The memorable melodies and harmonies of the Sixties-era band the Zombies are like an effervescent summer breeze that rushes by and instantly hooks you. For those of us who first heard “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There” on 45 singles and tinny AM transistor radios, the same feeling persists to this day even though the medium has changed to streams, placements in film soundtracks and the occasional commercial,
The feeling of timelessness pervaded the Zombies set at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia as part of the Life Is a Merry-Go-Round tour. But in an acknowledgement to the decades that have passed, lead singer Colin Blunstone wryly noted coming out of the set opener “Moving On” that the band would “take us backwards and forward to get you thoroughly confused as we do.” Reaching back to 1965, Blunstone dialed up “I Want You Back Again” which he proudly noted was once covered by Tom Petty. Tonight, he playfully noted the Zombies were doing a cover of Tom Petty covering the Zombies—and the lineage all made sense, punctuated by guitarist Tom Toomey’s riffs and the electric keys of lifetime collaborator Rod Argent.
Blunstone and Argent, who will both turn the young age of 77 just weeks apart this June, made no concession to age that plagues the plethora of Sixties-era bands who are still trying to hang on and ride a wave of nostalgia. In playful bravado, Blunstone, who still has a boyish tinge to his soft spoken English demeanor, warned the men in the audience not to try and hit the high notes lest there be an ambulance waiting outside. He then leaned back in “I Love You” and gave a walloping vocal performance during the one-line bridge that filled the packed music hall.
The band had just come Stateside from its native England having finished a new album for release later this year, their first since 2015’s aptly titled Still Got That Hunger. They previewed a new song “Different Game” which was full of introspective life reflections lyrics and had a wonderful Beatles-esque feel.. The band ripped through the classic “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” with lines from “Bring It On Home ” punctuated by the booming full-band vocal chorus on the downbeat line, “Baby!”
By the set’s midpoint, Blunstone beamed that he and keyboardist Rod Argent have been playing together for sixty years. The dapper keyboardist, with a bit of professorial flair, gave somewhat of a history lesson that went back to the pivotal year of 1967 when the band had entetrd Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles had just finished Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was fortuitous as they discovered a young assistant engineer who had his own idea for songs. His name was Alan Parsons and he enlisted Blunstone who appeared through the years with the future Alan Parsons Project. At the Birchmere he reprised “Old and Wise.”
As Argent picked up the story, the Beatles had left their new eight-track recording machine and instruments, including a mellotron that intrigued him. The Zombies were at a crossroads. They had been all around the world with hit songs but were just breaking even and doubting their future. Artistically, the sounds that he and writer Chris White heard in their heads were not getting through. With the thought they might have to disband, they decided to give it one last shot and self-produce. The resulting album Odessey and Oracle, went on to become very influential, eventually being named as one of Rolling Stone’s top one hundred albums of all-time. Argent pointed out that it sells more copies each year than it did on its release.
As the band went through the melodious music hall songs that evoked the Beatles and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Blunstone’s voice once again filled the room and the three-part harmony of Argent, Blunstone and bassist Soren Koch shone on “A Rose For Emily” Argent, who reprised “I Want Her, She Wants Me,” the one song he sang on the album, gave a testimonial life advice from his own experience—stick with what you believe in because the record companies don’t know anything. But it was musician Al Kooper who insisted to CBS to release “Time of The Season” in the US which went to number one. Argent’s keyboard wizardry was on full display and he extended the song’s length beyond what we still hear on the radio. Blunstone stood in repose, his eyes closed as he took it all in. And as Argent noted, exactly fifty years to the day it went number one, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
The band played “Merry Go Round” and “Runaway” before Argent gave a keyboard clinic on the still-charged “Hold Your Head Up.” Argent recalled co-writing it with Zombies bassist Chris White whose wife was going through a terrible time. He clarified that the song’s key line has been misinterpreted over the years. It’s not hold your head up whoa! —it’s “hold your head up woman.”
“I never knew that,” Blunstone deadpanned, trying to offer up some comic relief. “I thought it was about a horse.”
Argent put on a keyboard clinic, giving enough time to ponder if the anthemic song could be born again for the current era. But memories of the extended Seventies jams seemed to put that thought in doubt. Toomey and bassist Koch hovered over Argent’s keyboard like aspiring students of Argent’s progressive rock tutorial. It went on long enough for the guitarist to eye an attractive woman (my wife) in the front row and start singing an impromptu few lines from Ian Dury’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.”
Argent eventually finished and by then it was time to whip through “She’s Not There” after which everyone onstage took their bows. But Argent and Blunstone stuck around to play the closing song “The Way I Feel Inside.” In the solitude and quiet, it was just a Blunstone center stage and Argent to his right on piano.
Through all the trials, tribulations and odyssey of their storied careers, it was just Argent and Blunstone onstage, the two onetime teenagers who have played more together in recent years than they did in the youth of their heyday. At the end of the day, it all comes down being with the people you want to be with.
By her own admission, Jesse Lynn Madera said it was surprising that someone who might have a country spin would be opening for the Zombies. The singer-songwriter who hails from West Virginia was engaging with her self-effacing humor and raspy soulful voice, bringing “Revel” and the playful “72HVN” to a rousing finish of self-empowerment that won over the crowd. Madera drew upon the DNA of a concert pianist and expressive solo playing to embellish the narrative and innate sweeping power (minus the orchestration on its recorded version) on “Fortunes.”
Madera displayed her feel for characters and situations throughout her set and recalled how her ex called her up and requested she write a song. The song’s best line recalls a kiss that signifies the feeling of time running out. Madera, telling the audience she wrote the song from his perspective, seemed to have the last laugh, adding, “People don’t like to be told what they are thinking.”