Zombies Are Very Much Alive

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 5, 2019
The Zombies perform their album Odessey & Oracle in its entirety at the Arlington on Sunday, September 8 (photo by Payley Photography)

If the members of the Zombies were truly oracles, they probably wouldn’t have broken up in 1968 before their song “Time of the Season” became a big hit and eventually a timeless classic heard in commercials and movies. The song eventually propelled Odessey and Oracle, the astounding album it was drawn from, up the sales charts and into history as one of rock’s masterpieces, cited by the likes of Tom Petty and Dave Grohl as a major influence and recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 best albums in history.

Instead, disenchanted by the record’s initial failure at home following smash hits a few years earlier with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” the British band’s odyssey led them in diverse directions, although the prime members – lead singer Colin Blunstone, keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist Rod Argent, and bassist/singer-songwriter Chris White, who have enjoyed successful solo careers – have crossed paths many times in the past five decades.

Now the road is leading those three surviving members of the British band, along with drummer Hugh Grundy – who re-formed as a regular thing several years ago this decade and were (finally) inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year – to the Arlington Theatre, where they will open for Brian Wilson in an abbreviated set that features a performance of Odessey in sequence. Blunstone talked about the journey and the jelling over the phone from the road earlier this week. 

Q. How did your sound/songwriting evolve from the British Invasion to the more chamber pop/baroque psychedelic of Odessey?

A. When I listen to our music in order, you can actually see a progression in the songwriting and the way we performed that lead to O/O. But the biggest thing was when Rod and Chris started producing us. We were also recording in Abbey Road right after the Beatles had finished making Sgt Peppers. The next band in. We used the same engineers, and they’d left behind John Lennon’s mellotron and all these percussion instruments on the floor, so we used them. It was just chance. 

Odessey is such an incredibly advanced record, with chamber music arrangements and rich soundscapes, like Sgt. Peppers and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Obviously, the Beatles album hadn‘t been released yet, but were you influenced by the Beach Boys?

We were huge fans of both bands, so I’m sure subconsciously we were influenced by Pet Sounds. But the Zombies never did follow trends, whether that was a strength or a weakness. We recorded what pleased us, what we thought was good. I do remember at the time feeling that Odessey was the best we could do.

How do those songs live and breathe with you playing them live fifty years later?

So many memories come flooding back, those of my youth and then what’s happened in between ‘67 and now – a whole lifetime of memories. But I’m good at compartmentalizing, so I can concentrate on the performance. But somewhere in my brain, those memories are triggered by the music.

You and Rod have played together frequently throughout. What keeps that relationship so strong?

We’ve always got on very well together, but musically Rod would say that he learned to write songs for my voice, and I know I learned to sing to his songs. So there’s a bond between us. We learned how to be professionals together. It’s a very natural combination.

Speaking of your voice, it’s a pretty unusual combination of silky and smoky. How did you develop it? And is it holding up so that you are able to hit all the notes?

I was influenced by Rod more than anyone. He is very particular about the phrasing, and that’s what I was trying to do. The sound itself is just natural. And we play all the songs in the original keys. Some of them are quite rangy, and I can still do them all. But we’ve had some vocal coaching recently.

I’ve got to ask about your name: You guys were ahead of the curve, way before zombies became a thing!

It would be nice to think that we had something to do with the culture developing, the forerunners of the whole thing. But of course that’s not true. It was just a chance conversation when we were kids, maybe 15, and we needed a name for the band. Someone suggested Zombies. I didn’t even know what that was, but it was catchy and it stuck. 


X) The Zombies perform their album Odessey & Oracle in its entirety at the Arlington on Sunday, September 8 (photo by Payley Photography)

Going up the Country

Some might think that launching a new country music festival in Santa Barbara could be a fool’s errand. Attempts by radio stations and other promoters to create a series in the genre at the Earl Warren Showgrounds and other venues haven’t proved successful, and country music rarely gets any attention in town save for the rare date at the Santa Barbara Bowl with a major touring artist. While Santa Ynez’ Maverick Saloon packs ‘em in with country and honky-tonk bands several nights a week – just a few blocks away from the Chumash Casino Resort, which frequently books touring country singers and Nashville-based bands into its Samala Showroom – the city hasn’t had a consistent country presence with live music in a club since the days of the old Red Dog Saloon in the early 1990s.

