Down in a corner of the stage a campfire burns. A small kettle dangles above, steaming with beans, while all around lays the bric-a-brac of the trail. In the glow of the fire is an old rocking chair plus a box, a blanket, and a large barrel for water. Is this the scene for a John Wayne revival, or is Jim Reeves gonna howl at the moon? No, quite the reverse: These are just a few aspects of the setting for Britain's campiest pop stars, Erasure.
" 'A post-nuclear cowboy setting' was the concept they first presented to me," says lighting designer Simon Sidi, speaking from the Sheffield Arena in England, where the band kicked off its world tour in April. "It's one of those things you learn about working with bands. When they throw things at you like, 'We want it to look like an exploding kettle,' you've got to have something ready."
In the case of Erasure's Cowboy tour, drawn from its new album of that name, the LD frequently went west for inspiration. Following the theme, the stage is completed by design elements that include a chuck wagon, a frontier town hotel, cacti, and an old wind pump. Smack-dab in the middle of this is the tallest electronic effects rack ever seen onstage; incongruous, perhaps, but surrounded by a homestead-style white picket fence.
So what exactly is a "post-nuclear cowboy"--and how did a designer like Sidi, renowned for his minimalist presentations of Tori Amos, Pere Ubu, and the art school fringe act Wire, come to be lighting this extrovert pop combo? "I was just winding up a year-long tour with Tori when I received a call from Maggie Mouzakitis, the tour manager of Erasure and Oasis," Sidi recalls. "Maggie and I had worked together in the past on Nitzer Ebb, back in the old Mute Record days. She wanted me to have a meeting with the band several days later, which neatly clashed with a one-off show I was doing with Tori in New York. 'I can't possibly,' I said, and in one of those devastating moments that leaves you no option, she replied, 'Okay, how about right now?' "
With no time to say no, Sidi hopped in a cab and assembled his thoughts on the way. Erasure was a band he'd always wanted to light. "I think Vince Clark is extremely talented; he's been in three bands and they've all been successful," Sidi says. "He writes great tunes--even my mum has heard of them." By the time he arrived he already had an idea taking shape for the tour. "I went in cold, and came out 90 minutes later with the job."
But life is never that simple on the range. With the Tori Amos tour coming to an end, Sidi already had lighting and set design work lined up with a regular client of his, The Beautiful South. Both bands were to start touring simultaneously, so Sidi spent several frantic weeks designing furiously, and many sleepless nights running between two separate rehearsals. Fortunately, with The Beautiful South he had Tom Nulty, an operator and longtime collaborator who frequently runs tours for him, to rely upon. A good thing, because as it happened, "the idea I took to that first Erasure meeting went straight out the window."
Over several meetings with Erasure, Sidi redeveloped and refined its wacky western vision. Old western movies and cartoon imagery like Wile E. Coyote rounded out their after-Armageddon prairie. Fortunately the LD indulged in a binge of westerns-watching to pass away those endless hours on the bus crossing the Midwest with Tori Amos, so his image banks were fully charged. Though the structure and content of his set design contain obvious references to the films of John Ford, it's the Looney Toons that dominate.
The set is a pastiche of two-dimensional images known and loved by children of all ages, and makes no attempt to be anything more than a series of well-painted flats in front of which Erasure can play. The building and artwork was a three-way collaboration between Sidi, Dave Perry, and Ian Whitacker, two independents in the scenic trade.
"I first went to Dave with my sketches, then he and I spent hours converting them onto computers, using MiniCad V6 and playing around with various treatments," Sidi says. "Ian came in as the builder and contributed advice as to how we might realize the different pieces." The final product is very budget-conscious without looking that way. Rather than custom-building the whole set, standard aluminum risers from the hire stock of Birmingham, UK-based SSE have been used as the basic building blocks and dressed to suit.
The chuck wagon is all facade, but is strong enough to support the four backing vocalists comfortably; the hotel, which doubles as prop and platform (its balcony is sparingly exploited by the backing vocalists) has a quick-change room hidden beneath it. Other elements, including the cacti, barrel, and wind pump, are all free-standing flats. "The band did mention budget to me at the very first meeting," Sidi says, "but I ignored it at the time. However, because of the way Ian and Dave built the set for me it came in just about on the mark, saving at least ten grand over a total set build."
Lighting-wise, the LD is working almost exclusively with Light & Sound Design Icons(R) and WashLights(TM), most of them on three short trusses positioned midstage and masked by a fleecy cloud of facia boards. Sidi has placed an assortment of PARs, Lowell Omni photofloods, and nooklights around the floor, mainly to light the set and take that burden off the automated system, but also to give some acutely angled keylight around the performers. Six Icons and WashLights each plus two MoleMags downstage complete the floor array, while a front truss just off the front stage edge sports three top-mounted Lycians (followspots are a big departure for the LD) and the remaining Icons. A backdrop from Perry, a custom-painted "Big Sky" lit by four-color cyc lights top and bottom, completes the scene.
Considering that this is a band with an outrageously camp front man and an admittedly cartoonish set, the LD's choice of colors is nowhere near as garish as you might expect. There's plenty of clash and contrast, but tonally much of it is quite subdued--mixes of smoky pinks and lavenders or pale greens and magentas.
Brought over via ship and stagecoach, the Cowboy tour remains the same in its scenic and lighting particulars in its US corrals. Clark is reportedly still fussing with the 3m-tall (10') effects rack, there at his insistence. The tower is the source of all music except vocals during the show, and Clark has to climb it to reprogram the bass machine after each song. However, these sound concerns are being addressed (no one said it was easy being a pioneer). Sidi has already tapped one stylistic vein for Erasure and can now exploit the more theatrical potential of his wild, wild west design at leisure.
Contributing editor Steve Moles, a retired roadie based in Yorkshire, UK, can be reached at email@example.com.
LIGHTING DESIGNER Simon Sidi
CREW CHIEF Dave Maxwell
ICON TECHNICIAN Craig MacDonald
LIGHTING TECHNICIAN Paul Solino
RIGGER/LIGHTING TECHNICIAN Pat Fitzsimmons
LIGHTING SUPPLIER Light & Sound Design
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