There are performers so lifeless on stage that they might as well be dead. And then there are those that actually are.
Dead, that is.
Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the Roy Orbison hologram.
On Friday night at the Parx Casino in Bensalem, the image of the late singer rose up from beneath the Xcite Center stage, a digital-and-laser-technology-generated specter who still sings like an angel, 30 years after his death.
Dressed in a gray suit, playing a red guitar, his eyes hidden by trademark black sunglasses, the Orbison hologram — the Orbigram? — was accompanied by the living and breathing real musicians of the Philly Pops Big Band, including two backup singers.
In Dreams: Roy Orbison in Concert — The Hologram Tour is being promoted as the first major tour to put into practice what's seemed inevitable ever since a Tupac Shakur hologram appeared alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at the Coachella Festival in the California desert in 2012.
It aims to satisfy fans' nostalgic yearnings to connect with inconveniently dead favorite pop stars. Along with the "Oh, Pretty Woman" singer who died at age 52 shortly after his career was revived with the Traveling Wilburys, Base Hologram, the Houston company producing the show with the cooperation of Orbison's sons, also has a production on the road with the late opera singer Maria Callas. And next year, Base will roll out an Amy Winehouse hologram tour.
In many ways, Orbison is a perfect trial run. The Texas-born singer who started out as a rockabilly star for Sun Records in the 1950s before developing an operatic ballad singing style on hits like "Only the Lonely" and "In Dreams" is a beloved figure, but not so recently deceased that his digital exhumation feels grossly exploitative.
In real life, Orbison was a barely mobile live performer, with a stage presence his Wilbury buddy George Harrison described as "like marble." An incandescent voice paired with his deathly pallor always gave Orbison a ghostly quality. He was always ghostly. Now he's a virtual one.
Was the Orbison show at the Xcite Center freaky to watch? Sure it was. The image of the singer was situated at center stage, with in-the-flesh Philly Pops humans on either side.
He appeared disturbingly lifelike, and for a guy who's been dead and buried for three decades, his voice is in marvelous shape. The Roy Orbison Hologram never sings a bum note.
The seats far to the right and left close to the stage were intentionally unsold, because if you look at Orbison from a sharp angle rather than head on, you're liable to see through him.
With no idle chitchat nor unplanned improvisation possible, the brisk show lasted just over an hour, including two mini-breaks that occurred after the Orbigram magically disappeared — literally. in a cloud of smoke. (Lamely, he did not return with a new outfit. The hologram apparently has only one suit.) While the Pops played on, breaks were filled with photo collages and video testimonials to Orbison's greatness, most movingly by fellow Wilbury Tom Petty.
There was an occasional, creepy human touch. After Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper," the Orbigram noted, "That's one of my favorites." And following the soaring melodrama "It's Over," he turned and gave props to Philly Pop players: "Let's hear it for this terrific orchestra."
The hologram trend is the logical advanced technological end point of reanimating long-lost pop stars that goes back to the posthumous hits Natalie Cole and Hank Williams Jr. scored with their late fathers nearly three decades ago.
At Parx, I was never quite able to suspend disbelief to the point to believe that I was watching Roy Orbison on stage. But the simulacra was weirdly satisfying nonetheless.
At big-production pop concerts, looking at projections of performers on screens rather than training the eye on an actual person is old hat. Many pop stars either lip-sync to recordings or digitally manipulate their vocals in real time to hide imperfections.
Is seeing and hearing a virtual rendering of a dead performer's moving image paired with the chill-inducing sound of their actual voice such a big leap from there?
I tapped my toes to "You Got It" and was swept away with "Crying" by digital Roy, who was perhaps less real but more dependably professional than many an act I've seen on stage this year. To restate Courtney Love in her song "Doll Parts": "He fakes it so real, he's beyond fake."
And considering hologram waves that seem sure to come considering the growing list of dead, beloved pop stars, I'm also unable to resist summing up my Friday night in Bensalem by paraphrasing words Jon Landau once used to describe Bruce Springsteen, for better or worse: "I saw rock and roll future, and its name is the Roy Orbison Hologram."