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Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Adventures with the Blue Man Group

Andy Hermann

The Blue Man Group's greatest talent is for making thrilling visual and sonic mayhem out of the act of banging on things, from their trademark PVC tubes to barrels filled with paint to, well, just big-ass, loud drums. Their second greatest talent is for taking the conventions of the avant-garde and making them work as mass entertainment.

The Complex
US release date: 22 April 2003
UK release date: Available as import

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Once, in my younger, idealistic days, I fancied myself a playwright. Then, in 1996, Blue Man Group came to Boston, Massachusetts, where I was busy accumulating rejection letters and making half-assed attempts at starting theatre troupes with my friends. Being, like most theatre people, dead broke, I first saw their show as an usher, perched on a stool in the back of the Charles Street Playhouse. I was utterly blown away. This, I realized, was what theatre was supposed to be like, had to be like if it had any hope of remaining relevant when film and television were rapidly learning to tell stories with greater immediacy and impact. Where the theatre I had previously known and loved was always narrative, poetic, wordy and intellectual, Blue Man Group's Tubes was abstract, irreverent, visceral, visually stunning, gleefully interactive and unapologetically escapist. And it starred three expressionless guys who never spoke. My playwriting days were over.

Since then I have been an ardent supporter of all things Blue Man, and have convinced many a refugee from too much Shakespeare in the Park (or the very kind of dreary, talky psychodramas I myself used to churn out) to give theatre one more chance by checking out their show. So I was thrilled to hear that Blue Man Group was mounting a new tour, and billing it as a rock concert, complete with production design by Marc Brickman, one of the guys behind Pink Floyd's The Wall tour, and a new album featuring the likes of Dave Matthews and Bush's Gavin Rossdale. If nothing else, this would be the first completely new show BMG had created in over ten years; better still, it would be a chance for these hugely talented guys to reach an even wider audience by slipping out from under the reductive "theatre" tag, which had never really adequately described their vaudeville-meets-rock-concert-meets-performance-art style in the first place.

It's not easy to explain to people who only know Blue Man Group through their Tonight Show appearances and Pentium ads what makes them so special. At first shine they just look like a mime troupe with some gimmicky percussion thrown in, but there's a deeper vein of ingenuity and iconoclasm running through their work that reveals itself only over the course of their entire show. Their greatest talent is for making thrilling visual and sonic mayhem out of the act of banging on things, from their trademark PVC tubes to barrels filled with paint to, well, just big-ass, loud drums. Their second greatest talent is for taking the conventions of the avant-garde and making them work as mass entertainment. When Karen Finley smears food all over herself, it's shocking and disturbing; when Blue Man Group does it, it's hilarious. As theatrical, edgy, and sometimes downright intellectual as BMG can be -- portions of Tubes deal with fractal geometry, for crying out loud -- there's always a snide, juvenile, Beavis-and-Butthead aspect to their work, as well. It's no accident that the climactic moment of Tubes enlists the audience's participation in the most frathouse of pranks, covering the inside of the theatre with toilet paper.

Such an attitude would seem to lend itself perfectly to the world of rock n' roll, right? Well, yes and no. The dilemma that BMG face on their new Complex tour isn't figuring out how to make rock gods out of three guys who don't sing or even speak -- it's in dealing with the fact that rock, unlike theatre, is by its very nature an iconoclastic, populist art form. Yes, rock n' roll is not impervious to parody, as This is Spinal Tap so ably demonstrated. But the guys in Blue Man Group are not parodists; they're subverters, tricksters, masters of beating highbrow entertainment at its own game and doing it with the mocking "nyuck-nyuck-nyuck" of classic Three Stooges slapstick. Because rock has never been all that highbrow to begin with, it's questionable whether applying such deconstructionist snarkiness to it is possible or even necessary. Just ask U2, who ended up embodying rock pretense instead of subverting it on their Zoo TV tour, or even Pink Floyd, whose efforts to draw parallels between fascism and rock hero worship on The Wall didn't stop anyone from fist-pumping along to "Young Lust".

