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Concert review: Justin Hayward enchants those gathered under the Western sky

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Justin Hayward in concert, May 30, 2014, Scottsdale, AZ

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Forgive those of us that live in Arizona for claiming anything that has to do with “Western” as our own. Blame countless movies that showcase the Sonoran Desert as a typical “Western” setting. So when Justin Hayward brought his “Spirits of the Western Sky” tour to Talking Stick Resort’s Showroom in Scottsdale on Friday night, May 30, 2014, those in the audience knew he was undoubtedly referring to them. Given Hayward’s intimate connection with the audience throughout the show, for 95 minutes, it was all about them.

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When Hayward isn’t touring the world promoting his latest album, the 2013 release, “Spirits of the Western Sky,” he can be found working with that other group he’s in, The Moody Blues. Some in the audience came to the show solely because of their love of the Moody Blues music. Hopefully they came away with a greater appreciation for the work of Justin Hayward.

It would be unfair to call Justin Hayward’s show “The Moody Blues Unplugged.” Only half of the songs Hayward played are found on a Moody Blues’ album. This was Justin Hayward unplugged. He never strayed from using an acoustic guitar, either 6 or 12 string, all evening and was accompanied onstage only by keyboardist Julie Ragins (she was also with the Moody Blues tour the last time they came to town) and virtuoso guitarist Mike Dawes.

It’s a bold move to strip one’s self of the Moody Blues wall of sound, especially live. There is no hiding when it’s just your voice and just your guitar. But Hayward thrived in that setting.

The evening’s tone was set with the opening number “Tuesday Afternoon.” Only Ragins’ keyboard and Hayward’s acoustic strumming provided the instrumental portion of the familiar song. Hayward’s vocals soared, sounding crisp and strong. The crowd responded with the first of many standing ovations they would give throughout the night.

Guitarist Dawes came on stage to add some depth to the guitar mix for Hayward’s Moody Blues’ compositions, “It’s Up to You,” and “Lovely to See You.” It was hard to believe that the newest of the first three songs played this evening was 44 years old. That’s the testament to Hayward’s song writing ability. Played live, especially stripped of whatever studio sound was popular at the time the songs were originally recorded, a 1967 Hayward song comfortably fits next to a 2013 Hayward song. Neither sound dated.

As proof, Hayward then proceeded to do what few artists do these days when promoting a new album. Rather than play just one or two cuts from “Spirits of the Western Sky,” he gave a generous portion of five titles from his latest CD. Although Hayward fans probably have already purchased or downloaded this gem, those hearing for the first time songs such as “In Your Blue Eyes,” “The Western Sky,” or “One Day, Someday,” should help soon in increasing the album's sales.

Interspersed between the “Spirits of the Western Sky,” selections, Hayward went back to his Blue Jays days with “I Dreamed Last Night.” Again, Hayward’s vocals and guitar playing made the song sound as if it could have been the sixth song played from his new album.

Hayward then took a break and allowed guitarist Mike Dawes to play a couple of solo numbers which showcased Dawes’ fingerstyle guitar playing. His stunning ability brought the crowd to their feet. You can check out his style at mikedawesofficial-YouTube.

As Hayward returned with “Your Wildest Dreams,” he showed that his voice can still go low and high. Ragins did help out with the extremely high parts as she had all night. Her harmonies with Hayward were stellar throughout the evening.

In another throwback to Hayward’s illustrious career, he reached back to his time with Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” project and dusted off “Forever Autumn.” Once again, the 1978 hit for Hayward sounded fresh and the audience showed their approval with yet another standing ovation.

At age 19 most of us were struggling with what we wanted to be when we grew up. At that age Hayward wrote “Nights in White Satin.” His career path was pretty clear from that moment on.

Hayward’s regular set closed with that number, again bare of the orchestral backup found on “Days of Future Passed.” Dawes approached the song with a flamenco like guitar playing style, Ragins synthesizer provided any needed orchestration and once again Hayward’s voice took a person to that moment in their life where the song had an extra special meaning.

Hayward’s encore was the appropriately titled “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.” Appropriate because, but for the many standing ovations they gave after a song’s conclusion, the audience chose to stay rather quiet. There was no dancing, no loud singing along and very little hand clapping along with the music. But for every song there was plenty of quiet head bobbing and smiles across the faces of those watching. You don’t need to be interactive to enjoy what is being presented.

Justin Hayward’s performance provided his audience with a side of the gifted songwriter they don’t always get to see. As Hayward told Examiner.com’s, Kevin Yeanoplos, earlier this year, “I found with my solo tour, I was able to sometimes just be one guitar. It gets to the purity and the real sweetness of the song easier.” For this intimate night, exclusively for those of us in the West, mission accomplished.

Set List: Tuesday Afternoon | It’s Up To You | Lovely To See You | In Your Blue Eyes | The Western Sky | I Dreamed Last Night | In The Beginning | One Day, Someday | The Eastern Sun | Two song set from guitarist Mike Dawes | Your Wildest Dreams | Forever Autumn | Question | Nights In White Satin | Encore: I Know You’re Out There Somewhere

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