“Opposites attract” is the best way to describe the synergy that occurs when Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone work the crowd. Argent, whose agitated body language speaks volumes, is the powerhouse organ blaster, a man whose thoughts must pulsate at electrifying speed, because his keyboard vamps and solos are exciting, blissfully unpredictable and complex.
Colin Blunstone, cool and sensual, has always had a terrific sense of melody, even from the age of nineteen when his career began, but his voice is now stronger and better than ever - although he is a tease. Hanging on to a phrase like a kid springing a yoyo back and forth between two fingers, he dangles notes in the air and elicits tones, so choir boy pure that they can make you weep with happiness.
The two original members of the Zombies, the British pop/rock group, which formed in St. Albans in the 1960s, have been seriously underrated in the world of rock music, a fact that the sold out house at Chicago’s Mayne Stage venue would verify.
They opened with ‘I Love You’ by early Zombies bassist Chris White, which became a hit for the People back in the 1960s, with its simple, halting, evocative message: “I love you, but I don’t know what to say...”
Later when Argent introduced 'Hold Your Head Up', popularized by his band Argent, he cleared up any misconceptions that he had written the hit, again attributing White, and it was that stream of integrity and overall gratitude for other band members important to the legacy that earmarked the entire performance.
Besides Argent and Blunstone, the other current members are Argent’s cousin, Jim Rodford, who is an acclaimed bassist and has worked with the Kinks, the Animals and Argent; his son, drummer Steve Rodford, and guitarist Tom Toomey, who joined this lineup in 2010.
The title song off of their 2011 album, 'Breathe Out, Breathe In', is a smooth jazz vessel of optimism that recaptures the overall innocence of classic rock, while recalling tunes from the Doobie Brothers’ discography.
Argent performed one of the night’s defining solos on ‘Right Here’ as Colin quietly scanned the full house, first at the couples seated at wooden tables and chairs and then up to the wraparound balcony, where standing-room-only fans hovered over seated beer drinkers.
“What a great place to play. We had our first rehearsal fifty years ago,” he said. The tall, soft-spoken singer dressed in black sounded anxious to take us through “the journey of all these years.”
“During that time we’ve done other things, but all the songs have a connection to us,” he continued, and then with a Cheshire cat smile he politely paused: “If you sing along, it will give us a lift,” so sing along we did.
‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted’ is a style of song that some refer to as white Motown, but the formula still stands as a good one. This version was well executed by the impermeable rhythm section. Steve Rodford’s drums were sharp and crisp, and Jim Rodford’s dependable bass was throbbing and deliberate. Seizing the opportunity for more instrumental nuance, Argent segued into a prog jazz organ solo of major proportion, leaving room for Toomey to capture the moment with his own melodic solo.
A samba from the new album featured Rod on lead vocals. As he sang, “show me the way,” accompanied by congas, and swooping harmonies, his razor-sharp timbre ignited excitement. Argent and Blunstone are vocalists who know their vocal strengths extremely well and use this knowledge to provide great contrast.
‘Any Other Way’, penned by Blunstone, is a pathos-evoking ballad, carrying forth the sweet-sadness that the Zombies are well known for. Courtesy of Toomey, the lovely, but gripping lyrical verses were followed by an exquisite Spanish-style, acoustic guitar solo. And judging by Blunstone’s enraptured expression, this original came from the heart.
‘A Rose For Emily’ featured great ensemble work: Argent’s well-defined chordal structures, the band’s perfectly blended, luminous voicings and Blunstone’s immaculate enunciation and tenderness, especially when describing the protagonist’s plight - “Her roses are fading now.”
Paring down temporarily and breaking out of the percussive mode, this understated ballad featured a triangle of voices: Rodford, Argent and Blunstone, while another ballad ‘This Will Be Our Year’ was also laced with silky harmonies.
‘Beechwood Park’ is one of those rare finds, a real story song that uses metaphor effectively. Argent’s mysterious fugue and Colin’s rising intonation on the last line were especially memorable.
