More Friends - Music from Final Fantasy (Los Angeles, May 2005): Concert Report
Fortunately, I didn't live too far away from Los Angeles and the Universal (now Gibson) Amphitheater, so I drove over to the theater. Encountering heavy rush-hour traffic (which LA is notorious for), I finally arrived to the esteemed Universal CityWalk, home of Universal Studios and a huge outlet of restaurants and shops. The traffic had shortened my "free time" to less than half an hour, so I hurried over to the Theater. Of course, now that I look at it, I should've loitered around and glanced at the sights a bit more, as concerts don't usually start on the dot. The crowd didn't seem too big on the outside. There seemed to be the random drawing of RPG gamers, including a huge group of Japanese-Americans and a smaller group wearing Black Mage clothing, no doubt in honor of The Black Mages. The security was pretty tight, though, and they had multiple checkpoints, consisting of a ticket glance check, then baggage check, then a final ticket check-in.
Along the way, more people started to become evident, especially at the first souvenir shop, where a crowd hawked over the programs, T-shirts, and the brand new CDs for both the More Friends and Dear Friends concert. (Note: In retrospect, these were horrible items to get, as these CDs contained a compilation of themes from original Final Fantasy game soundtracks and no live recordings, a big fat pity to all those who, in the rush, were gulled into snapping them up.) However, the programs were better, though they cost $25, a little more than anticipated. They were colorful, and had a nice synopsis of the series' music. Heading inside consisted of trying to squeeze through the rush.
Once inside, I was able to find my seats located about left center of the middle (no, I don't have the money for VIP). The inside of the Gibson Amphitheater was, to put it plainly, not too shabby. The seats, all in red, with the black walls and golden light that filtered onto the musicians warming up helped conjure a dream-like feeling. The front top had three big screens, with a bunch of smaller screens for the orchestra seating benefits were placed around. They all showed images detailing the upcoming Dear Friends concerts, a logo of SE and the More Friends concert name, plus a few pictures from the 1st Dear Friends concert (which took place at the Walt Disney Concert Hall). The Universal Amphitheater was by no way in scope to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Universal Amphitheater being smaller in size and seating, which had some still unsold. In fact, the concert was not sold out, and the top balcony of the theater had only the first three rows (out of 10) filled. Of course, the concert was on a Monday, so it seems logical that the concert was not sold out or filled up to the brim. Meanwhile, cameramen and soundmen prepared for the upcoming concert.
Sometime after 8:00 PM the dimming of the lights started the applause that would be heard throughout the rest of the concert. From the side of the stage stepped out Arnie Roth, who was greeted with loud applause as he stepped up to the podium, had the World Festival Symphony Orchestra tune, and started off with "Opening - Bombing Mission" from Final Fantasy VII. Even though it wasn't a vocal track, and not anything triumphant like "Liberi Fatali," the piece was well-received, and for me, hearing an orchestra play the first VGM track I ever heard was magical. The arrangement was about the same, and there wasn't too much of a difference, but seeing the Aeris walk out of the alley before being greeted by the city of Midgar was excellent. Fortunately, the audience was quiet and respectful throughout the track.
After the applause had died down, Arnie Roth picked up the microphone and started to speak, showing a huge problem in the Universal Amphitheater's sound crew. The microphone was not turned on, and after trying three futile times to speak into the microphone, he gave up and cupped his hands to his mouth to yell out to the crowd. Fortunately, they sent someone up to fix the problem (which was that the microphone wasn't turned on, something that should have been fixed before hand). The crowd chuckled though when the tech man happened to trip upon reaching the podium. Sad. Even then, the microphone would lose reception, and we'd miss words that Roth was trying to say.
