Roy Orbison, dressed in a grey suit, black shirt and black shades, looks around at the orchestra behind him, making sure everyone is ready. Satisfied, he turns back to his mic, and starts playing his guitar, wrinkles appearing and shifting in his trousers as he taps his leg. ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ sounds as classic as ever as it echoes through Jazz At Lincoln’s Rose Theater, but when it ends the man who’s been singing and playing this whole time filters down into the stage and disappears like some kind of Disney genie.
Later this year marks 30 years since Orbison died, but this spring he’ll experience a resurrection of sorts when his hologram takes in a tour of the UK. On this bitterly cold New York night, BASE Hologram – the company behind the technology – are previewing this new 4K, projected version of the Big O, along with another hologram of opera singer Maria Callas. She is more developed at this stage, walking out from the wings rather than appearing like a mist and evaporating again, although Orbison’s hologram is still being completed. But both are so impressively lifelike that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief and cynicism, and forget what you’re watching isn’t totally real.
Orbison’s hologram has been in the works for over a year, and is backed by his sons, who formed the company Roy’s Boys to promote and protect their father’s legacy. Tonight is the first time Alex Orbison has seen the hologram and, afterwards, he’s suitably pleased. “It really took my breath away,” he says as people come over to congratulate him. “Everyone asked me, ‘Is it something you’re going to see through?’ At the end of the day, it just looked like my dad standing on the stage. It was a huge, huge success.”
The legendary musician isn’t the first to be transformed and immortalised in this way. In 2012, Tupac appeared with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at Coachella in a semi-gauzy incarnation that had a video game quality to it. Since then, Michael Jackson, Ronnie James Dio, Elvis, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard have all been given the treatment, while the still-very-much-alive Abba will go on tour in hologram form in 2019.
Technology has come on in huge bounds since Tupac rose to rap once more, and BASE CEO Brian Becker says holograms can now be used outdoors in the daytime. “There are certain conditions that need to be taken into account – for example wind or rain – but in terms of brightness, that’s very possible,” he explains. These developments prompted Alex Orbison to suggest earlier this month that his dad could appear at Glastonbury in the future. The reaction, however, wasn’t entirely positive, with some calling the hologram gimmicky or disrespectful.
Stood outside the Rose Theater, he acknowledges those opinions, but says that’s not what this project is about. “It’s about the art of music and bringing people together,” he says, adding that if more “kids” get to see his dad perform then he can deal with “a couple curmudgeons”. A musician himself, he sees the hologram as taking up the role of inspiration as more standard live performances have always done. “Some kid’s gonna come and watch a hologram of my dad and go home and go, ‘That’s what I’m going to do with life,'” he reasons. “My dad went to a show when he was five years old and he left and said the same thing. That’s the circle that we look for.”
For Alex, going to see a hologram is like watching a scary movie in a cinema – being surrounded by other people while you’re watching makes a difference to your experience. He’s got a wishlist of other musicians he’d like to see as holograms, including Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, while BASE are already working on projects for other artists (Becker won’t confirm who at present). “It’s a little bit like The Jetsons – we’re seeing the future,” says Alex.
While that might be true in terms of it using tomorrow’s technology, Becker won’t be drawn into saying that his company’s work is the absolute future for heritage tours – be they for artists dead or alive. “This is a very interesting leap forward as far as I’m concerned, in terms of being able to take really cinematic arts and having it live on stage, interacting and being part of a live presentation,” he says. “That’s a really wonderful and exciting thing to do, but I think to say it’s the future of this or that? There are a lot of futures.” Holograms might not be about to replace real life physical people just yet, but expect them to be a much more frequent sight in music venues very soon.
You can see Orbison’s hologram on the ‘Roy Orbison: In Dreams’ tour on the following dates. Tickets are available here.
8 – Cardiff Motorpoint Arena
9 – Birmingham Genting Arena
11 – Manchester O2 Apollo
12 – Edinburgh Playhouse
13 – Glasgow SEC Armadillo
14 – Leeds First Direct Arena
16 – Nottingham Royal Centre
17 – Liverpool Echo 2
18 – London Hammersmith Eventim Apollo
19 – London Hammersmith Eventim Apollo
20 – Bournemouth BIC