Sounds of silence
- Paul Duchene
- Portland Tribune - Features
Blue Man Group shows that rock 'n' roll works just fine without words
Looking like bright blue brothers to David Bowie's alien in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth,' the Blue Man Group has been taking big-city audiences by storm since 1988. Now the show's on the road.
The performance artists may not talk, but their actions speak loudly through imaginative percussive instruments, strobe lights, video screens and fireworks.
Audiences may never look at PVC pipe the same way again after listening to 'tubulums.' Other instruments include a cimbalom, a zither, a Chapman stick and a grand piano Ñ all relentlessly pounded with goofy enthusiasm.
From initial 'happenings' in New York, the manic group graduated to Astor Place Theatre in 1991. Founders Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton made fun of modern art, and ironically that world embraced them. The show still is running.
The Blue Man Group established out-of-town productions in Boston (1995), Chicago (1997) and Las Vegas's 1,200-seat Luxor Theater (2000).
Now the Blue Men are hitting the road as a rock band, eschewing their set pieces for a looser, more spontaneous event and promoting their new CD, 'Complex.' The tour includes a stop at Portland's Keller Auditorium.
You might wonder how the three original Blue Men have managed to cover so much ground. The answer is that they've become a corporation, with 500 employees, 40 Blue Men in various locations and a total of 50 musicians.
One thing hasn't changed: the gooey blue greasepaint, which doesn't set and takes an hour to apply.
Unlike the group's first CD, 'Audio,' which was exclusively music and percussion, 'Complex' contains songs and guest vocalists, notably Dave Matthews, Tracy Bonham and Josh Haden. Bonham and the band Venus Hum will open the Portland show.
Eric Gebow, one of the touring Blue Men, talked by phone from rehearsals in New York. He's been with the group for four years and was one of the Blue Men to open the Las Vegas show. At 34, he's older than most Blue Men, who are in their 20s, he says.
'I'm really excited,' he says. 'This is a much different show than we've done in the past. It's got all this music, and it's great that we got Marc Brickman (production designer for Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney, among others). There'll be LED video screens on stage, a lot of lighting from different directions and an eight-piece band with us.'
Gebow was working in San Francisco as a drummer when he was hired.
'I'd never done theater before, and I'm one of the few that doesn't have an acting background,' he says. 'But we did a lot of appearances in Vegas to promote things, and the character feels very natural to me at this point. I like feeling removed, and a certain anonymity is attractive.'
Gebow says there's also something of a superhero element in the characters' blueness, which makes them appealing. Not speaking adds to the mystique:
'People tend to be very intrigued by these blue heads staring at them curiously and not saying anything.'
The Portland show comes at the end of the tour's initial 10 or 12 dates, Gebow says. He and the other Blue Men Ñ Matthew Banks, Kalen Armandinger and Tom Galassi Ñ then will get a few weeks off before the summer season hits.
Each show calls for three Blue Men; the fourth is a 'spare.'
'In July and August we'll do 40 cities in two months,' Gebow says. 'The fourth man will enable us to have a day off now and then.'
It was a challenge to see how the Blue Men fit into rock 'n' roll, Gebow says, but the ritual aspect of big concerts seems to suit their crowd-pleasing antics.
'The characters have the power to be the guiding force of the show and get the audience involved,' he says.
The Blue Men played both nights of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California in April Ñ the first group ever to play a second night before some of the same crowd Ñ and Gebow thinks they have a future worldwide. After all, language isn't an issue with mimes.
'I can see us having a presence in Europe. We'll definitely be there at some level, but I don't know if it will be a touring show or a more theatrical sit-down show. It all appeals to me,' he says.
Contact Paul Duchene at