Video Games Live (Cardiff, December 2009): Concert Report
Video Games Live concluded their Europe 2009 tour on December 3 with a performance at the Cardiff International Arena to 1,800 people. I was personally invited to attend by show co-creator Tommy Tallarico and graciously accepted his offer of VIP tickets and backstage access. It wasn't easy to attend, given it required me to take two half-days off and stay overnight in a hostel. However, it was a worthwhile and revealing experience nevertheless. I finally received the opportunity to witness what made Video Games Live so popular with so many video game fans out there. It also provided me with a good time to look around my post-graduate city of choice more closely. Perhaps most satisfyingly of all, I got a chance to meet some very interesting people, both within and outside of the industry. Time for a detailed look at the experience.
I arrived at the venue right at the start of the rehearsals. The orchestra were playing Ghouls 'n Ghosts main theme just as I came in and it was instantly comforting to hear one of my favourite classic melodies being played well. Soon enough, I introduced myself to Tommy Tallarico and he showed me around the venue. He explained how the entire stage had been custom-built in the morning to meet Video Games Live's very specific and expensive needs. I was subsequently able to witness video technician Mike Runice and lighting director Heath Marrinan in action. It was instantly clear from the three video projection screens and array of flashing lights that the visual component of Video Games Live was to be as important as the music. But this was just the rehearsal and apparently I hadn't seen everything yet...
The orchestra was specially assembled for the occasion by Cardiff-based violist Lucy Morgan and seemed to mainly comprise female university musicians. They were also one of Video Games Live's smallest featured orchestras with just 30 members. However, each section still featured talented and passionate musicians and most were ready for the concert, having received the sheet music two months before. Despite the small size of the ensemble, each instrument was microphoned below the stage and the audio engineer Matt Yelton carefully optimised the levels to ensure a bold yet balanced sound. Thanks to his mixing, the acoustics within the arena weren't as detrimental as they are in most orchestral concerts either; they obviously weren't as exquisite as a concert hall, but this type of venue wouldn't have fitted the hybridised style of show. The orchestra was supported by a small choir, the Cardiff Celtic Voices, that appeared on several items during the performance. However, Tommy expressed regret that pianist Martin Leung couldn't attend for once, given he was attending Yale on scholarship.
After the rehearsal finished, I talked in more detail with Tommy in his dressing room. Over the subsequent few hours, we discussed everything from Eastern vs Western game music, to working with Genesis and Super Nintendo hardware, to the upcoming TV special and DVD release, to his experiences with Great Pandas in China. Unlike Cologne, it was also very easy to be vegetarian backstage, since Tommy himself is a vegan and had plenty of fruit and salads to offer. It was a pity I didn't notice the beer crate before I went to the arena bar, though! I also met conductor Jack Wall, who discussed the impending Mass Effect II. However, the biggest surprise of the evening was when Tim Wright (aka CoLD SToRAGE) came into Tommy's dressing room. I didn't recognise him at first, given his longer beard than usual, but I soon realized who he was and it was a special experience for me. Though he's best known for the Wipeout series, I was familiar with him from the Amiga's Lemmings; in fact, this catchy score is the very first I remember and preceded even my experiences on the SNES' Super Mario World. Little did I know that he also lives on the Wirral Peninsula just five miles away from my home town.
Half an hour before the doors even opened, I went outside for a while and noticed a very large queue. In the lobby, Mike Tallarico was preparing to sell merchandise, such as brochures, posters, T-shirts, and their Video Games Live Volume One CD. There was also a pre-show Guitar Hero contest where attendees competed to get the best score and one young man was declared the winner. I sat down towards the end of the pre-show festival during the first of several videos. Entitled "Yuri the Only One For Me", it was a bizarre anime parody song featuring lyrics such as "You and I Make Nintendo Wii". Production assistant Brian DiDomenico also presented a competition between cosplayers, ranging from Princess Peach to Final Fantasy Girl on Chocobo to Four BioShock Splicers. I thought most costumes were pretty lame there weren't even any Vivis in sight but the formidable BioShock guys were worthy winners. The audience also went wild at a tribute video dedicated to fellow gamer and Sonic 3 co-composer Michael Jackson, as well as a dramatisation of poor Ms. Pacman being chased by three ghosts through New York. It was all light-hearted, geeky entertainment that prepared the audience for the debut of the main show.
