LD Jeff Ravitz On Lighting Bruce Springsteen For 20 Years
Bruce Springsteen is not afraid of the dark — not in some figurative sense of not being afraid to leave the spotlight, but he's literally pretty comfortable in the dark.
It could be assumed that this is a nightmare for a lighting designer since it is in the job title to, you know, do lighting, but Jeff Ravitz, Springsteen's LD since the 1984 Born In The USA tour, seems almost to encourage him.
On this year's tour to support Magic, Springsteen sings nearly half of the title track with his face in complete darkness, silhouetted in an ominous red glow, an effect that not only evokes the shady character he is singing about, but forces the audience to focus on the words, not the singer.
Ravitz says, “He said to me once, ‘You can only be truly honest sometimes when you are faceless,’ and I keep that in mind when he wants to speak from an invisible perspective.”
Perspective is the key to the long relationship Ravitz has had with the artist, both in terms of physical lighting angles and also how the performer and the audience connect. Back in 1984, Ravitz used floor lighting and dramatic side angles to create unexpected perspectives, and each tour since then Springsteen has come back to that. “Over the last few tours,” says Ravitz, “starting with Devils and Dust, I've tried to sculpt out the musicians, make the look less concert-ish, and use more of those interesting angles.”
Although Springsteen occasionally makes specific lighting requests (“Take the floor lights and run with them,” was one), mostly he and the designer talk about creating moods in the abstract. “Before this tour, we talked a lot about McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and other Vilmos [Zsigmond, cinematographer] movies,” says Ravitz. The film palette is dark, setting grainy browns against stark snow, and Ravitz echoed the texture of this look by choosing a foundation of warm, tungsten lights cut through with arc sources of a completely different intensity.
“From many conversations I've had with [Springsteen], I know he favors a natural, almost candlelit look,” says the designer. He achieves this on stage with Morpheus Fader Beams, automated fixtures that have full color changing capabilities and can go from a tight spot to a wide flood but have that warm, tungsten feel. The fixtures are placed around the downstage edge of the truss, almost like a circus ring, and above the stage area, allowing Ravitz to give the band some continuity from the '80s and '90s tours. “They still want to be seen as working musicians rather than doing a ‘show,’” he says. The fixtures also increase the impact of some looks by contrasting with the arc sources. “It is an electric-looking counterpoint,” he adds.
Paul Weller of Morpheus Lights, notes, “We took the Fader Beams and stripped them down and rebuilt them, like a classic car, so that they are effectively brand new units.” Another tungsten fixture, the Vari-Lite VL1000 TS, is used to light band members' faces, and the Robert Juliat followspots, which are arc sources, are gelled down to 3,200°K to mimic the tungsten warmth.
For floor lighting and under and around the runway at the back of the stage, Ravitz uses Morpheus PanaBeam XR2+ units. He chose these over the previous generation because the Philips FastFit lamp and increased efficiency of the reflector give a 70% increase in brightness without additional power consumption.
At the designer's request, the walkway was raised 18" higher than originally planned to give another surface on which — and through which — to shine light. Made by Lititz, PA-based Tait Towers, it is cloaked in rabbit wire. “It gives us the perfect amount of translucency, and Bruce loves the idea of creating a wall of light, silhouetting everyone from the waist down,” says Ravitz.
Ravitz also uses ZAP Technology Little BigLite 3.0s, some for audience lighting and some to paint the stage in wide brushstrokes. “They give a big, fat look,” he says, and because he is working without haze or a backdrop, the fixtures also hang down to fill in the dark area between the truss and the performers. Robe LEDBlinder 196 LTs, an LED 8-Light, throw some color on the audience, and standard no-color Altman Nine-Cell Punch Lights floodlight the crowd for that extra huge look. He also uses the Fader Beams and Martin Professional MAC 2000 Profiles for audience texture at certain moments.
Because of Springsteen's connection with the audience, Ravitz works in partnership with the performer to help steer the emotional intensity of the show, keeping a lid on the proceedings, so the audience can appreciate old songs in a new way and pay attention during a new song — hence the backlit Boss singing in the dark. As Ravitz says, “Sometimes you get more out of the lyrics when you close your eyes.”
Some songs, like “Born To Run,” are traditionally performed with the house lights up and the audience letting loose, and Springsteen has been known to let the lighting crew know when he's thinking about doing a song that needs extra audience lighting. On one or two occasions in the last 20 years, the audience has been unresponsive enough that he has sent word to kill the audience lighting altogether.
