Capturing Rock & Roll and framing it in a museum is tough — even if that museum is as high-tech as the new Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle. The Red Hot Chili Peppers proved as much during the June 23-25 opening-weekend bash — which also featured performances by Kid Rock, Metallica, Eurythmics, No Doubt, Beck, and James Brown — when the band took to EMP’s karaoke-style On Stage room, played ”Wild Thing” for a virtual audience, and then screwed up the bass guitar and digital mixing board. Now, that was a rock experience.
Begun as a way to display his Jimi Hendrix obsession, EMP has become Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s $240 million mash note to rock, and it towers above any other monument to modern music. ”It kind of makes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame look like a Hard Rock Cafe,” says matchbox twenty’s Rob Thomas. And whether or not you’d call architectural maestro Frank O. Gehry’s building beautiful, its shape conjures as many interpretations as the lyrics to ”Purple Haze.” Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett said it looks like ”a melted 8-track tape,” but Steven Spielberg called Gehry ”a genius” — and we believe him.
The inside of the building is unarguably cool: a combination hands-on grown-up-kids’ museum and 1,300-piece artifact collection. In the Sound Lab, computerized pods teach wannabe rockers the chords to ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” or how to play ”Oh, Pretty Woman” on a synth. Using a PalmPilot-meets-tricorder gizmo called a Museum Exhibit Guide (MEG), visitors can click on exhibits and hear music samples and narration about, say, the FBI investigation into the lyrics of ”Louie Louie.” One of the few missed beats in EMP’s debut is the motion-platform ride’s Funk Blast movie — it has all the soul of Kenny G — but by and large, the festivities made for a hell of an opening act.