Contributed by Mike Kummer
Isn’t life strange?
Who would ever have thought that the Moody Blues would provide Roanoke Valley music lovers with one of the highlight concerts of 2012 – nearly half a century after the band’s 1964 formation? The Moodies, their genesis coming way back in the British Invasion’s first wave, brought their distinctively melodic brand of progressive rock/pop to the Salem Civic Center on Saturday night.
The band’s stop in Salem fell right smack in the middle of its 32-city tour, “The Voyage Continues – Highway 45,” commemorating the 45th anniversary of the release of the landmark album “Days of Future Passed.”
Strange, indeed – but also wonderful. John Lodge and Justin Hayward, the group’s principle singers and songwriters since 1966, and sole original Moody Blue member Graeme Edge returned to the valley for the first time since 1994, when the Moodies had performed at the Roanoke Civic Center, backed by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra.
Saturday’s performance had a different feel to it from that long-ago night, when puffy shirts abounded on-stage, and the symphony and the larger venue had lent an air of important goings-on. The Salem Civic Center show had a more relaxed, intimate feel to it, and Lodge’s and Hayward’s onstage demeanor was more casual and loose.
Lead guitarist Hayward and bassist Lodge shared lead vocal duties. Edge manned one drum kit, primarily playing cymbals; Gordon Marshall, who has toured with the band since1991, seemingly did a little more of the heavy lifting, percussively, on his kit opposite Edge.
While these four band members had all played the 1994 show in Roanoke, another key component of the group didn’t make the return trip. Founding Moody Ray Thomas, a singer/songwriter whose distinctive flute had done so much to shape the band’s unmistakable sound, retired in 2002. A more-than-capable replacement was found the following year in Norda Mullen, who, in addition to playing a lovely flute, also played rhythm guitar and sang backing vocals.
Also multitasking, on the stage’s second tier, was Julie Ragins, an all-around talent on backing vocals, keyboard, guitar and saxophone. Rounding out the band was Alan Hewitt on keyboards and backing vocals.
The band, taking the stage just a few minutes late, received a very warm welcome from a crowd that didn’t quite fill the half of the venerable old barn dedicated to the show’s seating. Hayward and Lodge – simply attired in all-white and all-black, respectively, with not a puffy shirt in sight – wasted no time getting things going, launching into “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice” to start the show.
Following those two hits from 1981′s Long Distance Voyager, Hayward doubled up on keyboard to lead into an album cut, “The Day We Meet Again.” Hayward’s vocals and guitar shared the spotlight with Mullen’s flute for a performance of one of the band’s signature songs, the evocative “Tuesday Afternoon”, which received the first big ovation of the evening.
A pleasant surprise came along in the form of Lodge’s beautiful ballad “Nervous,” the deepest of album cuts; here, the backing vocals of Ragins and Mullen really added depth and emotional power. Mining further the vein of mostly-unheard nuggets, the band offered a gorgeous version of another of Hayward’s patented wistful ballads, “Driftwood,” from the 1978 release “Octave.”
The Moodies really got the crowd moving with the driving “Peak Hour,” a song that rocks about as hard as any in the band’s catalog. Lodge’s blistering bass led the way on this track from “Days of Future Passed.”
Having played just a few minutes short of an hour, the band left the stage for a twenty-minute intermission. The second half of the show kicked off with the band’s “comeback” hit, “Your Wildest Dreams,” a song that had brought a whole new generation of fans to the Moody Blues in1986. The Civic Center crowd, now completely captivated, was further treated to “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” “Say It With Love” and “The Other Side Of Life,” all hits from the second half of the band’s career.
Offering more proof that old guys can still rock, Hayward and Lodge led the band in ripping through “The Story In Your Eyes” and “I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band).” Also after the intermission, Edge came out from behind his drum kit, moving center stage to recite his poem “Higher and Higher,” which accompanies an instrumental piece. Evidently still in a celebratory mood following his 71st birthday on Friday, Edge proceeded to delight and amuse the crowd by dancing and cavorting around the stage during the instrumental part of the song.
One of the highlights of the night came when the entire band delivered strong performances on the spectacular Lodge composition “Isn’t Life Strange,” punctuated by a call-and-response sequence between Hewitt’s keyboard and Mullen’s flute. The concert approached its climax with two more selections from “Days …” . Edge read his piece “Late Lament,” the contemplative poem which caps one of the most influential rock albums of the 1960′s.
On this night, and in keeping with the band’s traditional setlist, the order was reversed, with Edge’s poem coming first, segueing into the band’s monumental hit “Nights In White Satin.” With nearly the entire crowd on its feet by this point, Hayward – with another change of guitars – furiously strummed the opening chords of “Question”, a brilliant exclamation point to the second half of the show.
The band said good night, but the thunderous response from the audience brought a swift return to the stage for an encore. With Lodge turning in virtuoso vocal and bass work on his own “Ride My See-saw,” the Moody Blues’ night in Salem drew to a rollicking close, following a solid two hour performance.
The Moody Blues treated the Civic center crowd to an excellent show. The band chose not to perform any Thomas-penned tunes, such as “For My Lady” or the epic “Legend of a Mind” (the Timothy Leary song); they instead opted for deep album cuts such as “Driftwood” and”Nervous.”
The playing of Lodge, Hayward, and Edge – old hands and consummate professionals – was spot on. Closer in age to 70 than 60, the lead singers still hit nearly every note, on only a very few occasions cutting off, or not attempting, the highest parts.
The strong vocal presence of Ragins and Mullen greatly enhanced the sound, coming close to replicating the complex overdubs on the Moodies’ records. The sound quality overall was good, after an early extraneous vibration disappeared. The group’s sound seemed to get just the tiniest bit ragged on the vocals after intermission, which is probably to be expected when people of “a certain age” perform for nearly two hours, three nights in a row.
Visually, most of the show was simple, yet quite striking. A kaleidoscope of vivid colors in ever-changing psychedelic patterns was projected on to the jumbo screen at the rear of the stage; these projections were complemented by the colors of the stage lighting. For the most part, the visual effects worked well in tandem with the music. Still images of the band from various eras worked a little less well, but were interesting. The only true distraction came when old music videos, such as for “The Other Side Of Life,” were projected behind the band.
All in all, the Moody Blues proved why they are one of the most popular, enduring bands of the rock era. Four decades worth of beautiful songs, performed with passion and skill by a band whose adoring audience has taken its work to heart. Nothing so strange about that, after all.
– Mike Kummer has been a Salem resident his entire life, and a fan of the Moody Blues for nearly as long.