Dear Friends image.

Live Fantasy

Just when you thought you were the only one who appreciated video game music!

by Patrick King

This year, on February 19th, the first video game concert tour in the United States kicked off in the chilly city of Chicago, and my sister and I were there. For the record, this was not the first video game concert in the States; lucky fans in L.A. had the distinction of being a part of that. However, this was the first show in the first game music tour in America. I was happy enough just to be there.

Climate-wise, it wasnít the best of nights to be out and about. The temperature had been hovering near freezing all day, and eventually, the weather - unable to decide whether it wanted to rain or snow - chose to spit a sloppy hybrid of two in our general direction. The line of people waiting to get into the building stretched all the way to the parking lot, mainly because most of us didnít realize that there was more than one entrance to the Rosemont theatre.

Yet I doubt that a blizzard couldíve kept 4,400 eager fans of the music of Nobuo Uematsu away from such a wonderful opportunity to enjoy his compositions.

Iíve been a fan of video game music as long as Iíve enjoyed video games. There are many great game music composers out there, though I doubt that many gamers could name more than one or two. I think I can pick out a small collection of my favorite BGM (background music) providers. From America, thereís the relatively well-known Tommy Tallarico (probably his work on Earthworm Jim and Skeleton Warriors, oddly enough, are my favorites) and George "The Fat Man" Sanger (composer of the groundbreaking soundtrack for The 7th Guest, along with other great PC music).

As much as I respect musicians from this side of the globe, there are a number of Japanese artists that I canít live without. Yasunori Mitsuda (the man behind most of the music in Chrono Trigger and all of the music in Xenogears), Koji Kondo (the brilliant composer of the Mario and Zelda themes, among other Nintendo classics), Hiroki Kikuta (you canít go wrong with the OST from Secret of Mana), and of course, Yuzo Koshiro. Koshiroís best compositions can probably be found on two of his (tragically) least popular domestically released games - Actraiser and Actraiser 2. He also composed music for Shenmue, Culdcept, and Streets of Rage, among other classic titles.

Dear Friends image.

While I could list quite a few other game music composers that I adore, one man stands above the rest of them. If you ever see Nobuo Uematsu in person, you wouldnít think that such a polite, calm, and generally normal looking fellow could be the most popular composer in the history of the game industry. Itís even more surprising when one finds out that he spends his spare time touring as a rock star with his band, The Black Mages.

The Final Fantasy series of games has inarguably made an impact on the game industry. Just as there were Mario and Mario clones for a decade, there were Final Fantasy and other similar role-playing games.

Especially in America, where Enix barely bothered to send the Dragon Quest series our way, the company that made the best role-playing games in the 80s and 90s was Square, and the best games of the genre were Hironobu Sakaguchiís Final Fantasy games. After the sixth game in the series was released, Sakaguchi went on to create the only other game (in the eyes of most fans) to ever top his Final Fantasy titles, Chrono Trigger.

Today, Final Fantasy is more popular than ever around the world, and though Sakaguchi is no longer a part of the process, Uematsu has composed music for all 11 games in the main series (along with tunes for some of the extra titles released over the years). He also wrote the theme for Final Fantasy: Unlimited, "Over the FANTASY", which was easily the most appealing element of that otherwise disappointing anime series.

Though these games were known for their engaging characters, excellent visuals and addictive plots, Uematsuís music was just as much of a drawing point to the titles as any other element going into their production. With a range of styles that transcended the simple sounds that the NES produced, he put the relatively advanced SNES sound chip to hard labor, making full use of the Playstationís aural abilities, and showed off the PS2ís music processing power. Uematsu introduced many of us to the potential power of video game music long before many of us were old enough to drive.

Hardcore fans of his songs already know that there have been concerts in Japan featuring his music, and orchestral arrangements of his compositions were produced not long after the first Final Fantasy game made its mark as a mega hit. Final Fantasy: Symphonic Suite was the first, and others regularly followed with each successive release.

Dear Friends was the title of the disc featuring music from Final Fantasy V - arranged with 'real' instruments, and itís a real shame that few people in America will ever get the chance to hear it. Yet thanks to this tour, Uematsuís American fans were finally able to get the message that he was sending when he produced the Dear Friends album.

Though it sounds sappy, Uematsu feels that music has the powerful ability to bring people of disparate cultures, ages, genders, races and political parties together. Heís always maintained that music connects people in ways that other forms of art cannot, and I believed him before traveling 350 miles to attend a symphony with 4,400 other like-minded people from around the world.

Dear Friends image.

That experience did, somewhat, drive his point home.

Unlike every other concert that Iíve ever been to, every person attending the show was incredibly polite. I think I can speak for the other ticket holders when I say that there was a sort of expectant, excited and nostalgic feeling that bound us all together. People walked, bought merchandise and even filled out the theatreís survey with far more civility than Iíve come to expect from the typical con-attending anime/manga/game fans.