A sneak preview of the Blue-Man-Group-as-rock-band conceit can be heard on The Complex, which is really just a soundtrack for the concert much as their debut album, Audio, was a soundtrack for Tubes (This despite the cocky assertion on Audio's cover: "This is not a soundtrack. This is better."). Like Audio, The Complex features an idiosyncratic sonic palette highlighted by tons of percussion, atmospheric prog-rock guitar, and BMG's trademark custom instruments, the most distinctive of which are the various devices made of PVC tubing, which produce a twangy, throaty sound when they're struck, xylophone-like, with sticks or mallets. To adapt this unique sound to a more rock n' roll ethos, BMG add lots of guest vocalists and, more significantly, plenty of grinding, head-banging guitars. The vocalists are, for the most part, a welcome addition; the guitars are less convincing, too derivative of the ham-fisted "nu metal" that's reduced most rock guitar to staccato blasts of power chord crunch in recent years. As a result of this, songs like "The Current", featuring Gavin Rossdale and fellow Bushmate Chris Traynor on guitar, fall flat, end up sounding too much like, well, second-rate Bush.

Still, there's plenty on The Complex to give a Blue Man fan hope. For one thing, the album sounds incredible; Audio did an admirable job of capturing BMG's densely percussive sound, but on The Complex, the drums fairly leap out of the speakers and bang a tattoo on your skull, and BMG's other signature instruments, especially the PVC, never get lost in the general mayhem, either. Longtime Blue Man producer/collaborator Todd Perlmutter surely deserves much of the credit, but this is such a quantum leap from his production work on Audio that I suspect the ubiquitous Dan the Automator (who's worked with Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Cornershop, and probably your mom) had a greater hand in this album than his humble "Additional Production and Artistic Consultation" credit suggests.

Equally solid are many of the songs themselves, which flirt at times with being downright catchy. "Up to the Roof", featuring luminous vocals by Boston-based singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham, is especially good, with a fragile melody riding a quavering skein of PVC twang before exploding into guitar thunder and back out again with such dynamic precision you almost forgive that generic nu metal sound. Dave Matthews sounds like he's having great fun on the nursery rhyme-like "Sing Along"; "What is Rock" starts off with a nifty surf-rock vamp before erupting convincingly into a post-punk shoutalong; even Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit", which I thought BMG had done to death as part of their Tubes stage show, gets a nicely menacing makeover, with plenty of rumbling bass drums and a darkly come-hither vocal by Esthero. Considering that all of these songs were written and arranged by Blue Man founders Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink with their regular musical collaborators, and not some hired guns, it's impressive how good some of them are.

The obvious attempts to give rock n' roll that snarky BMG treatment work pretty well on The Complex, too. "Time to Start" is a very funny primer for rock concert behavior, set to a typically Blue Man soundtrack of PVC twang and cinematic guitar riffs. "Rock concert movement number one", intones a slick-voiced announcer (producer Perlmutter, actually). "The basic head bob. Ready, go". Obviously this and the album's other absurdist riffs on rock audience-performer dynamics were mainly designed for the live show, but they still make for amusing interludes on the album.

The most worrisome aspect of The Complex is the lyrics, which are simplistic at best and which try annoyingly hard to tackle Big Themes at worst. This is especially true when they're placed in the hands of the album's less adroit vocalists; Dave Matthews' delivery on "Sing Along" is wry enough to sell lines like "If I follow along, does it mean I belong? / Or I will keep on feeling different than anybody else", but Gavin Rossdale's typically bombastic performance on "The Current" makes dumb lines like, "Took this job, 'cause I needed one / Now it's seven years since I've seen the sun" even more grating. Two other key vocal tracks, "Persona" and the title song, fall flat for similar reasons, pretentious lyrics about wearing social masks and feeling trapped in one's job rendered extra-stale by the lifeless vocals of Josh Haden (of New York gloom-rockers Spain) and Peter Moore, respectively.

Despite such shortcomings, I found The Complex to be a better album than I could have hoped for, a big step forward in Blue Man Group's quest to take their avant-garde-inspired shenanigans into the mainstream. So it was with quite a bit of breathless anticipation that I joined the oddball mix of highbrow yuppie types, Hollywood hipsters, aging hippies and pierced art students who filed into Los Angeles's Wiltern Theatre to see the first leg of BMG's debut tour as a high-concept rock band (they'll be back on the road again in late summer touring more arena-sized venues, as befits their avowed goal to become true rock stars). I couldn't wait to see how the songs on The Complex would work live, and how the Blue Men would translate the anarchic theatricality of Tubes into something resembling a rock concert.

As pure, raucous entertainment, The Complex Tour does not disappoint. From the opening chords of "Above", which features dueling PVC tubes and the eerie jangle of a Hungarian cimbalom (a dulcimer-like instrument), the show fairly crackled with energy and inventiveness. The requisite wall of sound came courtesy of an eight-piece backing band featuring two guitarists, bass, keyboards and, crucially, a drummer and three lively percussionists in white jumpsuits contrasting the Blue Men's trademark black. These guys were in many ways the highlight of the show, occasionally taking blistering solos but just as often drumming in thunderous unison complete with synchronized arm movements, like a percussive Rockette line. In two memorable sequences, they donned black suits decorated with blue neon stick figures and stood on platforms around the stage like live action cartoon characters, banging on objects similarly outlined in neon. The fact that they did this during "Persona" and "The Complex" probably means the stick figures were supposed to symbolize something, but mostly they just looked really cool.

