Standing stately still and elegant at center stage Tuesday night at City Winery, Colin Blunstone owned the stage like someone who has been doing this for a long, long time.
Indeed he has. As he noted in passing amongst the many quips and war stories that framed his songs, Blunstone, now 68, has spent a half century singing for audiences around the world – 50 years since he was the 18-year-old lead singer in a British Invasion band called the Zombies.
Never as big in the US as their peers The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks and the rest, the Zombies, which also featured keyboardist/singer/songwriter Rod Argent, nevertheless occupies a rarefied position in rock history. Known by audience members for their numerous (and enduring) hit singles like “She’s Not There” and “Time of The Season,” the band was also known, especially among other musicians, for their epic 1967 album Odessey and Oracle, which disappeared nearly without a trace when first released, leading the Zombies to disband in frustration at the peak of their powers. And leaving them to watch as their last and greatest album, with its brilliant left-field chart-topper “Time of the Season,” grew in stature over the decades into one of the most-praised albums of the rock era.
Blunstone, meanwhile, carved out a solo career based not on history, or decades-old hits, but on something uniquely his own: a singular, magnificent voice. Dramatic and sultry, with a power not often found in male voices so high, Blunstone wasted no time Tuesday night in establishing his vocal dominance, with a powerful falsetto capper to one song, followed by a look that seemed to say, “Well, alright then. Now you know who you’re dealing with.”
Count me as someone who, while a fan of Odessey and Oracle, did not know until that moment just whom I was dealing with. Blunstone schooled me, and continued to show his vocal agility on original songs (including from his latest album, On the Air Tonight) as well as classic tracks from Billy Bragg’s “Levi Stubb’s Tears” to a gorgeous version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” a reminder of how devoutly the early British bands worshiped the Motown classic.
While not as well-known Stateside, Blunstone has done better elsewhere in the world, and he spent part of the show explaining to an American audience – even one that was clearly devoted to him – why he was doing Motown covers such Robinson’s “Tears” and the classic “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted,” which was an international hit for him.
He was also pleased to be able to share war stories, one of which involved a voice teacher he had years ago, when he had decided that he was going to devote himself to being a great singer. “Lift from your pelvic floor,” his teacher told him. When the young Blunstone didn’t understand, the teacher, exasperated, simplified: “Sing from your ass, dear, sing from your ass.”
The overall impression was of an artist still pushing forward, even at 68, with a strong band of mates including longtime guitarist Tom Toomey and drummer Steve Rodford, who are also part of the reunited Zombies. A portion of that band starting regular touring in 2000 after decades apart, and Blunstone was well served by his supporting players again Tuesday night. Toomey in particular is a subtle guitarist whose acoustic work was as delicate as his electric soloing was muscular.
During a middle section, Blunstone was joined by a string section led by Jane Scarpantoni, which matched the sweetness and gentleness of his voice. That’s where Blunstone remains so wonderfully surprising: Able to punch out powerful lines, in his strong tenor or in a soaring falsetto, his voice also has an appealing vulnerability that may be in part age, but is largely an artistic choice he made long ago to put himself into every line.
That continued presence in his singing made the evening more than just an evening of memories, yes, but an evening of moments – moments that were much of their time, but remain part of ours: Blunstone may have been burned at points by the fickleness of the market, or missed the big post-invasion boom of British rock into the 1970s, but his recorded impact has ultimately proved substantial, and his live presence – even, as he characterized it, as the “late autumn” of his career – is a gift to anyone who still values the greats.