It struck me as significant when I overheard one of the theatre employees say to another, "This group is far more polite than the people we usually get".

Now the Rosemont theatre is the performance hall for the Chicagoland Pops orchestra. I thought it was pretty funny when I heard them essentially saying a bunch of gaming geeks were nicer than regular symphony concert-goers. We all knew we were in for something unlike anything that we had experienced before, and we werenít about to screw it up by acting like nimrods.

The show was emceed by Gene Honda, announcer for the White Sox and a local TV anchor. For those of you who arenít sports inclined (or live in St. Louis, where the White Sox are overshadowed by the far more entertaining antics of the Cubs), the White Sox is a baseball team. A gamer himself, Honda obviously was just as excited to be there as the rest of us, and he impressively harnessed the crowdís attention away from our own excitement, for the reason that we were there: Uematsuís music.

Due to the unexpectedly large crowd, the concert was delayed about 15 minutes. Once everyone was seated, we were treated to the arrival of Nobuo Uematsu himself (along with his badass posse), who entered in the middle of the hall and sat down to enjoy the show with the rest of us. Naturally, his arrival was accompanied by an explosion of applause and cheering, and I couldnít help but wonder at the sheer adoration emanating from the crowd toward this small Japanese man.

I think if I was at the receiving end of so much positive energy, Iíd explode. This led me to believe that perhaps Nobuo Uematsu is not only a great composer and talented musician, but perhaps he is also a Super Saiyan, able to absorb incredible amounts of power as if it were a mere breeze on a warm spring day.

It was almost as if he was The Beatles and we were all teenage girls in the 60s; such was the insane love that we had for this funny little fellow. He did a great job of accepting our praise while simultaneously projecting the "Oh, I donít really deserve this" aura that Japanese performers excel at.

The show began with the haunting chorus-led "Liberi Fatali" from Final Fantasy VIII, and from then on, I knew this was going to be a night to remember. There were three giant projection screens centered over the stage along with two plasma monitors on the extreme edges of the stage. Throughout most of the performance, these screens displayed the Dear Friends logo or live video of the players in the orchestra, though many of the songs (well, those from Final Fantasy VII and later) would feature CG video scenes taken straight from the game to accompany the music.

When music is performed live by a full orchestra, it becomes larger than life. Itís amazing how so many sounds can blend together to form a unified tapestry of magical, wonderful music. Iíve always been impressed at how well Uematsuís compositions hold up when theyíre played on more than just a wavetable synthesizer, and I was not let down by Arnie Rothís masterful conducting skills or the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra.

The theme from Final Fantasy Xís Zanarkand followed "Liberi Fatali", performed with more warmth than is possible to convey on the PS2. Most of the songs presented that night possessed the bittersweet twinge of sadness that is present in so many of the themes found in Final Fantasy, and hearing an orchestra perform them added a great deal of texture to Uematsuís already rich songs.

Next was one of my favorite themes, "Terraís Theme" from the sixth game in the series. I have an arranged version of it on the Grand Finale album, but I much preferred the rendition of it performed that night.

Moving backwards in time, we were then treated to the "Theme of Love" from Final Fantasy IV, a particularly nostalgic piece for myself. I can still remember Rydia, Cecil, Rosa, Golbez and all of the other super-deformed characters that had far more personality than their simple little bitmaps had a right to contain.

Dear Friends image.

"Dear Friends", Final Fantasy Vís main theme, came after the "Theme of Love". This was one of the prettier songs of the night, showcasing the talents of the Orchestraís supremely talented guitarist.

His abilities were even more impressive with the next song, "Vamoí Alla Flamenco", which required some dexterous Flamenco guitar work. "Vamoí Alla Flamenco" was one of the more exciting songs from the slightly quirky Final Fantasy IX, and it got the crowd tapping their toes as it was faithfully expanded to fill the concert hall.

"Love Grows" followed the considerably more upbeat Flamenco tune and the Final Fantasy VIII track was perfect in a symphonic environment. When the intermission came up after it, I was only more eager for whatever fantastic songs would come next.

During intermission, I picked up a T-Shirt and a program (each for $20). The T-Shirt features the main logo of the tour and it is simple and tasteful (Iíll probably wear it to Kunicon in St. Louis in the first week of March). I wanted to pick up the program as a souvenir, though itís somewhat hard to justify spending $20 for it.

It has an introduction, written by Uematsu, a song list, and then two pages devoted to each game in the main timeline of the series. One page summarizes the game, with release information and details on which songs represent the given release in the show, while the other page features artwork and screenshots from the game.

