Unlike other successful bands of the late 70s/early 80s that broke up but reunited in the 90s to cruise the touring circuit on the strength of past glory, Blondie's return is not an act of nostalgia. >From the high-energy, attitude-driven performances they've been giving on their current tour, it's evident none of the band members have particularly mellowed with age--which is definitely a good thing.
When Blondie's original musicians, singer Deborah Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and drummer Clem Burke decided to regroup, there was no talk of reuniting merely to rehash their greatest hits. Instead, they went into the studio and produced No Exit, a diverse, 14-track album that ambitiously combines pop songs with ballads and punk-edged numbers, and, as the title track, a gothic-rap song.
Despite not having toured in a decade and a half, the band knew exactly what they wanted--and more importantly, did not want--to see onstage. LD Nick Sholem's first meeting with Blondie was in November in London when they did rehearsals before the first show. "Chris and Debbie sat me down, Debbie in particular, and they basically said, 'Thou shalt not use loads of color, or flash or wiggle any intelligent lighting.' That was great because it gave me the basis for what we've created. The show is very asymmetrical, with a lot of 201, which is CT blue, and 204 which is CTO, white, and a dab of amber. A couple of numbers fall into major colors with Congo Blue, but that's very different, so it's very nice because you suddenly get a whole different look midway through the show. And we've continued on with that."
The band started off with 12 European performances last November, the first of which were in Stockholm. "That was Blondie's first live show in 16 years," Sholem says. "We didn't take our own rig, so we used basically a PAR can rig in each club and theatre that we played in Europe. I specified some floor lights because the band does like them. So, I used 1k floods, one per band member, and also a couple of short-nosed PARs, one for Debbie and one for Chris Stein. Chris doesn't particularly like to have spotlights on him when he's doing his solos. He identified only three places in the show where he doesn't mind the spots, so for all the other solos I wrote down either the flood or the PAR, as each lamp gives a different look."
After the dozen shows on the Continent, the band returned to the UK. "We did good business everywhere, but we were doing 2,500- to 3,000-seat theatres in the UK and they sold out solid," Sholem says. "So we went for a specific design, and I went to Tony Panico at Bandit Lites' London office. I wanted a wash light, so I chose the Martin MAC 600s, a couple of Cyberlights, a lot of ColorFaders and put them into the same asymmetrical, theatrical design we'd been using. It's still a very small rig that fits into a couple of trucks--no big dramas at all. We programmed at Bandit's warehouse on
the Wholehog II and then took it out on the road for about 12 shows, which took us up to about Christmas time. At the end of December, we had some dates in Australia, including New Year's Eve at a 15,000-seat outdoor festival about an hour west of Melbourne."
The band then started the new year with a long series of promotional appearances, including a show at New York City's Town Hall on February 23, the day No Exit was released. The concert aired a few days later on VH1. "The shows have been an absolute delight and they are such a nice bunch. Debbie is just a darling and she looks great--just stunning. For that New York show she looked amazing and I was really pleased with how the video looked. Really clean."
Blondie's first leg of US dates began in May. Lighting crew chief Peter Jennings, who was recommended to Sholem by Bandit Lites' Phay MacMahon, had been brought on board with the understanding that he would later take over as lighting director. "We always knew that sooner or later I would have to leave Blondie because Sting would be going out in autumn 1999," Sholem says. "So Peter programmed and sat with me every night during the show. He's just a delight. Because we designed the UK tour, that was always going to be the basis for when they got around to doing a real tour. I thought I was going to continue with Blondie until Sting's tour started up, but that changed as Metallica hired me to do its summer tour. With Blondie, Metallica, and now Sting, I've covered the whole range there. It's been a very busy and exciting year. So Pete already had the show on disk for the Wholehog, and he's the main man now."
With the original cues from Sholem, Jennings has worked to stay true to the LD's design concept while adding necessary changes as the tour has progressed. "The whole idea Nick was given by the band was that they didn't want a moving lights show--they wanted to keep it pretty much in an early-70s minimal style. It was great working with Nick--he's really easy to work with. We got on real well and thought the same way. You can tell when you're programming with somebody if you're working on the same wavelength or not. He set me up really well. He'd done a lot of preparation and a lot of homework before we even sat down to program, because he'd done club gigs with the band before that without an actual production system, just using the clubs' house systems for the first leg in Europe. That helped a lot because we knew what we were up against, and he had a video of one of the club gigs and we looked at it and did what he wanted done."
