The legend of Bit Brigade comes to Houston

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Live soundtrack concerts are nothing new. The Houston Symphony recently performed the score to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” alongside the film. Video-game concerts aren’t rare either. From chip-tune bands re-creating classic soundtracks in hobby shops to symphonies playing orchestral arrangements of “Final Fantasy,” video-game music has become firmly mainstream.

What Bit Brigade does is different, though. The rock band from Athens, Ga., plays the soundtrack to a classic video game while somebody plays that game. On stage. With a giant monitor showing the game action behind the band. So when the band plays “The Legend of Zelda” Saturday at Insomnia Gallery, the concert will be reactive. Bit Brigade will speed up or slow down the music to match the pace and action of Noah McCarthy, who will be playing “Zelda” as the band performs the music. The group’s goal is to have the music match the on-screen action just as the game developers intended.

“As far as I know, we’re the only people who do it,” says bassist Luke Fields. “I’ve seen some other people attempt it and, uh, not have it go well.”

Fields calls it a “Preponderance of peril.”

“The audience realizes that if Noah messes up, the show is over,” he says.

Part of what makes a band like Bit Brigade possible has to do with the way video-game scores were created in the 1980s. Though the sound options seem primitive now, they did birth a very distinct style of music heavy on catchy hooks that could shift at a moment’s notice, based on player input as well as repeat without being annoying. The four waves of sound translate perfectly to a four-piece rock band in a way later video-game soundtracks might not.

“Noah always says, ‘This is exactly as I heard it in my head as a kid,’” Fields says.

The “Zelda” music library is one of the most renowned in the video-game industry. Written by Koji Kondo, who was also responsible for the music of “Super Mario Bros.,” the score has spanned generations and even birthed its own symphony series, “Symphony of the Goddesses.” For gamers, it remains unforgettable.

It’s no wonder that Bit Brigade chose it as part of their repertoire. The band does approach other classic titles for similar live playthrough concerts — “Duck Tales,” “Batman,” “Castlevania” and “Mega Man 2” are some of the other games they build concerts around.

Another aspect of the classic Nintendo games makes these concerts possible: Many of the games can be completed within the targeted 45 minutes, without sacrificing any core gameplay. McCarthy is strict about his play, avoiding using glitches, codes and other tricks so that the audience gets the full experience. This results in being part of a gaming experience as a whole artistic form rather than something you just play or watch or listen to.

And, of course, there’s the danger of digital death. The term “Nintendo hard” was invented for a reason. Many of these titles are notoriously unforgiving when it comes to player mistakes, and the dreaded “game over” screen always looms.

Which means McCarthy has to practice as much as the band does, sharpening his sword and boomerang skills like his bandmates sharpen scales. It’s one of the reasons Bit Brigade has become notable in gaming circles. It also means the crowds react to McCarthy’s gameplay as much as the band’s music.

“People don’t believe it’s live, but it is,” says Fields. “Every single time.”

Jef Rouner is a writer in Houston.