It’s hard to believe that a band that first topped the charts in 1964 could sound as good or even better today than on their original recordings. But the legendary British rock band The Zombies accomplished that feat during their recent appearance at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, taking attendees on a musical journey that traced the band’s 55-year history from the early days of the British Invasion through their various solo careers and right up to their latest album, “Still Got That Hunger,” released last fall.
Opening act New Natives kick-started the evening with a high-energy, power-pop performance that suffered a bit from a faulty mix, resulting in the group’s vocals being overwhelmed by the guitars. Nevertheless, the Valdosta, Ga. band’s retro-pop vibe – and lead singer Jeff Haineault’s eery resemblance to rock-and-roll legend Buddy Holly – proved a fitting complement to the main attraction.
Fronted by original founding members Rod Argent on keyboards and vocalist Colin Blunstone, the current incarnation of The Zombies features guitarist Tom Toomey, former Kinks member (and Argent’s cousin) Jim Rodford on bass and his son, Steve Rodford, on drums. Taking the stage to the cheers of their devoted fans – many of whom traveled from out of state to be there – The Zombies opened with one of their early 1960s tracks, “I Love You,” and from the first notes it became clear why the band’s appeal has not only stood the test of time, but is once again on the ascendant.
Simply put, Colin Blunstone’s voice is a musical marvel. After a half-century career, his voice sounds virtually unchanged. If anything, the hushed, ethereal quality heard on the band’s early studio hits like “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” has developed an added depth and power that is perhaps better suited to live performances. Argent’s keyboard skills have also improved with the years, punctuating the band’s songs with the signature sound for which they’re known.
A highlight of the show was a mini-set from the band’s “Odessey & Oracle” album, including “Care of Cell 44,” “This Will Be Our Year,” “I Want Her, She Wants Me” and the album’s chart-topping hit, “Time of the Season.” Now considered to be a classic – Rolling Stone included the album on its list of Top 100 albums of all time – “Odessey & Oracle” garnered little critical or commercial attention upon its 1968 debut. The Zombies had already split up, in fact, before it was released and “Time of the Season” eventually made its way up the charts.
Interspersed among the classic hits were six songs from the band’s new album, “Still Got That Hunger,” with Argent and Blunstone providing commentary and behind-the-scenes glimpses into its development. The song “New York,” for example, chronicles the band’s first visit to America in December 1964, when The Zombies – still in their teens – found themselves performing a Christmas show alongside seasoned performers such as Patti Labelle and Aretha Franklin.
“We were terrified,” Argent admitted. “We thought they were going to look at us and say, ‘Who are these young, callow white kids doing some watered-down version of Motown? But they didn’t – they took us to their hearts.”
Another track off the new album, “Maybe Tomorrow,” almost didn’t get released after Sony objected to the lyrics, which conclude with a reference to The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” With just days to go before the album’s release, a phone call from The Zombies’ management to Paul McCartney’s managers resolved the dilemma.
“A few days later, they phoned us and said, ‘Paul downloaded the song and he loves it. Go ahead and do it,’” Argent said.
The Zombies also performed their only previously recorded song to appear on “Still Got That Hunger” – “I Want You Back Again,” which later became a hit for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“We hadn’t performed it live for years,” Blunstone quipped, “but we figured if it’s good enough for Tom Petty, it’s good enough for us.”
After entertaining the crowd with solo-career tunes such as Blunstone’s UK hits “Caroline Goodbye” and “I Don’t Believe in Miracles” and Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” The Zombies closed the show on a high note with crowd favorite “She’s Not There” and an encore performance of Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll To You” that had the audience on its feet. It was a fitting end to evening that in many ways felt more like a performance by a band at the beginning of its career – the irony of which is not lost on The Zombies themselves.
“We were amazed when we got a phone call from Billboard,” Argent noted. “They said, ‘You’re in six of our charts for the first time in 50 years!’”