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In Clearwater, a historic hologram brings Roy Orbison back to life

The ‘Roy Orbison: In Dreams’ hologram tour came to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 19, 2018. (Martha Asencio Rhine | Times)
Published Nov. 20, 2018

CLEARWATER — The singer didn't have a bus, like his crew and opening act. They hauled him off a truck in cases, in two Lenovo Legion laptops, onyx with glowing red keys. One backup, knock on wood, they've never had to use.

They plugged in and pressed play, and a click track synced in the ears of those who needed to hear it. In came the symphony, 31 strong, as a shadow of light rose up from the floor.

And Roy Orbison, dead 30 years this December, came to life. Or something like it.

• • •

All things considered, this is not a bad time to be Roy Orbison. Last week he released a new album, Unchained Melodies, in collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His hit Oh, Pretty Woman scored a pivotal scene in A Star Is Born, a film poised to sweep this year's Oscars.

And on Monday in Clearwater came the final fall date of Roy Orbison: In Dreams, a tour of his hologram and voice. This placed Ruth Eckerd Hall at a historic crossroads between the future and the past: the first hologram concert in Tampa Bay.

Basic holographic technology is very old; the most primitive dates to the 16th century. But only since 2012, when a holographic Tupac Shakur wowed fans at Coachella, have companies seriously contemplated its commercial possibilities. We are now in a holographic gold rush, as estates and even living artists ponder their options in an increasingly competitive industry. Tours featuring Frank Zappa, Amy Winehouse and ABBA are in the works. Guests at recent Orbison shows include friends and family of Whitney Houston, Bob Marley and Isaac Hayes.

Orbison died in 1988 at 52. Heart attack. His estate is now managed by three sons, Alex, Wesley and Roy Jr., who developed the show with a company called Base Hologram Productions. They cast an actor who could embody Orbison's physical mannerisms, then rendered and applied the singer's digital likeness via motion capture, same as any other Hollywood CGI creation.

No one wants to say much about the technology. It's proprietary and there are non-disclosure agreements and besides, in the words of Roy Jr., "it's kind of like knowing how a magic trick is done."

But what you basically have is a projector controlled by a video tech sitting sidestage, firing light against a mesh screen between the audience and band. The projection hits with an intense clarity, creating the illusion of depth.

The apparition works best from head-on; from an angle, it slants a little flat. For this reason, Ruth Eckerd Hall did not sell the outermost seats of any aisle. That did not stop more than 1,300 curious, mostly older fans from buying tickets.

At soundcheck's end, conductor and musical director Martyn Axe invited the orchestra players, hired regional guns, to step around the screen to see the man they would be backing. They crowded the stage, standing so close they could see through Orbison's shoes. With no band, his voice echoed through the hall a cappella:

Pretty woman, won't you pardon me

Pretty woman, I couldn't help but see

Pretty woman, you look lovely as can be

Are you lonely, just like me?

• • •

Roy Orbison would be 82, still conceivably young enough to tour. When his likeness rose into view at 8:50 p.m., he looked not much different than he did when he sang at Ruth Eckerd Hall in 1987: Older Roy, Comeback Roy, Traveling Wilburys Roy. That's the Roy people remember.

In a gray suit, black shirt and bolo, he tilted and swayed and warbled Only the Lonely and Crying and You Got It, fringe swinging from his jacket. He was relatively staid, just like the real Orbison, but he turned to face the symphony behind him, nodding approval on cue. His voice, pulled from original masters, was crisp and clean and loud, like a movie in a theater.

The closer you looked, the more you saw. The way Orbison licked his lips and wiped his nose. The way his pants crinkled at the knees. The way light glinted off his red Gibson. None of it was real. In some cases the voice and guitar didn't sync completely. Fans gasped and oohed and aahed nonetheless.

The detail you couldn't see was most important: his eyes. On any other hologram, they would be a window into the uncanny valley, the clue that betrays their inhumanity. On Orbison, they stayed shaded by his signature dark sunglasses. You never saw inside.

Before long, the technology will improve so they can tweak the setlist night to night, or have Orbison interact with the audience in real time. They might splice in minor imperfections — a dropped note, a mis-twanged chord — just to deepen the illusion a little more.

"I still see huge potential for this," said Roy Jr. "Like it or not, this is here to stay."

Orbison dissolved in one last flourish of dust and sparkles. End of video, end of show, end of tour. The band and crew packed up and went home, spreading out to Thanksgivings across America.

The laptops would be shipped to storage in Las Vegas. There will be another tour in 2019, festivals in Europe, a residency in Branson, Mo. That is the future, and the future's always coming. Until then, Orbison will hibernate in silence, still dead but somehow less so, waiting for a gig to bring him back.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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