Review: Jeff Lynne's ELO makes magical return to Madison Square Garden after 40 years
Jim Powers/YouTube

It must have been somewhat of a surreal moment for Grammy-winning artist Jeff Lynne when he stepped out on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Aug. 21. It was to be the first of two consecutive Madison Square Garden concerts that Jeff Lynne’s ELO has on the band’s 2018 world tour.

“Hello, New York!” Lynne said to the sold-out show’s cheering audience before the band launched into ELO’s hit “All Over the World” from the “Xanadu” soundtrack. “It’s been 40 years since we played here [at Madison Square Garden] the last time.”

Back in 1978, ELO brought its Beatles-inspired pop/rock mixed with a touch of classical music to Madison Square Garden as part of ELO’s world tour, which featured a giant replica of a spaceship where ELO would emerge from on stage at the concerts. There’s no giant spaceship this time around, but ELO’s lushly arranged and meticulously crafted songs have stood the test of time and are still thrilling generations of fans. People who want to hear faithful renditions of ELO songs in concert will not be disappointed at what Lynne has to offer all these decades later.

For years, Lynne—the leader of Electric Light Orchestra and a member of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup—used to say that he didn’t like touring, which is why he hadn’t done a major tour for close to 35 years when Jeff Lynne’s ELO began to tour again in Europe in 2016. For fans in the United States, the wait has been even longer: ELO last toured the U.S. in 1981.

ELO has gone through numerous lineup changes and a few hiatuses and revivals, and Lynne is now the only original member left in the band. (ELO's original drummer Bev Bevan had a spinoff band called ELO Part II that toured and released albums, but Lynne was not involved in that spinoff.) Considering that Lynne wrote, produced and sang lead vocals on all of ELO’s original songs, he’s been ELO’s creative driving force and the person who fans most want to see perform ELO songs live. 

The Aug. 21 setlist at Madison Square Garden was mostly the same as the one that Jeff Lynne’s ELO did when the band played at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 2016, the year that Jeff Lynne’s ELO did a select number of shows in New York and Los Angeles. The enthusiastic response from those shows led to the 2018 U.S. arena tour.

The concert lighting and stage production are similar to the 2016 shows: lasers (including a laser-light extravaganza during “Shine a Little Love”), as well as atmospheric scenery and the ELO jukebox logo projected on giant video screens. The band overall has gotten tighter and more confident. Lynne is not the kind of performer who does a lot of on-stage banter, but people come to an ELO concert to hear the hits, and this show delivered plenty, including “Evil Woman,” “Livin’ Thing” and four of the songs that got the biggest response from the audience: “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Turn to Stone,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” With two cellists, a violinist, a piano player, a keyboardist/synth player, two backup singers, a drummer and multiple guitarists, the ELO sound that fans have come to know and love is faithfully and skillfully replicated with small changes to the arrangements to add more kick and flair to the live renditions.

The 19-song, 90-minute set that Jeff Lynne’s ELO is performing on this tour does an admirable job of covering ELO’s songs from the band’s first album (“10538 Overture”) to the latest album (“When I Was a Boy” from 2015’s Alone in the Universe). Considering all the hits and hidden gems in ELO’s repertoire, it’s impossible to please everyone who might want to hear certain songs. The setlist now includes fan fave “Do Ya” (which was left out of the U.S. setlist in 2016), but there are no songs from 1983’s Secret Messages album (whose title track was performed in 2016) and still no songs from the excellent 1981 Time album, whose biggest hit was “Hold on Tight.”

The biggest change to the setlist is the inclusion of the Traveling Wilburys song “Handle With Care,” with Lynne doing the vocals originally sung by George Harrison and Tom Petty, while ELO backup singer Iain Hornal does the higher-range lines originally sung by Roy Orbison. As video footage of the Traveling Wilburys played in the background, it was a poignant reminder that Lynne and Bob Dylan are now the only surviving members of the Traveling Wilburys. Seeing “Handle With Care” being performed live by a member of the Traveling Wilburys is a special treat that many fans will never forget.

In 2017, Jeff Lynne’s ELO released Wembley Or Bust, a live album and home video that captures the band performing at London’s Wembley Stadium that year. (The home video had its U.S. TV premiere on Showtime in July 2018.) Sony Music's Legacy Recordings recently reissued Secret Messages on vinyl and has set a Sept. 21 release for the anthology Electric Light Orchestra - The U.K. Singles Volume One: 1972-1978., which has replicas of the original 7-inch singles. However, listening to an album or watching a video can’t compare to the enthralling experience of being immersed in ELO’s songs live in concert.

Here's the set list for Jeff Lynne's ELO at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Aug. 21, 2018:

Standin' in the Rain
Evil Woman
All Over the World
Showdown
Do Ya
When I Was a Boy
Livin’ Thing
Handle with Care
Rockaria!
Can't Get It Out of My Head
10538 Overture
Shine a Little Love
Wild West Hero
Sweet Talkin' Woman
Telephone Line
Don't Bring Me Down
Turn to Stone
Mr. Blue Sky

Roll Over Beethoven (encore)