Bruce Springsteen's reunion with the E Street Band and their subsequent tour was not only welcomed by legions of ardent fans, but it also stood out as one of the few alternatives to the teen pop bands that have flooded the arena touring market of late. In New Jersey, the band performed for an unprecedented 15 sold-out nights last July and August at the Continental Airlines Arena at the Meadowlands. Fans would show up in the morning and spend the day tailgating and walking along the mock boardwalk that had been set up in the parking lot. If the band had opted to perform on a stage in that same lot, it's doubtful that anyone would have complained.
Having worked as Springsteen's LD for the past 15 years, Jeff Ravitz is well aware that a light show is the last thing the fans would expect--or want--to see. It is to his credit, and that of lighting director Gregg Maltby, that the show's lighting is both functional and subtly complementary of the music. At appropriate points, the lighting is even daringly stark and moody for a modern rock show--so when all the house lights come up for "Born to Run," the widespread illumination makes the moment that much more powerful.
Despite the LD's long history with Springsteen, getting the show to this point was not easy this time out. "When we began planning this tour, I met with Bruce very briefly. He was in the process of band rehearsals, and he gave me about 10 minutes at the most," Ravitz says. "He outlined the elements about the lighting in previous shows that he'd liked, and that he wanted to see reproduced in this show as well.
"About two weeks later, we had a phone conversation to elaborate a little bit more on the lighting, and also to take some of the scenic concepts a little further," he continues. "But the net result of that conversation was that Bruce said, 'What you did last time, I liked; let's just do that again.' He was never much more specific than that, so I felt that I had my marching orders."
However, Springsteen's last arena tour in 1992 was without the E Street Band. "That was a very different show to begin with," Ravitz says. "It had been seven years since the previous tour, The Tunnel of Love. Since then, there had been lots of technological and stylistic advances in lighting. We took that show and made it state-of-the-art, within the parameters of the taste and the aesthetic that Bruce Springsteen has always stood for. Still, there was a lot of movement, gobos, and very strong, powerful visual statements in a way that he had not had before--and he loved it. He absolutely ate it up."
But fast forward to the planning of this reunion tour: Springsteen's tastes had changed. "None of us understood how that particular combination of him working with the E Street Band and maturing in his own right was going to change his approach to the show--not even him," Ravitz says. "I don't believe that in those early conversations he had any idea that he was going to have the aesthetic coming-around that he had. So I designed a very large system, one that had most of the technology that I enjoy using today. With Bruce I've never actually been constrained by a dollar budget. We always kind of work backwards. We design a system based on the prevailing concept and price it out and see how that feels."
Ravitz works that out with tour director George Travis. "George has been with Bruce for many years, so he always has a feel for what's right. He knows that this is not a bare-bones tour by any stretch of the imagination, that it has to be big and powerful with a lot of the contemporary elements that are out there today," Ravitz says. "But he also doesn't want the show to look ostentatious in its demand to have every gadget and gizmo that's available--he's really sensitive to that.
"So we backed into our ultimate comfortable budget, which we've done so many years with Morpheus Lights that it's never really been a problem anyway," Ravitz continues. "We've always managed to strike a happy medium, and George was completely supportive of everything that I did. He saw the drawings and knew how large this was going to be. After all, we have a sizable band and they are spread out all over the stage. Bruce plays in the round--or at least it's 360 degrees--and he does pay a lot of attention to the people behind the stage."
Because Springsteen wants to keep sightlines as open as possible, the production doesn't carry backdrops. "We have a black duvetyn in the event that we play a hall that doesn't have rear seating," Ravitz explains. "But for a Springsteen show, it's not so muchcreating scenery as interesting surfaces to light, so that I can make the stage look rich and dimensional and have something to create highlights and lowlights with. That also creates a little bit of a playground for Bruce and the rest of the band. There is also the challenge of knowing that people are going to be sitting 360 degrees around the stage and trying to make it appealing from all angles, so that one view doesn't seem to be totally off-balance. And it also gives Bruce a way to get back to the audience that's behind the stage."