But Brian Hynes, co-owner of Homegrown Events, believes they have found the right formula to bring in the boot-scootin’, country music crowd. Homegrown is the presenter behind the annual OakHeart Country Music Festival, an eight-year-old event that has become the largest fest of its kind in Ventura County, drawing people to a park in Thousand Oaks to listen to music on two stages and avail themselves of a festival atmosphere that embraces the country scene. Hynes and Homegrown hope to duplicate that feat with this weekend’s inaugural Santa Barbara Country Music Festival to be held at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club from 1-7 pm on Sunday, September 8.

“Santa Barbara is a great town for country music, and there’s been a need and want for something like this for a long time,” said Hynes, adding that he and his partner Troy Hale have been searching for a suitable site and situation for several years. “When we first launched the idea, the Polo Club got an overwhelming number of calls saying thank you to bring this kind of thing up there so they wouldn’t have to drive to Thousand Oaks or Los Angeles to hear the music they love.”

Hynes should know. Once a longtime patron of that Ventura County city’s Borderline Bar & Grill, Hynes bought the country-and-western dance club and restaurant more than a decade ago, and helped grow it into a destination spot from patrons both north and south. OakHeart was born as a way to promote the place, he said, when he, Hale and a fellow Westlake Village Rotary Club member came up with the idea.

“We wanted to take the concept of the Borderline and put it out onto a field, and draw a couple of thousand people instead of just a few hundred,” Hynes said. “We thought it would be great advertising for the club, get our brand out there, and by giving some of the proceeds to the Rotary Club get tied into the community. You can only fit so many people inside the walls of a bar, and this was a way to expand and grow.”

Now the promoters are hoping to duplicate OakHeart’s success out on the seaside polo field that’s even more expansive – not to mention cooler via ocean breezes – than their first festival’s location in a county park. Just as with OakHeart, Sunday’s festival features a full roster of performers, headlined by multi-platinum selling recording artist Hunter Hayes, whose self-titled debut accumulated nearly one billion on-demand streams in the U.S. alone and produced multiple gold and platinum-certified tracks, including the biggest hit, “Wanted.” When the smash hit, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Solo Performance in 2013, reached No. 1 on the country airplay charts, Hayes became the youngest solo male artist to top Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in more than 40 years. Hayes has also earned four additional Grammy nominations and claimed a People’s Choice Favorite Male Country Artist award and was named CMA’s New Artist of the Year.

In contrast to the Louisiana-born Hayes, Devin Dawson is from Orangevale, California, just outside the gates of Folsom Prison, where the now 28-year-old used to sing along to Johnny Cash as well as Alan Jackson, Marvin Gaye and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Moving to Nashville in 2012, Dawson mostly wrote songs for other artists and was ready to co-author every track on his debut record, a mix of organic roots and high-voltage country from a modern singer-songwriters in the country music format.

Also on the bill is Savannah Burrows, who decided she wanted to be a country singer-songwriter after seeing Taylor Swift perform at Los Angeles’ Staples Center at eight years old. A decade later, the Santa Clarita native is following in her heroine’s footsteps, becoming proficient on electric and acoustic guitar, mandolin, 12-string guitar, piano and ukulele, and writes and performs her own original music. Earlier this year she shot a video for a single called, appropriately, “What Would Taylor Swift Do.”

Rounding out the roster is Honey County, an independent country trio comprised of Dani Rose, Devon Jane, and Katie Stump whose three-part vocal harmonies, southern twang, and pop hooks earned them a nod as one of Rolling Stone‘s “Top 10 Artists You Need To Know,” and slots on the radio and country tours. Earlier this summer, the trio released the single “Country Strong,” a feel-good pop-country track that urges listeners to be strong in the face of adversity. The video features families of survivors and victims from the Borderline mass shooting last November, which left 12 people dead and 18 injured at the weekly line-dancing night for college students. In some ways, the new Santa Barbara Country Music Festival is another step in the healing for the community affected by the tragedy.

