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Ronnie James Dio lives again, via hologram

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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When Ronnie James Dio was battling the stomach cancer that killed him during May 2010, at the age of 67, his wife and manager, Wendy Dio, made him a promise.

"I said, 'I'll keep your legend and your music alive as long as I'm alive," Dio recalls by phone. "He was a very special person, a special human being. He loved people. He loved his fans. He was a very humble person.

"I don't think Ronnie was ever given the credit he should have been. So he deserves everything we can do to keep his legend up there."

Wendy Dio has done quite a bit to that end during the past nine years. She's established a Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund in memory of the heavy rock icon — a member of Elf, Rainbow and Black Sabbath as well as leading his own band, Dio — that's funded via an annual motorcycle ride and bowling party. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of his hometown, Cortland, N.Y, which also has a Dio Way street named after him. There's even a statue in Bulgaria and a festival named after him in Mexico.

And now Dio is back on stage.

A hologram of the singer is on the road in North America, billed as Dio Returns — joining the ranks of other touring likenesses including Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. Featuring live music from the Dio Disciples band of former group members, the hologram premiered at the 2016 Wacken Open Air festival in Germany and played a few other European dates. It's since been tweaked by California's Eyeillusion — "I wasn't happy with his eyes," Wendy Dio says — and performs a selection of favorites from throughout Dio's catalog, using vocal samples from a composite of career concert performances.

There are live vocals on other songs by Tim "Ripper" Owens and Oni Logan, but there's no question who, or what, is the star of the show.

"It was a little weird when we started, but you get used to it pretty quickly," says Dio Disciples drummer Simon Wright, who served two stints in the Dio band, including the final incarnation. "It's not Ronnie, right? We're not, like, trying to bring him to life here — but it was really great to kind of see Ronnie again. It didn't take long for me to come to terms with the fact that it's an incredibly brilliant piece of technology.

"And, y'know, it's entertainment. Ronnie was all about entertainment, and anything that was new and technical. It's a great way of carrying on and celebrating Ronnie and his great songs."

Wendy Dio adds that holograms were on her husband's radar as far back as 1986, when he tried to include the projections in a stage set that also included a large-scale dragon.

"A lot of people ask me if this is something Ronnie would approve, and yes it is," she says. "Ronnie was always an innovator in music, so why not technology? He was always interested in new developments."

The hologram even gets a thumbs up from original Dio band guitarist Vivian Campbell — now with Def Leppard and the Dio-inspired Last in Line — despite what he describes as an icy relationship with the estate. "I'm not knocking that. It's all entertainment," Campbell says. "I understand there's many, many people who never got to see Ronnie perform while he was alive, so (the hologram is), I guess, as close as they're gonna get. What they're doing is keeping the legacy of Dio and the Dio band alive, and that's a benefit to everybody."

Playing with a hologram does present challenges for the other musicians onstage — primarily playing tight to a click track that keeps everyone in sync with the projected image. But Wright says the discipline isn't entirely different from the experience of working with Dio when he was alive.

"Ronnie had a really strong work ethic — you’re in a band, you've got to play your best," the drummer says. "He pushed you overtime. There was no room for messing up; You had to concentrate on the songs and get them right. So in that respect it's like it was back when he was alive. So we're hard at work, just like we were back when he was alive."

Dio Returns is just one of the endeavors Wendy Dio has planned as the 10th anniversary of her husband's death nears in 2020. A documentary film is in motion, and she's also working on completing a book that Dio was working on and will be completed by British music journalist Mick Wall. "It's not a straightforward memoir," Wendy Dio says. "Ronnie being a lyricist, he writes flowingly and the book is full of interesting stories." A new label deal will also lead to some fresh titles, including live recordings and possibly some unreleased studio material.

"There's a lot coming," Dio says. "We wanted to get this (hologram) out there first and see what people thought about it, and we'll do more with it in the future. Ronnie was all for his fans — not for the media or the record companies or anything else. He always appreciated the fans, so I want to keep that relationship alive."

Dio Returns, featuring Dio Disciples, takes place Wednesday, July 12, at 20 Monroe Live, 11 Ottawa Ave. NW, Grand Rapids. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $29.50-$59.50 at 844-678-5483 or 20MonoreLive.com. Tickets for the canceled July 11 show at the Fillmore Detroit will be honored; refunds at point of purchase.

Web Site: www.20MonroeLive.com

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