The Zombies performed at Rams Head On Stage on Monday night. (Keith Curtis / Handout )
There are at least two remarkable things to note in Colin Blunstone’s voice.
First, of course, is its sound, that light, airy quality – is it breathy, or breathless? – that gave the great Zombies tracks of the mid-1960s an immediate, intimate, confessional feel. Rod Argent’s jazz-inflected keyboard playing is distinctive and pleasing. Blunstone’s voice is arresting.
Second is the fact that it appears to have aged not at all. Live at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis Monday evening, where Blunstone and Argent led the 2013 version of the Zombies through a crowd-pleasing set of hits, covers and a few new songs, Blunstone sounded precisely as he did on records he made nearly half a century ago. In contrast to his contemporaries – say, Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, both of whom will be passing through the region in the next month – he still sounds about 22.
It was that voice, along with the rock drive of a crack band and a catalog that always stood outside of its time, that made the Zombies' sound, however improbably at this late date, fresh in 2013.
If you’re even a casual fan of music, you know the Zombies. You know the off-kilter beat of “She’s Not There,” their first big hit, and “Time of the Season,” the flower-power anthem that topped charts after they had broken up. You probably know “Tell Her No,” and maybe “I Love You.” And you’ve heard “Hold Your Head Up,” written by former Zombie Chris White and a big hit for Argent, the band Argent formed after the Zombies dissolved.
In any event, the group arrived in the first wave of the British Invasion, with a jazz-, classical- and soul-inflected sound as distinct and songs as inventive as the contemporary work of the Beatles or Beach Boys. “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” were massive hits, still played, widely covered and recurrent on television and in film. Their 1968 opus Odessey and Oracle is rightly considered among the top hundred or so albums of the rock era. Their body of work remains beloved and influential among musicians today.
Which is to say they haven’t received nearly enough attention. For all the reverence they have earned among their fellow artists, it is something of a mystery why the Zombies’ other fine mid-1960s singles – “Whenever You’re Ready,” “She’s Coming Home,” among others – failed to score the success of “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.” Why “A Rose For Emily” – the delicate ballad Foo Fighter Dave Grohl identified recently as the track that changed his life – isn’t as familiar to the casual listener as “Eleanor Rigby” or “God Only Knows,” the songs it most closely resembles. Why the Zombies aren’t remembered in the first tier of the mid-1960s pop vanguard, along with the Beatles, Beach Boys, the Kinks and the Who.
It has been suggested that the group's compositions were possibly too clever, too different. I don’t know; I wasn’t there. And it’s true that when you’re talking about jazz and classical inflections on rock 'n' roll – and also extended keyboard solos – the news is seldom going to be good. The Zombies, though, like the Beatles, make it work, with unerring pop sense, uniformly gorgeous melodies and – on the evidence of the performance Monday – an ever-youthful energy.
Founders Blunstone and Argent reunited the band about a decade ago, have recorded a couple of studio albums, including 2011’s well-regarded "Breathe Out, Breathe In" and have toured regularly. The current version consists of Blunstone and Argent; Argent’s cousin Jim Rodford, late of Argent and the Kinks (and who Argent said Monday was actually the Zombies’ first choice on bass); Rodford’s son Steve on drums; and guitarist Tom Toomey.
They provided solid backing for the key elements of the Zombies’ sound, Blunstone’s vocals and Argent’s keyboards. The founders shared stories behind the material – we learned, for example, that White wrote the proto-metal “Hold Your Head Up” after watching the band Argent stretch out a lengthy improvisation on “Time of the Season.”
But they played the songs straight – energetically, honestly – disdaining the Vegasy, showbizzy approach that tends to infect the oldies circuit, so the show never felt as if it were lapsing into mere nostalgia.
So “She’s Not There” sounded urgent, not dated, and the hurt in Blunstone’s voice remained palpable in “Tell Her No.” “Care of Cell 44” and “A Rose For Emily” brought chills. “I Love You” and “Just Out of Reach” were as frantic live as on record.