“The club has been a very big part of my life for a long time,” Hynes said. “I personally knew all twelve people who lost their lives, and the shooting has been very hard, but the community outreach, how we’ve been accepted with open arms, has been incredible. I don’t know how to describe it in words. The families have been very open and staying connected in conversations, and created new friendships. That part has been mind-blowing.

“We’ve been keeping the country nights going at other clubs in the area, and this festival is another way to get people out there, enjoying the music, dancing and having a great time, which is what we do and what makes us happy.”

To that end, the festival features a huge dance floor, with line dancing and a live DJ spinning tunes between live sets all day, plus a vendor village, beer garden, food trucks and a kids’ area. VIP tickets even include admission to a private polo match two hours before the festival gates open, plus more amenities.

If the Sport of Kings seems like the antithesis of a crowd-pleaser among the country music set, Hynes once again begs to differ. “Maybe the (polo players) are not cowboys, but they’re up on horseback. And having (popular boot company and perennial polo patron) Lucchese as a sponsor really does tie it together.”

Giddy up.

(The Santa Barbara Country Music Festival takes place 1-7 pm on Sunday, September 8, at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. For more information or tickets, visit www.SantaBarbaraCMF.com.)

SB Bowl Debut 

Three weeks ago, Tariqh Akoni enjoyed a hiatus from his regular job that was long enough for the guitarist to sit in with Kenny Loggins’ regional band for the 35th anniversary tribute to Footloose performed by teenagers at the Marjorie Luke. This Thursday, September 5, Akoni will return to his home again, this time with his longtime employer, who happens to be the operatically-gifted pop singer Josh Groban, for whom Akoni has served as music director for nearly two decades.

Akoni graduated San Marcos High School and has since travelled the world playing his own music and working with a veritable Who’s Who of pop and jazz. He first hooked up with Groban almost 18 years ago when famed producer David Foster was putting together a band for the then-budding singer – Akoni was auditing a class at USC Thornton’s School of Music, and a classmate asked the guitarist to cover a few dates with Groban, who then asked him to join full time. Five years later, Akoni became Groban’s musical director, and has performed at all of the singer’s concerts and played on every album ever since.

Akoni moved back to his hometown almost a decade ago, where he plays lots of local benefits gigs when he’s not otherwise obligated. (Akoni and his wife are in the process of launching a new nonprofit project this month. Watch this space for details.) Still, somehow, Thursday will represent both his and Groban’s debut performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl. He talked about his time with the pop singer over the phone while boarding a plane in Seattle to resume the tour.

Q. How has playing with Groban kept your interest all these years?

A. Back when I started with him, I was still a hired gun guitar player with Whitney Houston, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, and other singers. They were great gigs but not very musically rewarding. With Josh I get to play classical guitar, mandolin, steel string, and electric guitars, work with choruses and orchestras, which are all parts of my personality. On this last record, he had a major flamenco virtuoso guitarist do a solo, which meant I had to play it on the road. I woodshedded for a week to make sure I could pull it off. I love those kinds of challenges.

It’s really rare to get to work with someone who is not only a great artist, but also moves people. As many musicians as I’ve worked with, there have been precious few who really touch people. With Josh, I would look out at the audience and see people in tears. Now as musical director, I feel like the steward of that relationship, the last line of defense technically so that he is able to move people the way he does. I have my own artistic voice, but it’s an honor to work on his vision.

Still, 18 years is a long time.

It doesn’t seem that way, because he’s always pushing, wanting to expand and experiment. I told him when I first took over that we might not always mesh – like I wouldn’t be the right guy if he wanted to make a polka-metal record. But we’ve stayed oriented in the same direction. He is a fan of the same music I love. I think I have a perspective on what he is trying to accomplish, and I can help him get there. 

You must be excited to perform at the Bowl.

Oh absolutely. I live around the corner, only four blocks away. I grew up going to concerts there, saw Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Santana, all those great guitarists who were big influences. The Bowl is a part of my DNA. It’s such an iconic place. Even when I lived in L.A. I used to travel up to see concerts there just because it’s not only such a beautiful place, but for the Santa Barbara crowd who really appreciate music. So I am genuinely super excited. I have a lot of family coming out. The Groban clan is teasing me that I am using all of the band’s tickets.


You might also be interested in...