The “How to be a Megastar” tour opens with, of all things, an infomercial. A sleazy-looking salesman professing to be Ron Popeil’s long-lost brother pops up uninvited on the giant screen above the stage and gradually cajoles the three hapless painted men below into ordering his pricey guide to superstardom by suggesting that they have no idea how to handle a crowd like us. They comply after rifling through an audience member’s purse to find her credit card, and a FedEx delivery dude promptly saunters around the corner with a package allegedly containing the rest of the night’s performance. The band, lurking in the shadows, launches into “Time to Start”, which contains step-by-step instructions for raising just as much rock-and-roll ruckus as your average soccer mom can tolerate without getting nervous. We’re going to learn how to do this properly.
I quickly realize that there are a half-dozen sensory interfaces at play in a Blue Man Group performance, and that the sporadically released, audio-only records are kind of misleading. It wasn’t until a late-night YouTube session, for example, that I found out that “Rods and Cones”, far and away my favorite tune from their 1999 debut, is actually accompanied by a Slim Goodbody-style presentation about the mechanics of vision. Still, I may be one of the few people who got to know the group through those albums rather than through these renowned live productions, and it’s interesting to watch the performers try to establish a tangible, concrete context for the music when I’ve had nothing of the sort for the past decade.
16 Feb 2008: John Paul Jones Arena Charlottesville, VA
The most successful attempts come not from the choreographers or even the blue fellas themselves, but rather from the vaguely narrativized animated sequences projected behind the band. They’re surprisingly dark, and I hear Tracy Bonham’s lyrics anew thanks to touring singer Adrian Hartley’s ability to straddle exuberance and downright creepiness. “Persona” starts with everyone wearing gas masks, finally removing them only to reveal others beneath; “Shadows, Part 2” shows the protagonist repeatedly devolving into a generic stick figure as she wanders around the city, dwarfed by intimidating skyscrapers.
All the while, I’m racking my brain trying to connect the dots and come to some grand conclusion about the message they’re trying to send about emotional isolation and modern technology, but it’s hard to stay reflective when the guys on stage are squirting toothpaste at one another and barfing up marshmallows on some poor girl’s head. I wonder if I’m thinking too much. It’s a genuinely hilarious show—almost everything ends in a gag of some sort, and the six-year-olds to my right start laughing uncontrollably at the suggestion that the rock concert devil signs they’re being asked to flash are the brainchild not of a Gene Simmons type, but rather of an unfortunate slapstick performer named Floppy the Banjo Clown.
During “Up to the Roof”, all the cartoons end up atop the skyscrapers, looking up and out at something—maybe at us—and start pulsing in perfect synchrony with rainbow-colored bars that fill them like mercury in a thermometer. The Blue Men burst out one last time to close the show, likewise throbbing with multicolored energy thanks to the show’s hefty production budget, as they wave around fantastically awkward custom instruments called “Airpoles”, which cater heavily to their emphasis of theatrics over audio.
The grand finale is a cover of the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”. Naturally, it’s played with a sledgehammer pounded against a dismantled baby grand. Halfway through, the stage explodes for the last time with blues and greens and reds and the few things within reach that haven’t already been smashed to bits. I finally put away my notepad after realizing there’s just no point in trying to be analytical; after all, if you’re paying attention to the trajectory of Gallagher’s hammer, you’re probably missing the point—and getting covered in watermelon goo for nothing.