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October 31, 2014

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Rhythm and blues: Blue Man Group enters rock arena with CD, tour

Each night when "Blue Man Group: Live at Luxor" lets out, Matthew Banks and his fellow performers are inundated with questions from the show's many out-of-town visitors.

"We have a meet and greet after every show, and people always come up and say, When are you going to come to Idaho? You need to come to our town,' " Banks said. "And we never know what to tell them."

Since March 2000 when the nightly production show debuted at Luxor Blue Man fans have had four options if they hope to catch a show: New York City, Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas.

But starting this weekend, Banks can finally direct hopeful audiences to a new set of host sites cities that will be visited on the Blue Man Group's first full-scale rock 'n' roll concert tour.

"We're going to finally come out to some of those places and inject ourselves there," Banks said. "We're doing a set of pure music, and it's gonna rock. I'm so excited about it."

Blue Man Group kicked off its foray into the rock world Tuesday with the release of "The Complex," the ensemble's second album. This weekend the touring unit takes the stage for the first time with performances on both days of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.

A nine-city tour begins May 18 in Washington, D.C., and Banks said the group should be on the road for much of 2003.

"We started off in New York with a really small show; just under 300 people fit in the theater," he said. "Then we built to a bigger theater and got new material for that theater. And then we went to another even bigger theater and got new material for that one.

"Then we came to Vegas, which is our biggest space yet, and it's more of a rock show with theater elements. And now this is the next natural evolutionary step for Blue Man Group, to take on the rock medium."

Blue Man Group's newest direction also translates into a change of lifestyle for the 29 year-old Banks. For the past three years he has been a full-time Las Vegas resident, donning the trademark blue makeup for his role as one of the show's three "Blue Men."

Now Banks will spend most of his time traveling from city to city, rehearsing the new music-oriented set and recording television appearances, such as the one that aired Tuesday night on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Banks said he was selected for the traveling company because of his background in music. He plays piano, guitar, trombone and drums, and spent time as a pianist and vocalist on cruise ships early in his career.

"There's so much music in this show, so they went around and kind of did a reassessment of the musical abilities of all the Blue Men," Banks said. "To be hired as a Blue Man, you need to be an actor and a musician, but some people are more actors than musicians and some are more musicians than actors."

Like the production show and 1999 debut album, "Audio" -- which was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Pop Instrumental category --"The Complex" is rich with percussive rhythms. The Blue Men utilize unusual instrumentation, including chapman sticks, airpoles, zithers and mandeldrums, to create their unique sound tapestries.

On some tracks, as many as 50 drum tracks are laid atop one another to create a cacophonous thunder not unlike an approaching stampede. On others, the percussion is far sparser, leaving room for guitars and synthesizers to add distinctly poppy flavors.

"The Complex" also introduces a significant new component to the Blue Man world: lyrics. Nine of the album's 15 cuts -- which includes an unlisted bonus track -- feature vocals.

So how do the Blue Men manage to supplement their music with singing while still maintaining their characters' traditional code of silence? On "The Complex," they did it with the help of guest vocalists, including Dave Matthews, Tracy Bonham, Esthero and Venus Hum singer Annette Strean.

"Blue Man tries to get people to unmask themselves, take their cultural mask off and just be more innocent and safe in their vulnerabilities," Banks said. "And the lyrics are kind of the unmasking of the Blue Man, what his thoughts are, what he's processing and what he's empathizing with."

Some of those additional musicians, including Bonham and the three members of Venus Hum, will join the three touring Blue Men for their live performances. They will augment a lineup that will also include three percussionists, a drummer, two guitarists, a bassist and two synthesizer players.

"The band members are always a part of the Blue Man, another way he ends up communicating," Banks said. "They're connected to him, but they're not like him."

Matthews' contributions to the swinging "Sing Along" made the track a natural first single. The album also includes a pair of covers, Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" -- a version Banks terms "far more ferocious" than the one featured at the popular Luxor show -- and Donna Summer's "I Feel Love."

Though he did not play on the album, Banks co-wrote one song, the sweeping "Exhibit 13." The track centers around the tragedy of Sept. 11, as the accompanying video -- available for viewing at exhibit13.com -- illustrates.

The video presents an exhibition of small bits of paper, all of which blew into a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood from the World Trade Center site. Some bear the eerie markings of companies affected by the disaster, such as Cantor Fitzgerald, and one is marked simply "Exhibit 13."

"It's a tribute in memory of those who have suffered," Banks said.

The rock concerts will be a departure from the Luxor shows in one significant respect: They won't be as heavy on comedy. Don't expect to see the Blue Man Group's popular Cap'N Crunch cereal bit or the painting and marshmallow tossing segment that serves as nightly opener at Luxor.

"There will be funny moments, but it's more about rock," Banks said.

That doesn't mean the Blue Men will completely abandon audience participation, however. Several songs on "The Complex" directly address listeners, urging them to bob their head, pump their fists or yell if they are "paying attention" at various points.

"The audience is always part of it. We want to make everyone part of the ritual, part of a really special thing happening and not just worshipping their favorite rock star," Banks said. "Blue Man is like a rock anti-star. He's there so that people can come and celebrate themselves."

Though Las Vegas is not on the group's initial tour schedule, Banks said the show will likely come through Southern Nevada at some point, giving locals the chance to compare the two Blue Man concepts for themselves. Banks said he wasn't sure what venue might host such a concert, but speculated it might be best suited for an outdoor arena such as Sam Boyd Stadium.

For now, though, Banks and his Blue Man comrades are focused on this weekend's launch at Coachella. On Sunday they will be in the unenviable position of playing on one stage while punk legend Iggy Pop -- reunited with the original members of his band, the Stooges -- plays on another.

"The Stooges start halfway through our set, so it's going to be hard to hold down the fort," Banks said. "A lot of people are going to want to see that, but it will be OK. There's a buzz about what we're doing, too."

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