Collaborating with the artist to create an atmosphere for each song can be challenging. “I can't design anything that imparts an overall show theme because each song is such a separate playlet,” says Ravitz. In any case, the performer has been resistant to anything literal. Ravitz says, at one point, Springsteen decided against a backdrop or scenic elements for the show because he wanted the audience to see only the picture he was painting with his music and lyrics.
“What he wouldn't want us to do is project a video that displays literal imagery. That would be too easy for the audience,” says Ravitz. In fact, in the early days of IMAG, Springsteen was very wary of the technology, taking pity on concertgoers at the back of a stadium by hanging video screens halfway down the hall but expecting the front of the crowd to focus on the live show.
That's not to say that video is not important to this tour. Ravitz chose Robert Juliat followspots, three Manons for behind the stage and six Topazes for the front, all of which are factory-supplied with magnetic ballast. To ensure the best possible video rendering in the US and Europe, Morpheus engineers worked with Fred Lindauer at Robert Juliat to adapt them to an electronic ballast to avoid any pulsing of the light. Morpheus' Weller notes, “In a world of modern video cameras, one can't afford to be regulated to line frequency, so electronic ballasts become essential.” He adds that all Morpheus rigs now use electronic ballasts. Another benefit of this adaptation: replacing 75 pounds of iron with about 15 on the lamp head.
The design for this tour is flexible enough to allow Ravitz to subtly evoke a feeling or even an era. During one song introduction, Springsteen talks to the audience about things he loves about America, including hotdogs, the Jersey Shore, and the Bill of Rights. On a darkened stage, Ravitz uses the PanaBeams to uplight the rails around the walkway in a bright electric blue with just a few brush strokes, bringing to mind the neon of a diner straight out of American Graffiti.
Flexibility is key to managing what Ravitz calls “the agony and the charm,” the huge amount of potential material that could be performed each night. Springsteen's potential set list for each show is contained in a file folder 5“ thick. Todd Ricci, tour lighting director, says there are more than 300 songs on the list, about 85 of which are in frequent enough rotation to have moment-by-moment cues. For the rest of them, he says, “We have blocks of cues we can turn to, so mostly we punt.” He and grandMA operator John Hoffman are used to changes in the set list with little notice. Fortunately, Ricci says, “Some of the older stuff lends itself to playing cues manually.”
Ricci is using an Avolites Diamond II, one of four or five consoles owned by Springsteen's organization over the years. Ravitz uses it on this tour because, he says, “There are so many times in the course of a Springsteen show where you want to be able to just grab a fader as opposed to typing in a number.” According to Ricci, on any given night, the set list is about 80% accurate, so manual control has saved the day more than once, as has a mini teleprompter on the lighting desk. A new addition on this tour, the teleprompter helps the board operators set up cues when the set list suddenly goes into uncharted territory.
The Avolites board is also good for accents, according to Ravitz. “We could spend all afternoon trying to time out something on the automated console, but Todd can play it as it happens on the Avo,” he says. Ravitz is using the Avo in conjunction with an MA Lighting grandMA, which controls all color, gobos, and positions. “Some songs I'll put on the grandMA and run theatre-style,” says Ravitz, citing “Born To Run” as one song run completely on the grandMA because it doesn't change too much with each performance. To avoid confusion, both consoles use the same cue numbers and act as backup, making sure The Boss isn't dancing in the dark all the time.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN GEAR
1 Avolites Diamond II Console
1 MA Lighting grandMA Console
49 Morpheus PanaBeam™ XR2+
10 Morpheus BriteBurst™ 2000E
72 Morpheus Fader Beam
1 Morpheus Omni Fader
13 Vari-Lite VL1000 TS
22 Vari-Lite VL2500 Spot
16 Martin MAC 2000 Profile
10 Zap Technology Little BigLite 3.0
5 ETC Source Four PAR MFL
13 ETC Source Four PAR WFL
5 ETC Source Four PAR 19°
4 Altman Nine-Cell Punch Light
2 James Thomas Engineering 8-Light
2 ARRI Junior 300 Plus Fresnel
15 Morpheus M Fader Color Scroller
9 Robe LEDBlinder 196 LT
19 Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12
6 Robert Juliat Topaze Followspot
3 Robert Juliat Manon Followspot