Was Roy Orbison’s hologram concert a vision of live music’s uncanny future?

The long-dead singer "performed" at the Sony Centre, opening several cans of worms in the process

IN DREAMS: ROY ORBISON IN CONCERT – THE HOLOGRAM TOUR at Sony Centre, Sunday, November 4. Rating: NN

Let’s be honest: Roy Orbison did not play Toronto last night. The legendary rock ’n’ roll singer died almost 30 years ago, at the age of 52. What appeared onstage at the Sony Centre was the city’s first hologram concert. The 45-minute show was simultaneously a futuristic marvel and a nostalgic time capsule, but ultimately little more than a high-tech tribute act.

There’s plenty of buzz in the concert business about In Dreams: Roy Orbison In Concert – The Hologram Tour. If resurrecting the dead with lasers proves massively successful it may very well alter the concept of “live” performance forever. More than 10 years after Céline Dion sang a duet with the ghost of Elvis Presley on American Idol, six years after Tupac posthumously appeared at Coachella, it seems holograms are ready to hit the road.

The technology is indeed wondrous. When Orbison’s image was made to rise up from the floor to the sounds of his 1960 classic Only The Lonely, the crowd could be heard gasping with surprised delight at the realism of the hologram. It was a little bit creepy, but still pretty cool. For a few minutes, anyway. 

After they’ve wowed you with having “Roy” turn to his band – a full orchestra – so you can see he actually has a back, too, there’s not much magic left. (There are, however, lovely details like his suit tassels swaying in an imaginary breeze, or the glint of light off his guitar shifting as he turns slightly left and right.)

The creators, BASE Hologram, were lucky – or smart – enough to animate an artist well known for standing in one spot at his concerts, whose trademark dark glasses also eliminate the need for getting the eyes right. His signature voice was pristinely presented, perhaps too much so for a visceral live concert but certainly better than any home hi-fi. It was the best version of dead Roy Orbison that could be expected.

Too bad the hologram was more alive than the orchestra, a competent but uninspired bunch under musical direction that seemed determined to turn every number into a total snooze. It’s fine to treat Pretty Paper and Crying like lullabies, but could we get some actual guitars in the mix for You Got It, please? Just because the age of the crowd averaged over 60 didn’t mean they couldn’t handle some old time rock ’n’ roll. (Also who hires backup singers for Roy Orbison who need to read the lyrics for Oh, Pretty Woman off sheet music?)

But, hey, I guess when presented with the only chance to see a dearly departed music icon, one shouldn’t be too picky.

Hologram concerts open several cans of worms. Is it disrespectful to an artist’s legacy for their estate to put them back to work, especially, as is often the case, the exhaustion or stress from rigorous touring was a cause of death? If yes, which version should be on display? BASE already has plans to tour an “Amy Winehouse,” which her father has said will only show the good side of his daughter, who died after much publicized struggles with alcohol abuse and more than one embarrassingly awful drunken gig. But is that what we want from an Amy Winehouse concert? The best live music is imbued with an element of danger. Even at the most highly choreographed spectacle, anything could happen. Not at a hologram show.

Who chooses the songs? One treat for Orbison fans last night was likely his “performance” of I Drove All Night, a song that was released after his death and was thus never performed live. But Prince notoriously stopped performing certain lusty material later in his life due to religious conviction. Is hologram Prince suddenly going to bust them out?

For women artists, holograms may be especially unfair. Will they be forever preserved only as their most youthful selves, never allowed to age? I was lucky enough to see Kate Bush perform in 2014, at age 56. It was amazing. She’s amazing. If she had never come out of live retirement, would I have paid to see a recreation of her 1979 tour as a sexy spandex-wearing hologram, though? Probably.

That’s the thing: humans desperately want more time with our loved ones. It’s why we embalm and open-casket the dead. Why we write stories about immortal vampires. Why we are going to the cinema to see Bohemian Rhapsody even if the reviews are terrible. Two years ago I was at Wacken Open Air festival in Germany when they announced a hologram of metal icon Ronnie James Dio with his former band members was the special secret show closure. I did not trudge through a muddy field to go watch it at 3 am, but I did later witness grown men who did, crying, overwhelmed with emotion at seeing “him” again. I get it. If Star Trek holodecks were real I’d for sure want to attend a fake Joy Division concert.

Still, if hologram concerts take off, I fear we are sure to see an onslaught of bad taste tours. The Kurt and Courtney Show, anyone? Tim and Jeff Buckley together at last? I’d bet right now Chris Cornell’s widow is imagining a show where he can sing alongside John Lennon. God only knows what will happen with Michael Jackson.

Thankfully, the In Dreams show was, as my usher put it, “far from sold out.” At least for now, what seems a perfect novelty for a Las Vegas casino, or perhaps a cruise, can’t compete with real-life musical performances. Phew.


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