YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE: The Blue Man Group
By
Benjy Portnoy and Julia Gordon
10/23/2003 8:35:51 AM

In recent years, a growing cultural finger has been pointing out the fact that modern society generally has its principles and goals, wants and desires, and everyday lifestyles all wrong. This theory suggests that we work jobs we don’t enjoy to get things we don’t need. It states that while our priorities point toward amassing material goodies and more crap to heap on the pile, we spend less time with people. We engage in fewer meaningful
human relationships and generally disassociate from society. We are reduced to cogs and gears – a colony of machine ants, identified by numbers, divided into cubicles, all chasing after the illusionary Calvin Klein-flavored cheese at the end of the maze.

The new champions of this movement are unlikely heroes. They don’t say much. But even without words they swirl sound, emotion, catharsis, humor, psychology, satire, lights, spectacle, and above all else, a lot of blue paint. They are of course, Blue Man Group.

Commanding a near-full house at The Fox on Tuesday, October 21, BMG’s percussion-driven tubefest came on the heels of its recent release, The Complex [Lava/Atlantic]. The record is a step away from BMG’s established role as purveyors of instrumentals only. Combining guest vocalist appearances and voiced over “rock concert movement” instructions such as fist pumping and unbridled screaming, the general theme of the record is that of rock music; its influence, its cliches, its power to incite fiery rebellion in the hearts of all us working class stiffs AND its potential to create communities and love where before there were none. This concert was a visual extension of these themes. And a hell of one, at that.

Along for the live ride this evening were two artists that were also featured on the record, quasi-acoustic chick rocker Tracy Bonham and avant-garde alternafreaks Venus Hum.

Introducing herself as "the appetizer," Tracy Bonham's sound was gorgeously enhanced by the palatial Fox Theater acoustics, as compared to her UMB Bank Pavilion show three months earlier. Accompanied by the mega-talented team of Peter Adams (keyboard, vocals and spoons) and John Darling (guitar and vocals), the trio melded with a vocal beauty and lyrical punch not heard since the great days of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Bonham's sultry and emotive voice is felt in the heart as well as the guts, but that doesn't stop her from being a bit of a comic, introducing one number: "I got kicked out of music school and turned to the dark side--obviously--and then I wrote this song." She launched into her huge hit from 1996, "Mother, Mother," a kicking cover of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" on violin, and closed with PJ Harvey's unforgettable "Fifty Foot Queenie" a song with enough soul and power to take the roof off the house (and she just about did).

Venus Hum took over next, upping the energy notch just a tad, readying us for things to come. Lead vocalist Annette has a Broadway-quality voice over a quirky, electronic disco beat. While they didn't have the visual display behind them that they had a few months earlier, songs such as "Bella Luna" still soared us to the heavens. Both Bonham and Venus Hum's performances proved indispensable when they returned as guest vocalists/artists with the Blue Men later in the show.

And then, there were Blue Men. For those who’ve never seen it, here’s the meat of it – the “Blue Men” are three guys who aren’t quite aliens, even less human, but carry insatiable curiosity and oddly deft percussion skills. They also have a backup band, made up of a bunch more drummers and guitar players that contribute to the heavy percussive rock sound. The Blue Men are the bouncing balls to watch – they beat on PVC tubing, mammoth bass drums, upright grand pianos, and incorporate various other invented implements that whirr, bang, whizz and boom.

The show actually began during the intermission after Venus Hum. Although the lights were on and the stage was vacant, the entire room’s attention was focused on two 2x10’ message boards (purposefully out of sync with one another) that were broadcasting various facts about Internet usage. This included the number of Instant Messages were sent last year, the percentage of words in the dictionary that have been registered as Internet domains.

Within a few minutes, these figures began to include stats that correlated higher computer usage with increased levels of depression and feelings of isolation; another patch in the quilt of this evening’s theme. It should also be mentioned that in-between the facts and figures, the signs began to alternately berate and insult each other, attempting to garner crowd favor by inciting yells and screams and “my side is better” type activities. (e.g., "THE SIGN ON THE RIGHT IS SUCKING UP TO THE MAN WHILE I'M RAGING AGAINST THE MACHINE...CELBRATE OUR SOLIDARITY BY CHANTING 'THE WORDS ON THE RIGHT SUCK'...IT'S TIME TO PEE...OR YOU CAN PURCHASE OVER-PRICED REFRESHMENTS...")

The disjointed messages proved somewhat unsettling. They were competing for our attention, much the way it’s done day in and day out through ad slogans, cluttered TV programming, extraneous noise and words and sounds; millions of bits of fragmented information to be received and processed daily by every set of human ears.

Foreshadowing perhaps, for the messages to come.

At once, the lights went down and the phrase that is found throughout The Complex album was echoed here: YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. Eyes were directed to a gargantuan, stage-enveloping backdrop that resembled the blueprint of a cityscape, but wasn’t too far off from a rat maze. From behind the curtain a silhouette appeared and began pounding away. Ten seconds later, another one seemed to drop from the ceiling and joined in. A third followed. Suddenly the shadows of a band appeared. When the silken sheet finally fell to the ground, a dizzying collection of musicians, instruments, lights and instruments was revealed. The 90 charged minutes that followed featured
varying degrees of interaction between Blue Men and audience (several people were pulled onstage throughout the show), Blue Men and narrator (a sort of Big Brother in this instance), and Blue Men and themselves.

Over the course of the evening, it became increasingly evident that the level of planning and production that went into this spectacle was mind-boggling. For this outing, BMG brought aboard production designer Marc Brickman, known for his work with Pink Floyd, Nine Inch Nails and Paul McCartney. The result was stunning; the audio, video, and intellectual themes running through the production were pulled consistently through, and
though each was distinct, they all seemed to interweave with the others.

The underlying premise suggested that the Blue Men were following a how-to manual for being a rock band; exploring it and sharing their results with their audience. We were presented with the “rock concert movement” instructions, ranging from headbobs, to jumping up and down, to fake endings, etc., all satirical, yet sincere homages to the rock idiom.

Added to the tribute list were the barrage of covers. These included select tunes from Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, and The Who’s Baba O’Riley, the beginning of which was played note-for-note on the tubes.

The apex of the evening, however, came when Venus Hum returned to the stage to accent BMG’s version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Although one might say it was just a good American song, another argument is that they were giving the answer to their own challenge: when does a human life have meaning? The answer: when it feels love. Even Venus Hum’s lead singer was outfitted in a dress like a light-up roll of Life Savers, each stripe firing at different times until the “love” chorus when all the colors reached a logical visual harmony, symbolizing that unity.

These clever guises buried the true message just under the surface – that rock music, throughout its history, present and future, is a great catalyst for bringing people together. In a sense, this “rock concert” was more a celebration of music and its power and potential to unite the disconnected aspects of humanity. All NT staffers in attendance agreed – the Blue Man organization is brilliance incarnate, and puts on the most engaging and thrilling live performance we’ve ever seen in our lives. Ever.

 

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