One of the changes Jennings has made is adding a bit more color. "Most of the rig was color correction--I've changed that a little bit, and added some color in," Jennings says. "Chris even came up to me and said he liked that I was using more color now. I'd been told from the start, 'They don't like color--don't use too much!' But I started sneaking more in here and there, mostly on new songs, so it was spread out throughout the set. But then they changed the whole set list around and they put all the new songs in a row, so there were a whole bunch of songs with color all together. But they don't mind it at all and it breaks the show up a bit as well. When you do use a lot of white and then you add the color, the contrast hits you a bit more."
Since the band has started playing arenas, Jennings has added a middle truss to the lighting rig. "On the first leg we did in England with Nick there, we had just two trusses," he explains. "The back truss is the same as we have now, except there is an extra 12k of blue on it, and the front truss has two 4-lights, four MACs, and two Cyberlights. When we started the American leg, I added the mid truss to fill out the gap because it was a bit dark in the middle. Then we jumped to arenas in England, 12,000-15,000 seats and they all sold out. So instead of a single row of lamps on the mid truss, I added a double row of lamps on it. And that made a place for the projectors to hang as well. We were going to add some Martin MAC 500s, but we just stuck with the two Cyberlights and it has worked out fine. No custom gobos, nothing. It's a low-tech show, really, but it was always meant to be. The idea from the start has been to keep it as small and simple as possible and it has to fit in two trucks. It's a really good design and it works very well. I like it and the band is really happy. So the credit has to go to him as the designer. You don't fix something that isn't broken."
Jennings' only disappointment is the band's opposition to using fog machines. "Debbie can't stand smoke, so they don't use any, although I wish they would," he says. "I would just use a hazer and it would look so much better. In club gigs, where there are people smoking in the venue, it looks great--it makes so much of a difference.
"Still, the tour's going really well and I have to thank Nick a lot for putting me on it," Jennings continues. "My crew has been great and so has Bandit Lites. We can use them in the US and in England, which makes everything that much easier."
When the tour returned to the US in August, Jennings added two truss spots to cover Harry's movements onstage. "When we originally programmed the show, and for all the shows in the beginning, Debbie used to stand center stage for most of the show--during her vocals, anyway. She didn't really move around that much, so most of the looks were built around that. But as she's gotten more comfortable onstage she's moving around a lot more. So I really needed to add the spots just so you can see her."
Jennings has also had to adapt the lighting to accommodate the new design elements that were added for the US leg. "There is now a backdrop where there just used to be a white cyc, and the band changed their positions onstage all around, so that necessitated me changing lamps around as well," he explains. "Then the video was added, so I had to make sure the lighting never washes that out. But I've tried to keep it as close to Nick's original design as possible."
The video is front-projected from two brand-new high vid projectors provided by Los Angeles-based NEC. Rob Roth, a New York-based artist, did the artwork for the No Exit CD as well as the tour's backdrop and the video content, which was added on the last show on the tour's first US leg this spring. "Rob is quite good," Jennings says. "I was a bit worried when the band said they wanted to have video on the last date of the first North American leg and it was in New York. They really wanted to have it for that show, but it caused all kinds of complications because we'd never done it before. I was quite worried that it would take ages to figure it all out, but it was actually quite easy and the video loops are really suitable to all the songs, so it was an easy adaptation."
"I had one week to do it, which is just insane, but my goal was to have it for the New York show," Roth explains. "I really wanted to debut in New York, because I'm a New York artist, and this is where the band started out. We put it down on digital video disks instead of videotapes, so it's a lot faster to cue them up. Then I sat with Pete in a hotel room in New York and we just went through each cue in each song during the run of the show. We brought it there the day of the show and the band had never seen it. I sent Debbie and Chris a tape beforehand of the way we were going, and they loved everything, but they didn't really see all of it until that night. It all went together without a hitch, which was really shocking to me, but I think that was because my vision was so strong, because I know the music so well. Plus, Pete's really great. He worked really hard to get it integrated quickly, so it looks really good."