‘I Want Her, She Wants Me’ another memoir from their third studio album from 1968, 'Odessey and Oracle', is more classically rock-friendly, but this lesser known song, though unique, couldn’t bring the house down the way ‘Time of the Season’ did. That clandestine, cleansing breath, jangular Charlie Parker rhythm and Argent’s roaring organ merged against Blunstone’s plaintive vocals, until all elements dissolved in the final lyrical cadence, “for loving.” Crunched against the balcony rail, with a privileged bird’s eye view, I saw people of all ages dancing in their seats and miming the lyrics.
‘A Moment In Time’ was based on one of Toomey’s riffs, a dynamic progression. ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ was also commanding.
‘Tell Her No’ penned by Argent, which first appeared in 1968 on side
A of their debut album 'Begin Here', along with Argent’s ‘She’s Not There,’ on the flip side, still stands as one of the Zombies' most haunting numbers, mostly made weightless by Blunstone’s impassioned urgency and vocal gymnastics.
“It takes you back, it takes us back, too,” admitted Blunstone, speaking sotto voce, as though he were reading our minds, and then as an unexpected treat, the band played a song from the Alan Parsons Project. “As far as my eyes can see, there are shadows approaching me…I am a star,” Blunstone intoned, his vocal texture gorgeous, like a chorister singing ‘Ava Maria.’
A synapse sizzling performance of Argent’s signature tune, the aforementioned ‘Hold Your Head Up’ allowed Blunstone to catch his breath, while the fiery keyboardist performed one of the most blistering solos of the night, after which a by then free spirited Colin Blunstone mimed air guitar.
After Blunstone left the stage, the remaining members congregated in a heated marathon. Argent splayed the entire register of the organ, huddling more closely to his band mates, and then Rodman and Toomey actually danced. Argent stormed downstage into the flaming eye of the excited audience, signing random albums.
The sonic time traveling continued with the smooth, yet cautionary lyrics of ‘She’s Not There’ – “No one told me about her, the way she lied…” The night ended with another Blunstone gem ‘Just Out of Reach’ and a jazzed-up version of one of the Zombies’ first recorded songs, Gershwin’s ‘Summertime.’
In between numbers, the fans demands grew louder and louder – this was an audience mostly comprised of older, ardent fans and a speckle of twenty-somethings, but all were truly mesmerized by the unrelenting energy and emotion-driven music that Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent and the rest employed.
Miraculously this magical night was void of pyrotechnics, large screens or gimmicks, just a spectacular band of musicians who honour their instruments, vocally and instrumentally and know innately how to convey genuine emotion through time-tested material.
This incredible lineup featured Steve Rodford’s tasteful touches on the cymbal, while keeping a fantastic steady beat without resorting to deafening decibels; Jim Rodford’s seamless, yet industrial-strength bass lines; Tom Toomey’s classy versatility on electric and acoustic guitar; Rod Argent’s sophisticated runs, driving vamps and rough-hewn voice and Colin Blunstone’s impeccable love of melody and meaning, which flavours romantic ballads and poetic arias alike.
Though the band had played another Chicagoland venue earlier in the week, the audience was “not as good as this one” said one fan, who was dead-on. The connection between the musicians onstage and the love offstage could not be quantified or qualified; only experienced.
And as further testimony, one woman, stretching the night out at the bar, claimed her longstanding love of The Zombies. “I never stop talking unless I’m at a concert. Then I’m in church. I don’t want to talk to anyone and I don’t want anyone to talk to me for the next two hours.”
She described her last Zombies concert as a PTA meeting, where the band members had more time to sign albums, greet fans and where the agenda was executed like clockwork, but hinted that the audience reaction tonight was more chaotic.
Then she confided that if her house caught on fire, her husband, who has been trained as a volunteer fire fighter, knew exactly what to do first: grab her Zombies vinyl collection signed by Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone and only then slide down the pole…