In Video Games Live tradition, the main show opened with the tour's Classic Arcade Medley. It was interesting to hear how Pong was orchestrated, given it was essentially sound effects, and how other primitive games such as Space Invaders and Donkey Kong were interpreted. This required the orchestra to be carefully synched with the visuals, through both Wall's conducting and technological innovations, and they certainly succeeded. It was impressive how the medley developed from these minimalistic origins to richer themes like the grandiose Space Ace, the classically-oriented Gauntlet, the rocking Contra, and the jazzy OutRun. When presented together with the videos, this really seemed to represent the simultaneous evolution of game technology and game music for me. However, I found other some sections of the medley were little more than successions of unrelated jingles, such as Frogger, Duck Hunt, and Punch-Out, while the Tetris conclusion was certainly abrupt. Although the medley didn't quite work for me as a whole, it was still an engaging experience filled with novelty and nostalgia. The fans loved it too.
After the Arcade medley was finished, Tommy Tallarico in part-formal, part-casual attire was introduced as the host of the evening by Solid Snake on cellphone. From reading other reviews, it's clear that the majority of what he said was standard for Video Games Live shows, including how video games have become the entertainment of choice for the 21st Century. However, he still personalised the show in places (for instance, joking that Cardiff people were crazier than the rest) and often engaged in banter between members of the audience. Following a video introduction by Hideo Kojima, the orchestra presented a medley of Metal Gear Solid themes. The orchestra were sufficiently amplified to ensure an epic sound for Sons of Liberty's main theme and the sampled electronic elements also worked well. The latter part of the medley focused more on the original game's music up until the choral climax. There was an interactive element to this presentation, as a grunt soldier looked around for Snake who followed in a cardboard box. The videography was also impressive, particularly the sections that showed the development and ageing of Snake. Less appealing was the lighting, which was too blaring and distracting for me in this instance. A fitting tribute to the franchise nevertheless.
Introduced on video by creator David Jaffe, the God of War performance was one of the most impressive on the evening. The orchestra brought a lot of depth and humanity to the previously sampled compositions. In particular, the operatic vocalist for "The Great Sword Bridge of Athena" made the piece her own with a spectacular and haunting performance (as Tommy put it to me during the rehearsal, "Wow, she's good"). The subsequent rendition of "The Vengeful Spartan" had an action-packed feel and a strong rhythmical impetus. The video projections were also effective here in emphasising the game as a Greek tragedy. Afterwards, Tommy Tallarico popped out from the cardboard box left during the Metal Gear Solid segment and introduced a Space Invaders contest. An enthusiastic girl from the audience was picked to come on stage and needed to beat the first level of the game in two minutes. Sadly, she lost all five lives after getting down to just two aliens left, but still received a well-deserved consolation prize.
The Kingdom Hearts performance came next. Despite my indifference towards the "Hikari" theme (I much prefer "Passion"), the orchestral performance was noticeably improved from the CD release, with few problems with abrupt phrasing. The video was the highlight of this one, featuring segments from all sorts of Disney movies, ranging from The Lion King to The Little Mermaid, and it ended with a clip of Steamboat Willie. It'll be very emotional for those who watched these movies as a kid. In fact, it made the girl sitting next to me cry. There was subsequently a Skype conversation with the 89-year-old Father of Video Games, Ralph Baer, and the original video of him playing ping-pong on a television set from 1969. Perhaps my least favourite item of the evening was Sonic the Hedgehog. As with many game music medleys, this one was jarring for me, since it seemed to jam a lot of themes together in a short playtime. While "Green Hill Zone" captured me, I felt lost in the subsequent sections. Few members of the audience had a problem with such an approach, so perhaps it is more of a personal bias. I'd have preferred more elegant transitions, but audience members probably desired just to hear the themes in succession.
