For nearly 50 years, British rock hero Jeff Lynne has performed strange magic.
In the 1970s, his hit-making Electric Light Orchestra sounded like the post-Beatle Beatles. In the late ’80s, he cofounded the unlikely hit supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Tom Petty. Then Lynne became a reclusive super-producer, working with Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Harrison, Petty and others, including the Beatles on the lost-but-found single “Free as a Bird.”
In 2014, Lynne finally revived ELO. Three years later, the band landed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (20 years after first being eligible) and returned to the road in spurts.
On Thursday night at sold-out Xcel Energy Center, in ELO’s first Twin Cities appearance in 38 years, it was an I-can’t-believe-I’m-witnessing-this time warp for 95 minutes — in more ways than one. Not only did Lynne, at 71, look remarkably the same (curly mop top, beard and shades), but, not surprisingly, ELO sounded as pristinely sumptuous — and ambitious — as back in the day. After all, the obsessive Lynne always has been a sonic perfectionist.
Part out of time and part outer space, 21st century Lynne offered a visual feast in concert with towers of state-of-the-art lights, mesmerizing green lasers and five vertical screens featuring all kinds of futuristic and galactic visuals, though ELO stopped short of emerging from a spaceship as they did on their peak and legendary 1978 tour. (The spaceship was represented occasionally Thursday on the screens as a one-dimensional reproduction of the cover of the 1977 LP “Out of the Blue.”)
An unanimated but soft-spoken ringleader, Lynne and his 12 hired guns focused on delivering the complex sounds of ELO — that enduring wedding of catchy pop lyrics and melodies with orchestral prog-rock arrangements, with a small detour into disco. (Big props to bouncing bassist Lee Pomeroy, in his Prince T-shirt, and the three-person string section, with two cellos, the most underappreciated instrument in pop music.)
For Lynne geeks, there were plenty of payoffs, from the riff-rockin’ “Do Ya” (from his pre-ELO band the Move) and ELO’s first single “10583 Overture” (from 1972) to the Wilburys’ “Handle with Care” (featuring opening act Dhani Harrison, George’s son, on vocals, taking the parts of his dad, Dylan and Petty while Iain Hornal did Orbison’s) and ELO’s 2015 tune “When I Was a Boy” (which sounded like the best posthumous John Lennon song to date).
Lynne certainly doesn’t hide his influences, whether the harmonies of the Beach Boys (“Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Turn to Stone”), Little Richard rock ’n’ roll (“Rockaria”), Bee Gees disco (“Last Train to London,” “Shine a Little Love”), 1950s doo wop (“Telephone Line”), Elton John piano rock (“Don’t Bring Me Down”), Chuck Berry rock ’n’ roll (an extended encore mashup of Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, featuring hot guitar by Lynne) and the Beatles (just about every song).
The more than 14,000 fans ate up all the radio hits, giving “Do Ya” and especially “Turn to Stone” extra-long ovations.
Surprisingly, Lynne left out “Strange Magic,” one of ELO’s best-known tunes. He easily could have made one of the super-dated disco-y numbers disappear. As much of a treat as it was to finally revisit ELO live, I can’t get it out of my head that Lynne didn’t do “Strange Magic.”