Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Sound of the City

Weird Science

Once upon a time in England, Roy Wood cochaired a band called the Move that had many hit singles. The Move's sound was so idiosyncratic that such classificatory stabs as "in thrall to the Beatles," "classy bubblegum psychedelica," and "from soul covers to West Coast sound" are only misleading--they were heavier and progger than any of that. In 1971, they mutated into the Electric Light Orchestra, which Wood soon left to Jeff Lynne, splitting off to score many more hit singles under his own name and with a band called Wizzard. None of these hits made the slightest commercial dent in the U.S., and by the late '70s, Wood had sunk from view, recording rarely. So when he played his first New York shows in 28 years at the Village Underground March 14 through 17, it was hard to predict the response. But Sunday night, at least, he sure got one.

Never at any gig have I encountered such a concentration of men over 40 with beards and long hair. Especially notable were a gaunt, hirsute Mutt and Jeff with great glowing eyes and no trace of gray who looked like they'd just taken the Leprechaun bus down from Sleepy Hollow. Was this a crowd chock-full of old Anglophiles? Old record collectors? Old hippies? Who knew? And when Wood mounted the stage in his long military coat, he fit right in. At 55, his dark hair highlighted with neon extensions, he looked around 40. His powerful voice had lost neither high end nor low, and although he played mostly guitar, he demonstrated his multi-instrumental renown by lugging out the bagpipes for "Are You Ready to Rock," one of many numbers no one sang along to despite repeated encouragement. After one such shortfall, he drank some amber-colored liquid: "For medicinal purposes--that's my specimen from last night."

In Britain, clearly, Wood is proud to be an oldies act. In the U.S., he was what he'd always been--a complete weirdo. This effect was augmented by a band Wood called the Thunderbirds, consisting of Climax Blues bass and drums; "the Naylor Twins" on keybs, tambourine, vocals, illustrative jitterbug, and "Rescue Me" interlude; and eight count-'em eight horn players, seven count-'em seven of them female. Shifted for current purposes in the soul covers direction, the music was no better than the old and new songs, which never got better than the opening "California Man." But the event as a whole was one of those serendipitous, certain-to-be-forgotten miracles of pop culture, which has so many more nooks and crannies than any gatekeeper can imagine, keep up with, or, blessedly, control.

Village Voice, Apr. 9, 2002