Intergalactic visuals burst across a stage-front curtain. Doomy orchestrations strike up, like harpies swooping on a defiant Brunhilde. Hyperdrive warps mark the long-awaited descent of ELO, returning home after 30 years in the cosmos. And down its metaphorical landing ramp steps Jeff Lynne, rocking the celestial barroom boogie of Tightrope and gasping, “The O2, eh? What a great kick.” Imagine the final scenes of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind if the aliens had been one awestruck plumber from Birmingham, made entirely of hair and sunglasses.
Has any artist ever been as simultaneously interstellar and down to earth as Jeff Lynne? As his first arena tour in 30 years hits London, he exudes the same kind of dazed wonder at being here as his audience does at hearing him perform his monumental classical-pop canon. Lynne’s previous attempt to revive his 70s pomp-rock behemoth around 2001’s Zoom album stalled like a knackered Hyundai, the string section virtually outnumbering ticket-buyers for some inevitably cancelled arena shows. ELO were mothballed, lost to pop history, movie trailer soundtracks and Guilty Pleasures’ last dance. Then Chris Evans bullied Lynne into reuniting with keyboardist Richard Tandy to headline the Radio 2 Live show in Hyde Park in 2014, and the world was spirited back to its tank-topped halcyon days, and scientists finally had an answer to the question of how long it would take for punk to wear off: 38 years.
Helming the decade’s most spectacular resurrection, Lynne has trodden warily, playing tentative theatre shows and gradually paring his band down to a tourable size – just three string players tonight, compared to Hyde Park’s ranked legions of the BBC Concert Orchestra. But his compositions remain enormous. Tightrope gives way to an early-period one-two of the devilishly funky Evil Woman and Showdown, and an ecstatic Livin’ Thing get the stalls party started.
Rockaria!, with its lusty country rock and operatic chorus aria, imagines the only Texan biker bar that Wagner, Verdi and Puccini hang out in. 10538 Overture mingles brazen strings and hints of Dear Prudence to gracious effect. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head is a dreamer’s reverie, Lynne retelling his glacial visions of watery nymphs by the light of a giant screen moon.
Adorned with a roller-coaster lighting rig and visuals of global firework displays, it’s a night of stunned celebration, with touches of fragility. Fluffing the odd line and relying on plentiful android backing vocals to shore up his high notes, Lynne still hasn’t got a confident grip on ELO’s under-represented 80s period, a pleasant Secret Messages taking the place of anything from 1981’s mercurial Time. And his new songs, Aint It A Drag and When I Was A Boy, resort to Wilbury jangles and Lennon mimicry.
If this smacks of late-career wistfulness, Lynne’s soon back in his glory days, ending with late-70s favourites – the locomotive disco of Shine A Little Love; grand pop rattlers Turn To Stone, Sweet Talkin’ Woman and Mr Blue Sky; glorious space ballad Telephone Line. Best of all, Lynne revisits his epic Gary Cooper fantasy Wild West Hero, as bombastic and brilliant as it is grin-inducingly corny. Which is the joy of ELO in 2016 – like the childhood sweetheart you thought had gotten away, the 70s’ most shameless pop excess has sauntered back into our lives, as dazzling as ever.