Many veteran acts that still tread the boards decades after they started like to say that they’re sounding and playing “better than ever.” But let’s face it—that’s not always the case.
One artist who could be justified in making such a claim is Electric Light Orchestra founder Jeff Lynne. Touring these days as Jeff Lynne’s ELO, the singer, guitarist, and songwriter’s voice is astoundingly well-preserved. And supporting him is a super-tight twelve-piece unit, anchored by drummer Donavan Hepburn, that brings to life the orchestral nuances of ELO classics like “Evil Woman,” “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” The group’s current U.S. and international tour lasts through this October.
If you haven’t seen the band live, you can refer to 2017’s Wembley or Bust live album and film to check out Hepburn’s faithful and masterful piloting of Lynne’s vehicle. Hepburn takes an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, replicating with loving accuracy original ELO drummer Bev Bevan’s graceful, tumbling fills in “Telephone Line,” the four-on-the-floor pulse and snappy snare licks of “Shine a Little Love,” and the brawny groove of “Do Ya”. He holds it all down with a deep pocket that gives the songs a familiar yet contemporary vibe—not unlike the energy Abe Laboriel Jr. brings to Paul McCartney’s live show.
“That’s me being true to the music, understanding the era and the authenticity of those records,” Hepburn says regarding his methodology with the group. “If I approach it any other way, it instantly changes the feel. Take a song like ‘Telephone Line.’ You have those big drum fills in a ballad. If you take them out, there’s a key part missing.”
Hepburn also put a good deal of thought into choosing his gear for the ELO shows, settling on a kit that produces a slightly deader version of that classic “Jeff Lynne” drum sound. His toms are deep and thuddy while still featuring plenty of tone. His Ludwig Black Beauty snare is tuned to sound fat and soft around the edges, but it still packs a nice crack, giving the backbeats to “Showdown” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” plenty of teeth. And the ride has a dark and lovely ping that sits quite nicely with the piano and strings on “Evil Woman.”
“I could have tried to land a vintage kit,” Hepburn says. “It’d be absolutely perfect for this gig. But they don’t tour very well. The closest thing to vintage in the Yamaha range is the YD9000. They came out in the late ’70s, and I have a ’90s version with clear Remo CS Black Dot heads on the toms, with no bottom heads. And I’m using Zildjian Avedis, K, and Kerope cymbals. Jeff didn’t want explosive cymbals that are high-pitched; he wants them dark and warm.
“I really took the time to listen to the music and replicate that sound,” Hepburn adds. “Jeff came in right away and noticed it—he said the drums and cymbals sounded great. The fact that his ears tuned in to my drums was brilliant.”
Donavan Hepburn plays Yamaha drums, Zildjian cymbals, Remo heads, and Promark sticks.
Also on the Road
Jason Sutter with Cher /// Jimmy Chamberlin with Smashing Pumpkins /// Shannon Larkin with Godsmack /// Chad Sexton with 311 /// Pete Parada with the Offspring /// Patrick Meese with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats /// Jon Fishman with Phish /// Matt Abts with Gov’t Mule /// Anton Fig with Joe Bonamassa /// Shannon Forrest with Toto