Pretty much every touring band these days can manufacture an encore, and other shows on the Roy Orbison hologram tour have found the ghost of the late singer doing the same, but the digital Big O must’ve been tired on the last stop of a 28-date North American tour which wrapped at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, because it drove straight through its 16-song, 65-minute performance.
Just under 1,200 fans settled into the 2,000-plus cap room on Monday, and Julian Frampton (yeah, son of Peter) warmed them up with a seven-song set that did not tiptoe around the fact that the image of man who’s been dead since ‘88 was headlining the show.
“I never thought I’d be opening for Roy Orbison,” Frampton said, setting up the punchline. “I still haven’t met him… but he’s the most consistent performer that I’ve ever seen.”
Consistent is right. Created by Las Vegas entertainment company BASE, the hologram “fuses advanced holographic digital and laser technology with live theatrical stagecraft to create worldwide concert tours and transformative entertainment experiences.” Ronnie James Dio’s hologram is the only one to go on tour so far, but an Amy Winehouse version should be on the road soon.
Literally appearing from a puff of smoke in the center of the stage, the Orbison hologram immediately launched into “Only The Lonely.” As the song ended, Orbison’s digital specter looked over its shoulder to acknowledge the 30-plus-piece human orchestra, and then launched directly into quick runs through “Crying” and “In Dreams.” The latter pretty much bled seamlessly into “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream).”
It was eerie to watch the tassels on the hologram’s jacket swing with every one of Orbison’s sways during “Running Scared,” but then the damn thing disappeared into another puff of smoke so the band could play through a video tribute that found rock icons like the late Tom Petty, Bono and Jeff Lynne talking about the rare talent of Orbison, who effectively changed the course of rock and pop with his one-of-a-kind vocal and quirky personality.
During that first montage, Bono, Petty or Lynne mentioned the childlike wonder that Orbison brought to both songwriting sessions and the recording booth. Rock-music cynics interested in being blown away or having their heart changed need not attend a hologram show, because a certain level of innocence is essential if one wants to enjoy what happens on the stage.
It was a treat to see the detail come to life when Orbison’s digital fingers walked up the fretboard on “Blue Angel.” The hologram’s pinky finger stretched for extra notes on “Love Hurts.” The image even slurred through the warbly opening verses of “A Love So Beautiful.” If you closed your eyes on “Pretty Paper,” well, it felt like you were listening to a recording of Orbison on a really nice sound system mounted to the ceiling and walls of a really nice theater.
Because that’s all that really happened. Not taking away from the backup singers and musicians who must break their backs to stay in sync with the hologram, but the show literally sells tickets thanks to smoke and mirrors. Sure, in many ways, showmanship is something of a farce, but when an audience watches a human onstage, it more than often connects and locks onto the artist, rooting for them and reacting to the way the show is going.
Not once — not even during the hologram’s “rawr” during “Pretty Woman” or through the quiet tension during the intro to “It’s Over” — did anything about holo-Big O feel real. And that’s OK, because it wasn’t. If you needed to be reminded of that, all you had to do was look at the collection of cords running out of the box that creates the hologram. Wound and wrapped tightly into one neat extension, it resembled the cord that comes out of many the entertainment consoles we have in our own homes. Hologram Roy Orbison is the impressive fruit borne from someone having the gumption and resources to explore a cool idea they had in some figment of their imagination, but he’s just an exaggerated extension of the stuff on TV that keeps us from getting off the couch at night.
I had a pre-show beer with Scott Anderson, crack guitarist for Bay area Americana heroes Have Gun, Will Travel. During the show, I sat next to Mark Etherington, a St. Pete songwriter whose ethereal croon seems to come from somewhere deep in the cosmos. I know these things about those men because I’ve sat in front of them and watched them play. The reverberations their talent has sent through PAs has altered the physical makeup of the space between speaker and spectator. Technically, the light and sound of the Roy Orbison hologram show does that, too, but the heartbeat of the hologram's programmers does not translate to the image onstage.
It was admittedly entertaining to visit with the ghost of the Big O. Still, sitting there watching it all unfold, all you could think about was how the real thing — the real anything, really — would’ve been better. We’ve reached a point in entertainment where we can manipulate data and technology to literally raise the dead. Orbison’s hologram didn’t dance on Monday (the living version of him apparently didn’t move much onstage, either), but other holograms will. In the coming years, these digital versions of the dead will sing better and look more real, too. They’ll do everything they can to move us; perhaps some will succeed.
For now, however, they’re a reminder of how special the human touch really is. And there’s no way a computer could ever manufacture that.
See a setlist below and listen to songs from the show via Spotify.
Only the Lonely
Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)
A Love So Beautiful
Mean Woman Blues
You Got It
I Drove All Night