Are holograms the real deal? Musicians confront questions of ethics, quality

TORONTO — Bringing back late guitarist Jeff Healey as a hologram might seem like sacrilege to many of his fans, but the possibility intrigued one of his former bandmates.

Tom Stephen, one-time drummer and manager of the Jeff Healey Band, says he was of two minds when an Australian entertainment company approached him several years ago with a proposal to incorporate Healey’s likeness in a blues revue.

The show was pictured as a celebration of the genre’s icons, with other names like B.B. King floated as holograms who might appear.

The company suggested the Canadian blues-rock outfit’s two surviving members reunite alongside a hologram of their star player, who died of cancer at age 41. It would give audiences a chance to witness Healey’s unconventional live performances, which involved him laying an electric guitar flat across his lap to play it.

But Stephen was reluctant to hop on the hologram bandwagon.

“It felt a little exploitative,” he says of the pitch.

“Are you really getting to see that musical experience you missed?”

He imagined the soullessness of performing a set of favourites like “Angel Eyes” with a digital version of Healey. The comradery would be missing, he decided.

“How would it be to interact night-to-night with a hologram of a bandmate you spent 18 years with?” he remembers thinking.

“Personally, I would find that very difficult.”

Stephen declined the company’s offer, but acknowledges the possibility of a Healey hologram could be revived again as the technology seeps further into the mainstream.

In the coming year, both musicians and concertgoers will confront the growing presence of “hologram” shows at local concert venues.

The experiment has already dipped into some North American venues where the virtual likeness of deceased crooner Roy Orbison received mixed reviews a few months ago. Opera singer Maria Callas was also resurrected in a performance some critics say looked more like she was a floating ghost than a physical entity.

Glenn Gould will be added to the hologram circuit in 2019, with the late Canadian pianist accompanied by live orchestras as part of a tour organized in co-operation with his estate.

Around the same time, Amy Winehouse’s hologram is set to embark on a multi-year run with a backing band, while Swedish pop superstars ABBA will launch a digital reunion.

These shows aren’t true holograms in the technical sense, but rather three-dimensional images projected through mirrors onto a transparent screen, kind of like a movie.

And most performances aren’t just an illusion on the stage, they’re also part of an elaborate studio production where the faces of the deceased performers are transposed onto the bodies of living actors. In the case of Orbison, another musician imitated his performance before the singer’s famous face was digitally pasted ontothe body of the stand-in.

So many levels of artificiality can be difficult to pull off convincingly, suggests Kiran Bhumber, co-creator of Telepresence, a recent virtual reality experience at Vancouver’s Western Front arts centre that merged a live trumpet player with visuals displayed on a VR headset.

“(The challenge is) how to create a meaningful experience that stays with audiences,” she says.

“Because it risks becoming a gimmick.”

Last summer at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square the perils of a virtual performance were on full display. Casual onlookers gathered for a showcase of famous faces converted into holograms, including a young Michael Jackson circa his Jackson 5 years, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and members of the Black Eyed Peas.

Most people watched the holograms like they might a television screen and occasionally held up their smartphones to capture footage for their social media feeds. But the smattering of applause suggested the excitement was muted, even as real-life hosts encouraged more energy.

While audiences consider how to respond to holograms, some performers are fascinated with the potential of the evolving technology.

Walk Off the Earth singer Sarah Blackwood was intrigued after she witnessed a projection of Feist that was beamed simultaneously to crowds in three Canadian cities as part of a smartphone launch in 2012. She says the moment inspired her to think about the benefits of a holographic future.

“As an artist, one of things we always talk about is how we’re going to leave our legacy,” she says.

“I don’t want to disappear into the pile of musicians that aren’t remembered. So to have the possibility to come back and share music with people, and live on like that, I think that’s a really interesting concept.”

Serena Ryder thinks holograms might have a more practical application for living artists like herself who aren’t fans of long tours.

The pop-rock singer considers herself a “reclusive” performer, so replacing some of her live shows with a virtual rendering of herself sounds appealing, she says.

But Ryder is not convinced her hologram would recreate the thrill of a live performance in the flesh.

“I don’t think there’s really anything that can replace actual human skin — the feeling of actual human emotions,” she says.

Even Stephen admits that he’s still captivated by the technological possibilities, even if he didn’t warm to the idea of a Jeff Healey Band hologram show.

There are a few shows he’d shell out cash to see, if the circumstances are right, he supposes. One of them would be seeing the Beatles play their Liverpool hometown, if that hologram ever took shape.

“I think that would blow my mind and be a really interesting experience,” he says.

Stephen reflects on his experiences in the Jeff Healey Band in his recent book “Best Seat in the House,” but recognizes that one day he won’t necessarily have control over the band’s narrative, or whether they’re recreated as holograms.

“My suspicion is as we move into the future this will become common, whether it’s right or wrong,” he says.

“I don’t know if you can stand in the way of that.”

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