Roth had seen the show several times before completing the video in order to choose where to integrate it. "I really like all his loops," Jennings says. "While I have my favorites, there is nothing I don't like. They blend in really easily with the songs. The watery one that has all the shadows is used for 'Forgive and Forget,' and that was watery colors with shadows anyway. 'Atomic' with the red flames on screen, also had its red, fiery moments in the lighting. But even the elements for 'Maria,' with the legs and the high heels fit in really well."
Roth's original concept was based on images captured on a surveillance camera. "It all spawned from that original idea, and a lot of it was actually shot on a surveillance camera," he says. "I'm really into that and I like the weird pixelization that occurs when you blow it up that big. So I shot with this tiny Vivitar camera, which was the same one I used to shoot some of the inserts for the album cover design, like the leg shots."
To shoot all the rest of the footage, Roth used a Sony Hi-8 camera and a Sony digital video camera. "Then I worked with Edgeworx in New York City. They are really great. They did so much for me--let me use their facility to edit. I used Photoshop to design and Aftereffects to animate the images. I also used the Avid to cut some of them together."
So the images are a mixture of grainy black-and-white and sepia looks and straightforward pictures. "The flames for 'Atomic,' for instance, are much higher resolution--I couldn't shoot everything on a surveillance camera. For all the water in 'Forgive and Forget,' I shot shadows and used displacement maps. I used whatever filters I thought were appropriate--some people go filter crazy and I tried to go with more of a natural look. But most of it came from that original idea. The band wanted to do video projection and they said that I could do whatever I wanted. They really wanted to highlight the new songs, so I met with Debbie and Chris and we talked about which songs to do. Then they gave me free rein for the rest, so I picked some of my favorite Blondie songs and just sketched out what I thought they should look like."
For the new songs, Roth concentrated on providing something that looked current. "For 'Forgive and Forget' I tried to make it really natural and beautiful with the water and the shadows and give it a sort of mysterious, David Hockney-style painting feeling. For 'Screaming Skin,' I tried to make it very cyber and science fiction-looking. When they decided to add 'No Exit,' the vampire rap song, I did enormous fang teeth and blood dripping down for that. I wanted each of the new songs to have a life of its own."
For the band's older hits, including "Rapture" and "One Way or Another," Roth created imagery to reference the past. "The 'Rapture' video has graffiti, but it's a little hip because it's moving in a continuous stream. I really wanted to keep it in that vein, so it would be really obvious as to where it was coming from. 'Atomic' was definitely very obvious with the flames, but I couldn't help it. Most of it was obvious with the graffiti and all the Warhol references, but I tried to give them all a current twist."
Near the end of the second US leg, Roth began projecting the images straight onto the backdrop. "We're now actually projecting it over the eye area on the backdrop without even putting the screen in front of it," he says. "The NEC projectors are so bright--it's amazing to me that you can have lights up on the backdrop and still see the image. You can do so much more."
For the month of October, Blondie is taking a break from live shows, but band and crew will be back in UK arenas next month.
Lighting designer Nick Sholem
Lighting director Peter Jennings
Video and set design Rob Roth
Lighting crew chief Mike Kennedy
Lighting technician Dave Butzler
Tour manager Matthew Murphy
Production manager Paul D. Spriggs
Production assistant Trisha Becker
FOH sound engineer Vinnie Kowalski
Monitor engineer James Ragus
Set fabrication George & Goldberg
Video supplier NEC
Main lighting contractor Bandit Lites
Lighting equipment (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console (22) Martin Professional MAC 600 automated luminaires (3) High End Systems Cyberlights (22) Morpheus ColorFaders (18) Morpheus PAR-64 ColorFaders (15) bars of six PAR-64s (2) ACL bars of six PAR-64s (9) short-nose PAR-64s (10) Lowel-Light Omni floodlights (6) Altman 4-cell ground cyc fixtures (4) Mole-Richardson 4-lights (1) Mole-Richardson 8-light Molefay