Back to the concert, Roth began speaking about welcoming the audience to More Friends - Music from Final Fantasy, and introducing the MC for tonight, James Arnold Taylor, and his role in Final Fantasy X. For those who know, James Arnold Taylor was the voice of Tidus in that game. Anyway, he walked on stage (to applause) and began by welcoming once again the audience, and telling a bit about this concert and how he was happy to be back to be the master of ceremonies. I must mention the casual attitude of Taylor. While it was a pretty serious event, he was where a casual dress shirt and jeans, with sandals. Pretty laid back, but it sent the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the concert: have fun. Then he made a few comments about the music to be played through to the intermission, the different flavors and styles of Nobuo Uematsu (classical, pop, rock, and opera), and saying that they had a lot more to do before they had to say "See Ya!" in his Tidus-patented voice. Then, he walked off stage to loud applause.
Roth led the orchestra into "Aerith's Theme" from Final Fantasy VII, a classic by now. I've never heard the Dear Friends one, but I'm pretty sure the arrangement's the same. Showing the death of Aeris, but omitting any pictures of Sephiroth, it was a beautiful moving piece, albeit the solo was drowned out a few times by the orchestra. Next up was "At Zanarkand" from Final Fantasy X, another popular piece, with lovely piano work and orchestral backing, unique to the post-20020220 Final Fantasy concert series. Showing Yuna's sending at Kilika and Tidus' entrance into Luca, the piece was aptly interspersed with the mood. Fourth was "Don't Be Afraid" from Final Fantasy VIII, a battle theme that blared drums and brass to the audience. This, I believe, was new too, although the choice of video was a bit off this time, showing scenes from Rinoa running into Squall's arms and Squall running from the robot in the first SeeD mission. Next up was "Tina" from Final Fantasy VI, and while it was another "orchestra-mask-solo sometimes", it was still cool listening. The other problem was how the sound crew forgot to turn off Taylor's mike, and thus, we could hear Taylor backstage muttering about a manuscript to somebody before it was turn off.
Sixth up was the first entirely unique arrangement, Arnie Roth's "Swing de Chocobo." It was most interesting, and still incorporated that Chocobo theme, arranged in a jazzy style similar to Final Fantasy X's "Brass de Chocobo," complete with the drum set, and it was a hit. Of course, I think the visuals were more of a hit than the theme itself. This was one track which had people interrupting in the middle to cheer and clap for the visuals above, detailing the evolution of Chocobos from the first Final Fantasy that had them all the way to FFXI. Each time a new scene came up, there was a smatter of applause, more so when FFVII's and FFXI's were shown. Distracting, but fun. Finally, to finish off this half, the orchestra played "Final Fantasy," the main theme of the series. I can say that the arrangement was the same for the 20020220 concert, but listening to it was still great.
After the orchestra played the final note and the audience had finished clapping, James Arnold Taylor walked back out and tried to speak, but failed as the microphone wasn't turned on. Finally, when it did come back online, he said that it was intermission, but there was a lot more. The house lights came back up and people got up and started talking. Pretty random too. I went outside to see if I could spot anything, but all I saw were huge lines trying to get their souvenirs and CDs. After a short while, the lights dimmed again, and Taylor walked out. He went on about the different styles, and then introduced The Black Mages, which was met with thunderous applause and yells from a bunch in the sections. This was probably the highest point for some of the people there, because the crowd hadn't gotten this loud before.
The curtain went up and revealed the whole band to wild cheering as they blasted (and flashed blinding strobe lights) their way into "The Rocking Grounds" from Final Fantasy III. It was mainly the same version as on The Black Mages II ~The Skies Above~, with a bit of different improvisation. Like the Americans we are, we treated it as a rock concert, and I kind of started wondering how the orchestra members felt, listening to rock and cheers which was pretty foreign in orchestra music. Afterwards came "Maybe I'm a Lion" from Final Fantasy VIII, and it was essentially the same from The Black Mages album. Once again, the crowd went wild and cheered and watched the battle scene from the intro video of Final Fantasy VIII between Squall and Seifer, and I believe Okamiya had a true jamming session where he kneeled to the ground in a rock guitarist fashion.
On stage, you could tell they were having a great time. Tsuyoshi Sekito on guitar and Kenichiro Fukui on keyboards were pretty quiet and conservative, staying in about the same place. Meanwhile, Keiji Kawamori, the bass guitarist, was bobbing up and down, and Michio Okamiya on the main guitar was just having a blast, jamming solos on his guitar on the front of the stage. He got a lot of camera time, while Fukui probably had the least. Of course, the most visible was Arata Hanyuda on the drums, elevated with a steady light above, and, of course, Nobuo Uematsu, on the organ. You could tell they were having the time of their life, and so did we.
