Campbell took their own group’s relative popularity into consideration.
“I said to them, ‘Come on, guys, we’ve been making money off playing this guy’s songs for 14 years now. I think we owe it to him to pony up and buy some expensive seats.’ ”
So look for several of the ELnO fellas in the fourth row Thursday. They’re still debating wigs or no wigs.