While the CG imagery used in games seven and beyond is impressive, I much prefer Yoshitaka Amanoís artwork, and while Iíve seen it all before, it was nice to have it collected in a book focusing just on his Final Fantasy works. The book is glossy and oversized, and there are even screenshots from Adventís Children, because a song from the upcoming film was featured in the show.

The programís centerpiece features a reproduction of a huge mural Amano painted for Final Fantasy XI which hangs in the Tokyo office of SquareEnix.

Images from Final Fantasy XII were included, as well, though no music from the game was presented. The booklet ends with production information from the show, and Iím tempted to write a thank you note to each person in the list.

Pulling out what many consider to be the heavy hitter of the show, after our Intermission, we were treated to "Aerisís Theme" from Final Fantasy VII, and I wouldnít have been surprised to see people getting teary-eyed at the memories of one of the seriesí most beloved characters.

"Not Alone" from game nine helped us get over our sudden episode of depression caused by thinking of Aeris, and it was followed by "Ronfaure", the only track representing the online-only Final Fantasy XI. While this was perhaps the least well-received track of the show (it only received clapping from everyone and wild cheers from a dedicated few, instead of a deafening explosion of accolades from all), it was a very solid piece that made me want to go back and listen to that particular gameís soundtrack. I never played FFXI, and probably never will, for I fear what will happen to my friends and family if I allow an online game to eat my life.

Due to time constraints, tunes from the first three games were combined into a medley, but these included some of the best songs from those lesser known titles along with the classic Chocobo theme. It was rather impressive that so many people knew that the music was shifting to the ever-present Chicken/Ostrich hybrid, and Mr. Roth sensed that the crowd knew what was coming. Right before the musicians kicked the Chocobo theme into high gear, the conductor turned to the audience and winked.

It was pretty obvious that he was having as much fun as the rest of us.

The preview song from Adventís Children came next, though it will surely have more of an impact when itís played within the context of the movie.

The last song played for the regular set list was the universal theme for Final Fantasy, sometimes referred to as the crystal theme. Itís as stirring as it was the first time I heard it, and a wonderful way to wrap up a terrific evening.

Dear Friends image.

Though, naturally, that was not the end of the show by any means. We were treated to an encore, "Sephirothís Theme", no less (many of us expected this, since they did this for the E3 show in 2004), and of course, this inspired an explosive reaction from the crowd.

To the delight of all, Uematsu came onto the stage to address the crowd. He took a survey, which started out innocently enough. At first, he was asking us how far we all came to see the show. There were plenty of in-city and in-state patrons at the show. There might have been even more people who had come from out of state to see the show, and even a few that werenít from America.

After doing his research, Uematsu then asked if weíd attend a Black Mages concert if he brought them to America. We all promised him we would, but then he put the crowd into a tight spot. He said he thought that the orchestra was doing a great job, and of course we clapped to show our agreement. But then, he reminded us of our promise to see his rock concert. "So," he asked (in Japanese, so bear with me). "Which do you prefer: rock music or the symphony?"

It was pretty funny to hear most of the crowd side with the orchestra over him. We knew that he wanted us to say rock music, but after such a wonderful performance of his own music, we couldnít help but side with the orchestra, which had (by that time) became an integral part of his compositions, and the people who made that night possible. He was, of course, joking with us, which made me like the man even more than I had before.

Iíd wager that itís not often that such a wide-ranging group of people get together and have as good of a time as we all did that night, and at the risk of once again sounding sappy, it was his music that made it possible. The beeps and boops that bugged our parents to no end had the ability to attract thousands of people to one place for one night, and it was then that I realized that maybe Uematsu was onto something with his 'music is a unifying force' beliefs.

All I can say is, if you have the opportunity to attend one of these shows on his tour, do it. It was worth every penny. It was worth the toll roads, the snow and the cold weather (it was 60 degrees that weekend in St. Louis). For one night, the mutual appreciation of one manís music made for a magical experience, and I can only hope that this isnít the last video game concert I attend.

In fact, itís about time that Square Enix started releasing REAL soundtracks of their video games in America. I donít mean the single disc "selections from" crap that weíve been subjected to in the past; full four-disc boxed sets are the only thing that will sate my desire for Uematsuís music. Iíd love to hear a recording of these shows, as well. Before I saw Dear Friends, I would have worried about the selling power that a collection of video game music would command in the States, but when you have two sell-out shows in two different parts of the country, filled with thousands of people who would support such a release, perhaps there is hope yet for some classic gaming soundtrack releases over here.

The showís next stop is the GDC in March, but I implore any fan of Final Fantasy, game music, or music in general to check out Uematsuís music. And remember, if the Black Mages make it here one day, we promised weíd see them, as well.

Iíll be there at least, wearing my Dear Friends t-shirt and expecting something wonderful from the unassuming man in his fifties who still knows how to rock. And maybe this time, theyíll allow cameras inside.

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