It’s a great concept: a rock concert that is layered in such a way as to act as a meta-commentary about rock concerts. Of course, it’s an idea that would come off as painfully pretentious from an actual rock band. Fortunately, this idea is being carried out here by none other than the Blue Man Group, the infamously commercially successful performance group that has already made a name for itself around the world for its high-concept commentary on sound, music, and culture.
After wowing audiences for years with their stage show, incorporating sound, light, and theater effects into a dynamic performance spectacle, as well as increasing their name recognition through a series of high-profile television ads for Intel, the Blue Man Group solidified its reputation in 1999 when its album Audio was nominated for the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental album. Now, with four permanent theater locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, and the recently installed BMG-dedicated theater in Las Vegas’s Luxor Casino, the Blue Man Group has cemented its place in the performance world.
But when it came time to follow-up the success of Audio with a new album, the Blue Man Group decided to expand beyond theater into the realm of rock music. 2003’s The Complex is more of a standard rock album than an auditory exploration in sound dynamics, and to enhance this new direction the BMG invited guest musicians to add a professional voice to the mute, mime-like figures of the Blue Men, including Dave Matthews, Gavin Rossdale, Tracy Bonham, and the band Venus Hum. Of course, a rock album normally demands a rock tour of rock concerts, and a three-man stage show of silent performers doesn’t make for an ideal situation to fulfill these demands.
The solution arrived at more than does justice to the Blue Man Group aesthetic while still satisfying rock concert parameters. Instead of playing it minimally, the Blue Man Group made their traveling concert show an enormous production. Yes, the show is led by the usual three-man team of inquisitive, android-like men with blue painted heads, but they’re backed up by a powerful and large stage band that includes two guitarists, a bassist, a keyboardist / vocalist, a kit drummer, and three percussionists. It’s an enormous complement of musicians that manages to inject a grandiose amount of rock performance into the BMG show and simultaneously highlight the musical chops of The Complex.
Through a series of interplays with cameras projected onto a giant screen and interactions with the backing band, then Blue Men set the groundwork for their performance. But it’s the voiced-over computer program that purports to be a Rock Concert Kit with a template for putting on a concert that gives the show its level of meta-commentary. The program guides the Blue Men and the audience through a series of basic “rock concert movements”, including fist pumping, head bobbing, and pogo-style jumping. The program also guides the Blue Men in how to interact with the audience, as well as adding commentary to the effect that the stage performance of a rock concert is more important than the musical performance thanks to masking and pre-programming technologies. It’s a funny technique for the audience, which gets to enjoy the Blue Men’s reaction to the programs instructions even as it exposes the unspoken truths of a rock performance in the directly confrontational Blue Man Group style.
Of course, the whole show is filled with BMG particularities, including the ubiquitous PVC-piping organs, using whipping plastic rods to approximate record scratching, and banging on the exposed strings of an upturned baby grand piano. The stage and video screen are a lighting spectacle, and the screen displays images from on-stage video cameras, computer animated clips to match the themes of The Complex, and straight video projection of BMG’s clip for “Exhibit 13”. One of the most technically engaging moments comes during the performance of “The Current”, in which the monitor shows the stick figure glyph from The Complex story-arc descending into the sewers. The stage then goes black and green laser-outlines of those stick figures “perform” the song. It’s a brilliant moment that shows the Blue Man Group fully understands the visual relationship to music.
I had the opportunity to see The Complex Rock Tour when it came to Denver in October 2003. It was the first time I’d seen the Blue Man Group live, and I found the show to be a stunning collision of BMG’s stage show, a rockin’ meta-concert, and an exploration of The Complex‘s themes of alienation and escape in a machine-like world of bureaucracy. Basically, I was blown away, and it was one of the most engaging concerts I’d seen in a long time.
This DVD is hard to judge with that experience under my belt. It’s a great document of the show, and it displays it in such a way that it’s an enjoyable experience from a living room couch. But it also shifts perspective from the fixed position of an audience member to that of a roving eye. These multiple perspectives take away from the feeling of direct engagement. In part this is necessary because so much is going on on-stage, and also because it would be less enjoyable to watch for a home-viewer if it were a single view from a stationary camera. We don’t expect TV and video to work that way. But it doesn’t quite feel like being there, either.
Most concerts fall into the “You had to be there” category, so expecting more from this one is folly. A DVD might capture a show at its best, but it can’t replace the unmediated experience. If you like Blue Man Group but were unable to see The Complex Rock Tour yourself, then this DVD will be a wonderful excursion into the show. If you did see it live, you might find yourself cherishing your memories a bit more. Not even “Time to Start” has quite the same feel as hearing it live. But the DVD also offers a great graphic interface that explores a variety of avenues on The Complex, including the original music videos for “Sing Along” with Dave Matthews, “The Current” with Gavin Rossdale, and “Exhibit 13”. There is also a bonus disc that includes three tracks (“Above”, “Your Attention”, and “Sing Along”) from the upcoming 5.1 Surround Sound edition of The Complex album.
While the concept remains brilliant on the small screen, it just can’t capture the experience that the Blue Man Group made out of the live on-stage concert. You miss the added bonus of Tracy Bonham and Venus Hum’s opening performances (although they do appear with the Blue Men to perform their contributions to The Complex), you miss the competing scrolling LCD screens that flanked the left and right sides of the stage before the show began, and you miss the slightly overwhelming power of the show. But it’s nonetheless an enjoyable viewing experience, and it serves as a testament that the Blue Man Group’s The Complex Rock Tour was one of the best ideas and best-executed concerts in ages.