And that's probably the single biggest headline about Blue Man Group's big rock concert tour: It succeeds in spite of its own pretensions. So good are the show's visual trappings and the technical precision of the musicians, that banal songwriting and trite, Pink Floyd-like "concept concert" touches are easy to ignore. Instead, it was possible just to sit back and let the concert's relentless waves of percussion and gonzo visuals buffet you like a stiff wind. There's that trademark trick of drums lit from within and spraying fluorescent paint everywhere, which never seems to get old. There's the litany of words that come, both in voiceover and, unexpectedly, scrolling across every vertical surface of the stage, during "Time to Start". Listen, hear that syncopated whooshing sound, almost like turntable scratching? It's those skinny "air poles" the Blue Men are waving around like characters in a kung fu flick. And look, here comes the synth-pop opening act, Venus Hum, in a dress that literally lights up a piece of Vegas neon, to belt out a cover of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love", with "Wipeout"-like PVC drum rolls standing in for the original's bubbling synths. "Wow," you say a lot during any Blue Man Group show, including this one. Golly. Gee whiz. And as far as I'm concerned, that's enough for my entertainment dollar. Save the messages for Rage against the Machine and Western Union.

Musically, the concert offered few surprises; every track from The Complex was played, virtually in the same order in which they appeared on the album (only "Sing Along" was moved to a later slot). The only new/old tunes offered up were "Drumbone", a surf-rock track from the Tubes show that showcases a trombone-like piece of PVC percussion that can be lengthened or shortened to play sliding tones, and a cover of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" that served, uneasily, as the show's finale -- not only did the otherwise excellent Tracy Bonham, who with Peter Moore shared most of the concert's vocal duties, sound out of her depth trying to out-howl Roger Daltrey, but why end a show that's so obviously trying to push rock's boundaries with such an (admittedly great) old chestnut? At least the covers of "White Rabbit" and "I Feel Love" stridently reinvented the originals; "Baba O'Reilly" was a note-for-note imitation, only substituting PVC (played, with theatrical gusto, on spacesuit-like contraptions that two of the Blue Men wore strapped to their bodies) for Pete Townshend's chattering synths.

And that's the other problem lurking just beneath the surface of The Complex, both the album and the tour: For all their forward-thinking stage antics, weird custom instruments and post-modernist shtick, musically Blue Man Group's baby boomer roots are a bit too evident for their own good. Not that their music's bad; it just doesn't push the envelope anywhere near as much as their visuals and the junkyard ingenuity of their percussion. Watching animated neon butterflies and jellyfish descend from above as that tangle of PVC glows with eerie blacklit radiance and a Blue Man wields a Wile E. Coyote-sized mallet with stonefaced glee over the group's most delightfully primitive instrument, a lidless grand piano turned on its side, you can't help but wonder what all this amazing creativity could do for, say, a Beck concert, instead of a Jefferson Airplane cover.

But in the context of so much bravura showmanship, this is ultimately reduced from a criticism to a quibble. Blue Man Group could come out and do Neil Diamond covers and still be one of the hottest shows in town. In fact, that almost might be better; at least they'd probably inject "Sweet Caroline" with some of their trademark, deadpan irony, which was notably absent from their cover of "Baba O'Reilly".

Then again, it's when Blue Man Group shed both their irony and their rock god pretensions that they come closest to genius. On disc, the album's coda, "Exhibit 13", works decently enough as a subdued, PVC-driven instrumental with eerie, barely audible vocal samples buried in the mix. In concert, however, the stage visuals make the song's meaning clear, and deliver it with an impact more powerful than anything else in the entire show. The voices, we slowly realize (no explanation is given except the projected words: "The following pieces of paper blew into the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York"), are reading from charred scraps of paper from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Suddenly the song is revealed as a mournful eulogy: As the Blue Men quietly tap their PVC tubes, images of the scraps of paper tumble across the stage's many video screens like autumn leaves, making the performance one of the most beautiful, straightforward tributes to the 9/11 victims I've ever seen, and somehow simultaneously dovetailing with all of The Complex's grandiose themes about modern society more artfully and sympathetically than a million growling Gavin Rossdales ever could.

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