Band and crew rehearsed at the Asbury Park Convention Center. "Most large-scale concert stages are about as big as this entire hall," Ravitz says. "When we loaded in and set up the lighting, we couldn't take it to its full 25'-high trim. The lights were lower, and because we didn't have a deep arena, the audience lights were all hanging just a few feet in front of the stage. So it looked like there were lights everywhere. That was pretty overwhelming to Bruce. It was bright, and when we did the audience cues it seemed like we were lighting every corner of the building, every cobweb--everything you wouldn't ordinarily want to light. So it didn't appear to him to have that big, deep, powerful look that he likes to create with audience lighting."
After one of the first public rehearsals with an invited audience, Springsteen eliminated all that lighting. "Then, as we got deeper into it, the moving lights began to really be a thorn in his side," Ravitz says. "The patterns that he loved in 1992, he said looked cheesy and cheap to him, as if they were some kind of gag, so we were ordered not to use any patterns whatsoever--and certainly no movement. Any movement was a distraction to him."
In the few days they had left before leaving New Jersey and shipping everything to Europe for the first shows in Spain, the LD worked with his assistant Edgar Stroke, programmer Mike Hall, Maltby, and Wholehog operator Colleen Dulin to turn the show around. "We worked around the clock eradicating a lot of the programming that we had done, and consolidating a lot of cues," Ravitz says. "We chose our best focuses and took all the movement out. When we got to Spain, the first show went absolutely fabulously, and the reports coming back to Bruce were that the lighting was good and appropriate and exciting, and he was giving me and my team a lot of 'attaboys' after that first show. But the second show in Barcelona, he deviated 99% from the set list, so we were really holding on for dear life. After that, he felt that we were going a little too far in that sort of contemporary direction that, he was now beginning to realize, was not the approach that he wanted for the show."
The lighting crew continued to pare down the show throughout the tour's European leg. "I just kept flying back and forth to Europe, and the rest of the crew were calling us 'the deprogrammers,' " Ravitz says. " We would come out and spend four or five all-nighters in a row, simplifying the show--until we finally got it to the point where it was like a peaceful, still lake with no ripples."
In between this tour and the 1992 one, Springsteen had released The Ghost of Tom Joad, and did an acoustic tour of theatres to support it. "I had really done something radical on that tour," Ravitz says. "We had very little lighting, and a number of songs were lit with maybe only one light. It was the kind of lighting that I've always loved to do, and it was a great opportunity to do it. Bruce loved it, too, and I think he was trying to find some way to transfer that visual impact to this show--even though this is a big, full electric band show.
"I had learned an awful lot in the process of doing that, because I have gotten sucked into a lot of the contemporary lighting styles," he continues. "I have been exploring--perhaps by peer pressure, perhaps by the pressure I put on myself--more and more interesting ways to change color, and change and move gobos, and fly lights in and out, that I was starting to lose that sense of what impact lighting can really have. But it was a painful process, because we had programmed so incredibly intensely for that period of time. Most of the shows that I work on, I'm lucky to get three or four days of programming done, and here we were programming day and night, seven days a week for three weeks. Then we basically deleted most of what we had done. But while it was painful both emotionally and physically, it really got me back to remembering how much fun it is to work with shadow and highlight. Bruce somehow has always had those kinds of instincts. So many times he has come up with a suggestion that I thought would never, ever work, and it's always been a complete bullseye."
All of these lighting techniques also had to work without smoke. "Although I've never been a fan of heavy smoke, I always start by trying to use smoke--especially on shows that have no real scenery," Ravitz says. "But Bruce was sensitive to it on two levels. More than simply worrying about his throat, he didn't like that it defined those beams--because, again, it was distracting to him."
Not only do the moving lights stay still, their levels are lower than usual. "The show is less brightly lit than most other shows," Ravitz says. "If it feels correct to light him and not the other band members, he has always given us free rein to do that. We have gone to that technique for a number of moments in the show. While it's not very video-friendly it works for the live show."
