There are a few acts out there in the enormous canon of rock music who have, accidentally or otherwise, found their stories inextricably linked to their music. ’60s rock legends The Zombies are one such band; you probably know the story by now – innovative group creates seminal record which fails to make the impact it should, band split up in disillusionment… you get the drift. It’s a narrative that’s happened all too often throughout the history of rock – but the key difference in the case of The Zombies is that theirs is one of few examples to have a happy ending. Sure, they’re far from the only group of their era to still be touring to this day, but they are one of very few such groups to have a reputation forged primarily on one album alone – 1968’s ‘Odyssey And Oracle’.
Of course, they’ve done other records as well – both before and after – but it’s their sprightly psych-pop opus which has ensured the groups longevity. The album’s rarefied position in the annals of rock is something the group are clearly well aware of, as some 30 minutes into the set their keyboardist, songwriter and occasional vocalist Rod Argent addresses the audience and lists off a handful of the album’s plentiful accolades. If his reeling off of praise from the likes of Dave Grohl, Rolling Stone Magazine and the NME is perhaps a tad self-congratulatory, then it can be forgiven considering how long overdue such praise is. During their set at Bexhill’s spacious De La Warr Pavilion auditorium, they clearly acknowledge the album’s impact, but they’re also clearly eager to avoid being solely defined by it. They played a four song suite of tracks from the album back to back (opening with ‘Care Of Cell 44’ and closing with ‘Time Of The Season’) but, other than that blissful 15 minutes or so, the band firmly stick to material from outside of the record.
Although the huge banner at the back of the stage leaves none in any doubt as to the fact that they’re attending a Zombies show, the group aren’t afraid to dip into work which both vocalist Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent helmed outside of the band. For Blunstone’s part, the band tackled the song ‘Old And Wise’ which he had contributed to The Alan Parsons Project’s 1982 long player ‘Eye In The Sky’. It’s a powerful, passionate performance and real proof of just what Blunstone is still vocally capable of; indeed, throughout the show it’s hard not to notice just how well his voice has aged. High notes are held with very nearly the precision with which they appeared on record and his delivery is as slick as ever.
Argent’s post-Zombies work, meanwhile, gets damn-near as much airtime as music from the group themselves. His 1972 hit ‘Hold Your Head Up’ is, perhaps surprisingly, given arguably centre stage over the entire evening. With Blunstone disappearing from the stage, the band then run through a few cursory verses and choruses before they dig into what it’s clear they’ve all been waiting for – the extended jam session. And, oh boy, is it extended. If the Zombies started as quintessential Rhythm and Blues and then evolved into the genre-defining psych pop, then Argent are quintessential progressive rock and, tonight at least, The Zombies certainly don’t want you to forget it. Argent himself gets more organ solos than can be kept count of, but ferocious interplay with wailing lead guitar is compelling as well. It’s powerful, exciting stuff – at least until it begins to outstay its welcome. With the jam surely going on comfortably past the 15 minute mark, things perhaps start to become a little overblown but you certainly can’t accuse any member of the band tonight of nothing less than putting their all into the performance.
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As understandable as it is for the band to feel the need to expand their live repertoire beyond the expected ’60s Zombies hits, the evening is ultimately at its best when that’s exactly what they do play. ‘Tell Her No’ is the definite standout and a classic mid ’60s R&B number which the band perform with real panache and verve – and ‘She’s Not There’ is similarly impressive. The set also finds them peppering a few more recent compositions amongst the old favourites, early on throwing a couple of tracks from 2015’s ‘Still Got That Hunger’ into the mix. It’s perhaps a still odd choice of positioning so early into the set – both songs are fairly run-of-the-mill blues rockers and although they’re solid enough, neither exactly set the room alight. Still, by 15 or 20 minutes into their set the group are clearly warmed up nicely and the rest of the evening glides along.
The Zombies, then, are perhaps something of a surprising live act. Considering their vintage and reputation at this point, none would have blamed them had they opted to perform ‘Odyssey And Oracle’ in its entirety, plus a few early sixties hits. While the show might well have been even better had they done exactly that, it’s hard not to admire what seems to still be an essentially adventurous spirit in the band. They have no qualms about throwing some unexpected choices into their set tonight (such as closing the show with Argent’s ‘God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll To You’ – a performance which, faithful to the vintage live version, goes on for about 10 choruses too many) and even when they do perform the expected hits, they do so with an energy which differentiates them from the studio versions, despite remaining faithful to them. Although tonight’s set is not one free of flaws, it is one that finds The Zombies in enthusiastic form and still very much seeming to enjoy the live process.