As The Black Mages bowed and the curtain went down, the audience was on their feet. The noise and cheering was enormous, and some people started chanting for more, before Taylor walked back onto stage. He began by thanking The Black Mages, and then introducing "my personal favorite" "Suteki da ne" from Final Fantasy X with the singer Rikki's US debut. Walking onto the stage in traditional Japanese garb, the crowd gave a thunderous applause, and then settled back to listen. It was essentially the same track as the "Suteki da ne -Orchestra Version-," and Rikki's voice was lovely. While it did sound a bit cold (as if she hadn't warmed up too well), it was still amazing to hear this song for the first time, in addition with the "cheesy" FMV of "The Spring" (where Tidus and Yuna share their kiss). I mean, it's LIVE. When do you get to see live Japanese singers perform in the US for a VGM concert?!
After the end where Rikki bowed to a standing ovation, Taylor came back out. Going through the regular thanks, he then introduced Emiko Shiratori in the next song: "A Place to Call Home ~ Melodies of Life" from Final Fantasy IX. The orchestra first started out by itself and played a much shortened version of "A Place I'll Return to Someday" before transitioning to "Melodies of Life," where Shiratori had walked on during "A Place to Call Home" and began singing in a white dress. The vocals really took the cake. It was beautiful, and the music all integrated nicely. In addition, the screens showed the scene in Alexandria where we first see Vivi and the Prima Vista theater ship coming into Alexandria Castle. The only problem about the FMV is that the sound crew forgot to turn off the sound from the real one, which caused a minor overlap. However, it was quickly resolved, and didn't really affect the song that badly. She sung in Japanese, but during one verse close to the end, she switched to English. It was not too heavily accented, unlike some other recordings, and therefore, I think this piece was awesome. And once again, I stress the point LIVE. How better can it get? When the piece was over, the audience gave another rousing standing ovation.
Taylor came out again, and he thanked Shiratori, before commenting on the imminent end of the concert. I don't think people wanted to end, and certainly not me, but all good things come to an end. Taylor wished his fans and Uematsu's fans the best of luck and after a "shameless plug" for his website, he signed off, where people gave him another huge round of applause. When the singers started coming to the stage, the crowd went wild. I mean, it was the first time ever the "OPERA 'Maria & Draco'" from Final Fantasy VI was to be sung and played in the English speaking world, let alone the US. It was a hit. The orchestra, with the contrast and whatnot played beautifully, and having never heard anything from the game except "Forever Rachel" and "Tina," I was stunned at the musical quality of this piece. In addition, the opera singers sang well. Stephanie Woodling (Mezzo-Soprano), Chad Berlinghieri (Tenor), and Todd Robinson (Bass-Baritone) did a great job, and the final chord that they hit was beautiful. I wanted to get this track for ages until the More Friends album was eventually released. At the end, the crowd gave another standing ovation, and they remained there for some time, until Roth grabbed the microphone and started speaking. He first acknowledged the orchestra, then the music, the gamers in the audience, and finally, he introduced the one and only Uematsu.
As Uematsu stepped out in his Black Mages clothes accompanied by a woman interpreter, the crowd went wild. There was another immediate standing ovation as calls and cheers rang out. It took Uematsu quite a bit to quiet the audience down. Once the audience settled, however, he launched into speaking Japanese, where the translator translated for those unfortunate people who couldn't understand Japanese. Uematsu basically thanked the gamers and the rest of the audience for coming. He also said something else, but I forgot it, as the excitement was too high. That was because there had to be an encore song, and since the CSUF Singers were coming to this concert, but had not been seen, the encore piece had to be either "Liberi Fatali" or "One Winged Angel".