Before the interlude, there were two performances of Nintendo favourites. The Metroid medley turned out to be a surprising highlight for me. The opening featured the orchestra playing together with chiptunes from the original Metroid; the slight intentional dissonance between the two forces only enhanced the dark atmosphere. As the medley grew more epic and expansive, the video celebrated Samus Aran's role as one of gaming's first heroines. Following a video introduction by Koji Kondo, fans cheered for the next item, The Legend of Zelda. The arrangement presented the series' main theme in several variations, ranging from the dynamic introduction to the intimate interlude to the grandiose coda. Though not my favourite arrangement of the theme, it ranks as one of the better ones. The Lucy Morgan Orchestra once again provided a polished and expressive performance, while the video work provided a tour of the series from the original FDS game to the more recent Twilight Princess. The 20 minute interlude provided a good breather to recollect on the preceding items. Despite Tommy's apparent abhorrence towards the game, it was also great to hear "Katamari on the Swing" playing during the interlude, instead of the usual arena muzak.
Following the interlude, Tommy was reintroduced as host and declared the next two items were dedicated to Blizzard Entertainment. First of all, there was an exclusive preview of StarCraft II, featuring similar material to "The Hyperion Overture" of Echoes of War: The Music of Blizzard Entertaiment. The orchestra and chorus not only provided an epic and action-packed performance, but also brought a lot of colour and spirituality to the piece. The visuals were absolutely stunning too and indicated that the four year development time for the project was well-spent. The World of Warcraft suite was another favourite of mine, despite the fact I've avoided the time-sucking game at all costs. The main video screen of ferocious beasts and icy landscapes were effective in conjunction with the side screens featuring members of the orchestra in snow. Subsequently, Koji Kondo introduced attendees to the long-awaited performance of Super Mario. It was a pretty standard medley of the Overworld, Underwater, and Underground themes from the first game, but was nevertheless well-received. The orchestra swung more than they did at rehearsals and the muted trumpets were an effective addition. Of course, the visuals and lighting worked well here too.
The remainder of the show focused on blending orchestra with rocking guitar work. First up, there was a Chrono medley featuring "Premonition", "Wind Scene", "Frog's Theme", and "Scars of Time". Fortunately, the performance and balance was far better than the first few renditions of the theme that made their way on to YouTube. In particular, the concertmaster brought a lot of passion to "Scars of Time" and shone above the thrusting percussion work. Furthermore, the blend of Jack's acoustic guitar and Tommy's semi-acoustic guitar helped to capture the Celtic aura of Yasunori Mitsuda's music. The winner of the Guitar Hero competition came on to perform a rendition of "Sweet Emotion" from Aerosmith. Though Tommy's cousin Steven Tyler couldn't make it to this concert, the choir and orchestra provided a good backdrop to the guitar work nevertheless. The player chose 'Expert' mode instead of 'Hard' mode and stunned the audience by getting a score of 300,926 points. We learned after the show that, not only was this the adrenaline-fuelled player's best, but also the highest scoring performance in Video Games Live's history.
The rock focus continued with the Mega Man suite. In my opinion, this arrangement captured the essence of the Mega Man series far better than the Rockman 1 ~ 6 Rock Arrange Ver. and most doujin productions out there. Just like these productions, the suite incorporated plenty of the series' best melodies, including the famous "Dr. Wily Stage" from Mega Man 2. However, where it exceeded them was with the dynamic use of rock and orchestral instruments. Tommy was especially important here, since he really captured the old-school rock feel of the series with his electric guitar work. Then came the Halo suite at last. It was supposed to have featured earlier in the concert and been introduced by series' composer Martin O'Donnell on Skype. However, Jack Wall couldn't connect and was called a 'n00b' by the audience. I still received the opportunity to see Marty on Skype during the rehearsals, though. As for the music, it was the same 'rock meets orchestra' suite that featured on the Video Games Live Volume One album. Unsurprisingly given the popularity of the game series, it was a fan favourite. At the end of the item, the crowd also went crazy when Masterchief came on stage with a flag.