While Ravitz is now happy with the show's look, there are a few changes he wishes he could have made to his light plot. "In retrospect, I would have used more of the BriteBursts and less of everything else," says the LD. "As he became sensitive to the quantities of beams and so forth, I realized that this would have been a perfect show to get as close to single-source lighting as possible, and the BriteBursts would have been the ideal fixture for that. Bruce likes the strength of them, and we incorporated them into a few more cues at his instigation."
Springsteen often suggests lighting cues. While they're on the road, Maltby goes over the songs with him. "I usually talk to Bruce every night and he always has great ideas so we'll go over them," Maltby says. "I wish more people who wrote songs knew how they should look."
Maltby has worked with Ravitz since 1989. "I take over other people's shows and run them," he says. "I've worked with Steve Cohen on Heart, with Peter Morse on Mac Davis, the Pointer Sisters, and Lionel Richie, and with John Osborne on Anita Baker. For Jeff, I've done Ringo Starr, Steely Dan, Boston, and John Mellencamp--but I had to interview with Bruce to do his acoustic tour. He hired me because I had never been to one of his concerts and didn't know the music. It was originally scheduled for three and a half weeks, but it lasted for two and half years."
By now, Maltby does know most of the songs. "We have cue sheets for 300 songs in two huge folders. If he does one that's not in there at sound check, I can wing it," Maltby says. "Right now we have 47 songs programmed for this tour, but he's always adding new ones. We do get a set list at the beginning of the show and he actually has been sticking to it pretty much. We don't know how long this tour will last, but we do know that it will never be boring."
Maltby calls the followspots and runs the Avolites Diamond console while Wholehog operator Colleen Dulin controls the lights' colors and positions from the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console.
"It's a mystery to so many people how you can do a show that is a good 30% different every night of the week," Ravitz says. "But we've got our game plan down, and we're prepared with the music notes so we can always get an appropriate look happening. The board operators are really in sync with the style and approach of the show.
"Gregg is an incredibly intuitive board operator and a good, quick study, so with the monumental amount of material that we have on a show like this, he is really the ideal person to process it all," Ravitz continues. "Colleen, who is running the Wholehog, is doing a great job. She is exactly what I look for in an operator: She's got a musical background, a lighting background, and she's quick and dexterous on the board. Because of the Wholehog being what it is, you don't have as many manual faders at your disposal. So you have to work a little differently in order to get something specific out of the board when you're improvising off this. It's a fabulous board, but it's not necessarily a jamming board. As much as I like to be well prepared, we find ourselves jamming a lot. My cue book from rehearsals has about 170 songs in it. The band claims to have rehearsed over 200 songs in rehearsals, but I'm sure it's even more than that."
Springsteen and the E Street Band took a break from the tour at the end of November and tentative plans at press time have them returning to the road this month. "There's still an awful lot of the United States that he hasn't covered," Ravitz says. "He's having so much fun with the E Street Band. These guys have pretty much played together for 25 years, so they know every last song he has ever written. So he is having a ball.
"Putting this tour together was definitely an interesting process," Ravitz concludes. "It's one of those things you can look back on and in retrospect be glad you went through it."
Lighting designer Jeff Ravitz
Lighting director Gregg Maltby
Lighting programmer Mike Hall
Wholehog operator Colleen Dulin
Lighting design assistant Edgar Stroke
Lighting crew chief Brad Brown
Lighting technicians Brad Bruehler, David Carr, Troy Garcia
Tour director George Travis
Road managers Sean Fox, Michael Grizel
Production manager/site coordinator Lyle Centola
Production manager Bob Thrasher
Stage manager Vinnie Polifrone
Rigger Tom Moore
Carpenters Lef Carol, Pat O'Neill, Eric Wagner
Main lighting contractor Morpheus Lights
Lighting equipment (4) Morpheus 1,200W BriteBursts (12) Morpheus 600W PC Spots (6) Morpheus 600W PWR Spots (10) Morpheus PWR Softs (87) Morpheus FaderBeams (10) 9-lights (12) profile spots (4) Stubby PAR-64s with Morpheus ColorFaders (9) Lycian 1,200W truss spots (20) 10' sections of Morpheus FlipBox truss (4) 10' sections of Morpheus MiniFlip truss (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console (1) Avolites Diamond II console