Uematsu, undaunted, proceeded to end his comments with "I need to take a shower", eliciting laughter among the crowd. Then, he proceeded to guile the crowd with a simple question: "What would you like to hear? Orchestra? Band?" Needless to say, there was a huge outbreak of support for The Black Mages to come back on stage. Of course, like any good organizer, there had to be a compromise, so Uematsu commented "I heard 50% say orchestra, and 50% say band." Now, this is where More Friends really surprised me. Instead of having a traditional encore, where the conductor steps off stage and if the cheering is loud enough, walk back onto the podium and begin the encore, Uematsu instead introduces the next song. I guess it's more like a bonus piece than the encore. Whatever it was, it would have to be fabulous, and it was. Uematsu stated that the next track (which at the time was still unknown) was to be performed by the CSUF Singers, the orchestra, and The Black Mages together. The crowd went wild. Evidently, it was to be something to remember. And indeed it was.
However, it wasn't exactly the way that most people envisioned it. The orchestra began by seemingly playing "Liberi Fatali," but I'm still unsure what was meant to have been played there. Whatever it was, we didn't get a chance to hear it develop, because Uematsu started waving his hands around for Roth to stop conducting. As the crowd roared in both laughter and disappointment, Uematsu came to the front of the stage, clasped his hands together, and bowed as if asking for forgiveness, which was exactly what he was doing. Then, to make it even funnier, Uematsu got onto all fours and bowed to the ground to the audience, which caused the crowd to go wild. Then, they restarted, but before they got far, Uematsu was once again waving his hands around, signaling the orchestra to stop the beginning notes of "One Winged Angel." More laughter, but this time there was a few whispers on what was going on. I personally thought it was some kind of joke, until the next part. They restarted AGAIN, and this time, Roth signaled the orchestra to stop, petering out with a trumpet squeak as Uematsu shook his head and walked off stage.
Some laughter, chanting for the show to go on, and general questioning filled the air. It seemed that the sound system was not functioning correctly, and Uematsu had gone off stage in a peaceful huff. I'm still not sure, however, if this was planned though or if it really was a sound problem. If it was, this is where the Universal Amphitheater's sound crew really needed help. Anyway, after about two minutes, with The Black Mages getting edgy and a general hubbub of confusion through the audience (plus a few smart-aleck comments and random phrases yelled out that caused people to laugh), Kawamori dashed off stage to see what was going on. He came back on stage about 30 seconds off and ran in a funny manner to the other side, causing the crowd to laugh even more. After about two minutes, and an edgy audience, Kawamori ran across the stage again to the other side, before shortly returning to his spot as Uematsu stepped back to his position. The crowd cheered as Roth swung the baton and led the orchestra, and ultimately the CSUF Singers and The Black Mages to the final theme: "Advent: One Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII Advent Children.
Showing the short FMV of Sephiroth walking through flames, The Black Mages, the orchestra, and the CSUF Singers, combined into the most magnificent rendition of OWA, and practically any battle track for that matter. Uematsu, by throwing in classical, rock, and opera, created a spectacular piece, which had the orchestra play the original track, and The Black Mages spinning off renditions and basically great counterpoints. Later, in the middle of the piece, The Black Mages, in particular Okamiya, had a "solo", and the song was a hit. The crowd cheered when The Black Mages came in, but fortunately remained pretty respectful throughout the rest. The only problem with that song was how much of the chorus was masked out by heavy jamming sessions and the trumpeting orchestra, but in the end, all was forgiven. The final chord had the whole amphitheater on their feet, and the show ended with a great success, as the crowd continued cheering even as Uematsu, Roth, the rest of The Black Mages, the opera singers, Rikki, and Emiko Shiratori returned on stage for a final bow. I had hoped that there would be one more piece, as it sounded as if they had music for "Liberi Fatali," but unfortunately, the concert had ended.
All in all, the concert was fantastic, and the new music and special guest artists made it a night I would not forget soon. While the merchandise was lousy and a rip-off, and the sound in the Universal Amphitheater was extremely faulty (this also included static "popping" — they should fire the manager), it was a great concert overall. A few laughs, opera, rock, classical, and Final Fantasy, all under one composer, Nobuo Uematsu, and one concert, More Friends - Music from Final Fantasy.