The Moody Blues struggle to live up to legacy at Riverside Theater
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Rock and roll isn’t a profession that lends itself to aging with grace and dignity. In order to continue to make a living at what is probably the only thing old musicians know how to do competently, they have the greatest material success by playing the hits in a manner that’s palatable to old people. While some artists who got their start in the ’60s continue to doggedly record new awful music and tour with increasingly unrecognizable lineups, the three remaining essential members of The Moody Blues at least had the sense to abandon their deteriorated songwriting craft many years ago. But the puzzling thing about Thursday night’s show at the Riverside Theater (the first of a two-night stand) was that they arranged their setlist as though their lengthy last gasp of original material from the ’80s and early ’90s was an important part of their catalog. Based on the enthusiastic reaction of the audience, they’re going to keep on believing that until they’re all done dancing.
The Moodies had a strong run of seven definitive albums beginning with 1967’s bloated yet groundbreaking rock/symphony hybrid Days Of Future Passed; but frankly, 1972’s Seventh Sojourn marked the end of the band’s relevance. Nevertheless, over half the songs that the band trotted out over two 45-minute sets were from that album and later. The question that arises is this: Are most of the band’s original fans too old to make it out to a live show any more, or do the band members actually believe that it’s 1991 and these songs are fresh? Following its mid-’70s hiatus, the band made an awkward departure from the haunting mysticism that defined its best material, veering into a relentlessly corny pop-rock sound, and that was the sound that dominated last night’s show. While prog dinosaurs like Yes plug along with replacement singers from tribute bands, they at least have the good sense to play their classic albums, but the Moodies seem to have little awareness of their own legacy.
They do have a handle on their audience, however, who awarded them rapturous standing ovations after most songs. A trio of screens behind the performers projected a pastiche of laughably low-tech digital animation throughout the show, presumably designed for 50-somethings braving one last acid trip. The core trio of singer/guitarist Justin Hayward, bassist John Lodge, and drummer Graeme Edge have also conveniently found a pair of younger women, Norda Mullen and Julie Ragins, to act as augmentative Swiss army knives, providing vocals, guitars, keyboards, percussion, saxophone, and the trademark flute parts for the older songs. The band has also utilized a second drummer, Gordon Marshall, since the ’90s, relegating Edge to a virtually token onstage presence. Ironically, the 72-year-old’s playing was far more nuanced and impressive than Marshall’s, and even if he doesn’t pound the skins as hard as cheese-rock clunkers like “Steppin’ In A Slide Zone” and “The Other Side Of Life” might demand, Edge’s work would have been more than sufficient to pull off anything from the band’s classic period. It’s true that even the band’s best material succeeded on fairly clichéd philosophical babble, but it was Shakespeare compared to the simplistic ’80s drudgery that comprised most of the show.
It’s easy to forget how the band came to prominence in the late ’60s: the voice of Justin Hayward. For a few minutes, during the requisite performances of “Nights In White Satin” and “Question” at the end of the set, Hayward’s still powerful and distinctive voice soared above the otherwise bland proceedings. Despite oldies FM stations beating these tracks into oblivion, it was briefly possible to imagine a time when they were simply great psychedelic pop songs. The Moody Blues wrote a bunch of these in their youth, but they’ve clearly lost all connection with those roots. It’s a shame that they’ve chosen to perpetuate an era when they were already irrelevant instead of rehashing more of their choice quality stuff.