After the performers, conductor, and host left the stage, the audience demanded an encore and were instead eventually presented with two. First up was "Advent: One Winged Angel". The orchestra and choir once again offered a compelling performance, but Tommy stole the show with his electric guitar work. This wasn't his best performance of the theme, but it still impressed the audience. Due to Square Enix's copyright restrictions, there was no video coverage from the game. Instead the team provided a nod to fan culture with a series of cosplay pictures, including a hilarious one of Jenova. They ended the show on a high with a brisk performance of Castlevania favourites featuring yet more classic melodies and impressive solos. The response? A standing ovation. Afterwards, I joined Jack, Tommy, and Tim at the meet-and-greet, engaging with fans in the queue and getting into pictures I shouldn't have done. I was impressed how Tommy gave each fan a lot of time and took the feedback he received seriously. However, the queue was near-endless so I left after an hour. According to Tim's lovely wife, who I saw at the train station the next day, they were there until half past midnight. Now that's dedication!
Video Games Live is an impressive production, clearly more designed for general gamers than soundtrack listeners. As Tallarico pointed out in our recent interview, the show has been designed to appeal to as large an audience as possible. It was clear from the audience applause and meet-and-greet that they succeeded in entertaining and satisfying the sheer majority of the audience. The final program was certainly well-suited for the diverse audience out there, with everything from 8-bit classics to Western epics to Square fantasies being represented. It also generally reflected the evolution and diversification of video game music well. It was evident from the meet-and-greet that many were slightly disappointed that some of their personal favourites didn't make it. Civilization IV, Silent Hill, BioShock, Medal of Honor, Shadow of the Colossus, and the piano medley were notable omissions from the main program, but many should make it if Video Games Live returns next year. Tommy also assured the audience that requests for new arrangements such as Earthworm Jim, Pokémon, Phoenix Wright, and Street Fighter II would be accommodated next year. As for me, I'm desperate for a specially prepared Lemmings medley!
In terms of presentation, the show was not designed to appeal to hardcore fans either. It didn't offer the intricate arrangements, large orchestras, or perfect acoustics that I experienced at classically-oriented video game concerts in Stockholm and Cologne. Instead it favoured a loud and brash approach similar to rock concerts. Some medleys, such as Sonic and the Arcade medley, were too coarse for me, but they packed a lot of fan favourites into a short playtime so were well-received by most. I found the more focused arrangements very effective and, in particular, felt the emotional Kingdom Hearts, haunting Metroid, brutal God of War, and vast Blizzard segments brought a lot to the experience. For the most part, I was satisfied with the Lucy Morgan Orchestra, whether they were playing as a vigorously in unison or offering emotional solos, such as in Chrono. The mixing engineer also ensured a big immersive sound throughout the evening and made the most out of the arena's acoustics.
The presentation of the evening was generally solid. Tommy Tallarico proved a charismatic and entertaining host, as well as a good one-to-one conversationalist. The interactive segments, such as the cosplay, Guitar Hero, and Space Invaders contests, were very engaging to watch and really brought the audience into the experience. As mentioned several times, the video work was also superb and synchronised well with the music. It was also interesting how they incorporated video introductions, on-stage drama, and some humorous pre-show content. On the downside, I often felt distracted by the bright lighting and very loud audience, but most didn't seem to mind. To sum up, Video Games Live serves more to commemorate video game history and culture in general, rather than the music alone. As a result, it should appeal to most video game fans out there, including those who don't normally listen to video game music. More hardcore listeners are likely to have mixed feelings about the production, but there is still plenty to enjoy and, like me, you probably won't regret attending and might even want to return a second time.