When Roy Orbison died at the age of 52 in December 1988, he was in the middle of an extraordinary comeback. The Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup he was part of with fellow rock legends Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Bob Dylan, had recently released their first album, and he had just finished recording Mystery Girl, which would posthumously hit the Top 5 on the Billboard 200 (his highest charting album ever) and spawn “You Got It,” the singer’s first Top Ten hit in 25 years.
His sudden death felt like a Renaissance interrupted – but thanks to the marvels of modern audio-visual technology, Orbison is hitting the stage once again, headlining a spectacular 65 minute show (complete with backup singers and a full, vibrant, swinging orchestra) called In Dreams: Roy Orbison in Concert: The Hologram Tour.
The October 2 show at the Wiltern launched a nearly two month 28 date U.S.-Canadian run following April 2018 shows in the UK. The bodies of Orbison and his wife Barbara rest in Westwood Memorial Cemetery just miles down Wilshire Blvd. Yet their spirits were no doubt there, marveling along with the excited audience as the music touring industry entered full on Field of Dreams territory with a spectacular sounding run through the singer’s best known hits, from “Only the Lonely” to the ultimate showstopper, “Pretty Woman.” The show paired the virtual version of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with newly recorded, never-before-heard, digitally remastered arrangements.
As a company, the show’s producers BASE Entertainment has long been at the forefront of what’s new and exciting. With BASE Hologram, the company is taking the natural next step in live entertainment, leading as the live entertainment content creator and aggregator leveraging holographic film technology to produce concerts, theatricals, spectacles and out-of-home attractions worldwide. Utilizing the same great showmanship and stagecraft that has always been a focal point of its projects the company is merging it with state of the art holographic digital and laser technology along with video mapping. They know they’ll have skeptics as well. Their press materials say, “In a BASE Hologram production, audiences are asked to suspend disbelief and get lost in the moment. They are not just watching a show, but are being drawn into an ultra-realistic experience where fantasy becomes reality.”
A powerful introductory overture swept in the moment the red curtain with Orbison’s large white autograph parted, drawing everyone in with dynamic snippets of his best-loved tunes as a photo, video and memorabilia filled video screen gave us glimpses of his extraordinary life. Then it was off to the realm where rockabilly meets vulnerability, that delightful sweet spot where the man some called “The Caruso of Rock” alternated his dark edges with transcendent falsetto tones. It was a wide sweep of his 60’s and 80’s hits of varying tempos, and often about dreaming, longing, fear of loss and the reality of pain: “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream”), “In Dreams,” “A Love So Beautiful,” “Pretty Paper,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Love Hurts,” “I Drove All Night.”
Within moments, I wished it was the real Orbison, but in some ways it was. If I hadn’t seen “him” rise from the stage floor and disappear occasionally in a puff of smoke, I would think from my distance (and even better from the phone camera image) that it was the real article. Wearing a gray suit and black shirt, trademark sunglasses in place, he tapped his legs, played his guitar realistically (chord changes and all), said “Thank You” after many songs and turned towards his musicians and gestured on occasion. It wasn’t as hard as I expected to suspend that belief and go along for a pleasurable ride which featured iconic songs rendered in his most perfect, rangy voice. The sound and production values were first rate. Even folks who have a hard time embracing the overall concept would be hard pressed to knock the production values.
Not that a hologram needs a rest (and there were no costume changes) but after every batch of songs, “Orbison” disappeared and the orchestra and band kicked up for more medleys (mostly instrumental, some sung by the backing vocalists) to accompany the video images. The most poignant were those behind the scenes with the Wilburys – with compliments being paid by each of Orbison’s cohorts, most poignantly, Tom Petty just past the one year anniversary of his own passing. But considering how the song endured with a later hit version by Linda Ronstadt, the classic “Blue Bayou” should have been in the show itself, not referred to only onscreen and as underscore by the orchestra.
The plus to this, and any other hologram show I presume, is that without anecdotes, banter, band introductions (and the solos they engender), the performance sped along at a mighty clip. But of course, for every rock fan to embrace this concept, they will have to get used to the abrupt end and falling curtain, without encores, walk-offs and walk-ons (at least for now). There are the “Thank you’s,” but of course no special facial reactions to specific moments of applause or energetic expressions from the audience. The tradeoff, to see a legend “live” like this again, is worth it.
Base Hologram wisely opened the show (and the tour) with an engaging acoustic show by Julian Frampton, the son of living rock legend Peter Frampton and a talented performer in his own right. His passionate show featured solid originals but of course the best moments were his covers of the beloved 70’s hits “Grandma’s Hands” and “Landslide.” Frampton’s somewhat awkward asides about Orbison being backstage, his not doing a meet and greet “so you can come to my merch table” and Frampton himself being a hologram as well were there to reassure us that even the hired talent knows this is something new and a bit strange. But he added a touch of solid humanity to show us we were not alone in marveling at the transcendent magic that was about to take place.