Last week, Mankato musician Colin Scharf went to an unusual concert experience with Laura Schultz, his wife and Good Night Gold Dust bandmate. After the show, he shared his mixed emotions in an e-mail to The Current’s Mark Wheat. At Mark’s suggestion, we asked Colin if we could publish his reflections on our blog; Colin adapted the e-mail into the following essay.
When my wife Laura and I first learned of the Roy Orbison & Buddy Holly Rock & Roll Dream Tour hologram concert, it seemed pretty unreasonable that the show’s creators could’ve wrangled enough live footage of Buddy and Roy to create holograms of the performers for an entire set. Somewhere, though, we’d read that yes, in fact, the holograms were archived footage, and that concert attendees would be in for a magical blast from the past.
On the day of the show, we discovered that the holograms were just actors, and not actual footage. Still, I’d grown up on Roy Orbison, and have a pretty unique connection to Buddy Holly, so despite our apprehension, we drove from Mankato to Mystic Lake for the concert.
The night kicked off with a seven-piece band — two guitars, bass, drums, two backup singers, and a keyboardist — ripping through an instrumental medley of Roy Orbison tunes, signaling to us that Roy would open the show.
And then there he was, emerging from a plume of smoke, decked out in a white jumpsuit, signature shades, and mop of shaggy dark hair. My father always called Roy the “Ugly Elvis,” and this hologram didn’t look too far from Vegas-era Elvis. Roy’s Mystery Girl was one of the three cassettes I played over and over as a child. My dad loves Roy, and we’d listen to the tape together in his truck. I hear my father’s voice in my own when I sing along with Roy.
Holo-Roy strummed a red Gibson, the band rocked behind him, and his elastic, otherworldly voice filled the theater. At one point, Roy’s strumming fell out of sync, as did the band on a few other occasions. Kudos to the drummer for keeping the beat.
Buddy Holly didn’t look a thing like the real man, which really bothered us. At least Roy looked somewhat like the real man. Buddy’s hologram (Holly-gram?) from our vantage, wasn’t as nearly as tall or thin as the real Buddy. It was unsettling, and made us wonder why they hadn’t just hired actors.
Speaking of actors, in 2016, I portrayed Buddy Holly in Mankato’s Merely Players Community Theater production of Buddy!: The Buddy Holly Story. The role required me to act as well as perform Buddy’s songs. For two months, I lived and breathed that man’s life. It was an incredible experience, performing to four sold-out crowds at the Kato Ballroom, the same stage Buddy Holly played on January 25, 1959, just eight days before dying in that plane crash in a field outside Clear Lake, Iowa. At the end of their sets, the holograms would wave goodbye and dissipate like cleared smoke. Laura and I both said “No!” when Buddy Holly faded away the first time.
Laura used the word “grotesque” to describe the whole hologram ordeal, and, to be honest, it really was. The event smacked hard of a ploy to tap an aging baby boomer crowd. There may have been ten people under the age of 50 in the audience. A man actually asked Laura and I what us “youngsters” were doing at the show. It’s true, we wouldn’t have attended if not for the Buddy Holly play.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about being Buddy Holly in that play was the audience itself. Some of them had actually seen Buddy perform at the Kato Ballroom back in 1959. After each performance, all these older folks would tell me how much they’d loved his music when they were young, and how much they loved hearing it again. It was beautiful.
And maybe that’s why the organizers of the Rock & Roll Dream Tour didn’t hire Roy and Buddy impersonators to do the singing. We’re attached to those singers’ voices, and no matter how good the impression, you can’t recreate the emotional bond you have with Buddy’s hiccups on “Peggy Sue” or Roy’s soaring operatic vocals on “Crying.” Nobody can touch the original.
Despite the holograms’ weird and corny between-song audience interaction; despite the fact that the seven living musicians on stage will stand in the shadows for more performances across North America, the UK, and Europe while audiences cheer for holograms; despite the fact that the whole thing felt like some huckster’s money-making scheme, it was moving to be fully immersed in those songs and those singers’ voices for two full hours. I wept openly during Roy’s “A Love So Beautiful” and Buddy’s “True Love Ways.” I felt ready to rock during “Oh Boy!” and “I Drove All Night.” I listened to Roy on repeat the day after the show. Buddy still makes me a bit too sad for casual listening.
The Rock & Roll Dream Tour was a true oddity; a bizarre mixture of strangeness, sadness, and sweetness, and ultimately among the most memorable concerts I’ve ever attended. The holograms were just a spectacle, a means to an end of spending an evening with the incredible music of Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.