Fenton Williams and Heath Marrinan Work Without Gimmicks

In a market filled with over-the-top concert tours, the Dave Matthews Band stands out as something unique: It doesn't need an outrageous production to entertain. “This is a band without gimmicks,” says Heath Marrinan, the band's lighting director, co-LD (with Fenton Williams), and programmer. “Since we play in-the-round, it takes away the luxury of a set or scenic elements to add dimension to the show. Precise execution of cues is much more important when there's nothing to distract the eye.”

What scenery there is consists primarily of a drum riser — illuminated columns were added for the shed dates only — focusing the attention on the band and the lighting. Marrinan says, “Our job is to pick the right color scheme and then put the moving lights to work, carefully picking the song apart and writing cues that bring out the music. It all works together: The music, the sound, the video, and the lights. What we're really doing is painting in midair, accompanied with precise timing, creative focuses, clean programming, and nice color schemes,” he notes. The result is a show that's all about lighting.

Williams, who has been with the band since it started, and Marrinan, who came onboard in the mid-90s, began serious work on the current tour (which is untitled) this past February, via phone and fax, working out the details of the rig. Williams says, “I came up with a structural concept that was more layered and had lighting from the ground to the top of the rig.” Typically, Williams, who is also the show's video director, and Marrinan bounce ideas off each other, and gradually the rig takes form. “Basically, I'm concerned with the overall look of the show, while Heath will think about the conventional color scheme, and focus, and where we can make position changes with the intelligent lighting,” Williams explains. Each continually edits the other's work, with Marrinan focusing on the details. “I'll look at the rig, and I'll place PAR cans and moving fixtures. If I think there's too much coverage in an area, I'll move the units around or Fenton and I will consider using a different type of fixture,” Marrinan explains.

The LDs started programming without the band in Nashville at the Gaylord Arena a month later. “We went into rehearsals on March 7, so we had five weeks, three of which were dedicated to programming, to get it together and make the changes that had to be made,” says Marrinan. At that point, they were programming without any real guidelines from the band. “We didn't have a set list before the tour started,” Williams says, “so we went in and tried to program as much as possible.” For some bands that might mean 20 songs; for the Dave Matthews Band it means approximately 80 songs, with the night's set list appearing at FOH minutes before the opening of the show. “It's definitely more fun than doing the same 17 songs for 66 shows,” Williams adds.

Williams was on hand for the first two weeks of programming, with Marrinan doing the last week himself. “The challenging part for me is trying to reprogram the songs every year and make them different from the year before,” Marrinan admits. “It's always a different lighting system, but sometimes you find something that just completely works — the perfect thing for the music — but it works so well that it stands out, and the audience will remember it, because so many of the fans come to so many of the shows. So you try to change it a bit — you hold back from what you want to do and you get creative and think of a new way to accent that part of the music.”

Marrinan and Williams input a total of 65 songs in the console: “There's more programming in that board than we've ever had,” says Williams. If the band comes up with a song that the LDs haven't planned for, they have a strategy: “We have something for every type of song,” Marrinan explains, “so if they throw a song at us that's really out there, we can get through it.” To get through this marathon of music (which includes some 19-minute numbers), Marrinan turns to the Wholehog® II, from Flying Pig Systems. “The Hog is an incredible moving-light console,” Marrinan notes. “In fact, I'm hoping to beta-test the Hog III,” he says.

For this year's summer tour (which the band has been doing every year since '95) Williams and Marrinan have a rig that includes four straight trusses, a downstage truss, two audience trusses, two side trusses, and vertical pipes that hang off an upstage truss. “I wanted black pipe, because we sell 360°, and I wanted the lights to look like they were floating there,” says Williams. “In fact, I wanted to make it so that you didn't see what the lights were attached to.” The six vertical pipes, which were built by Theatrical Media Services (TMS) of Omaha, the supplier of the tour, are a unique addition to the rig. “We went through probably 10 different scenarios on how to make the verticals work,” says Williams. The guys at TMS came up with a solution that was brilliant and simple: “The pipes fit together with pins,” says Williams. “You can bring the truss in and out, if you have to, since there isn't one long pipe.” The pipes, which are pinned together in 40" (1m) sections, hang down to 8' (2.4m) above the stage. The look is reminiscent of a star drop created out of moving lights.

The tour features a variety of High End Systems equipment, most notably the x.Spot, as well as Studio Spot® 250s. “I like High End a lot — they keep moving along and coming up with new gear that works really well for us,” says Williams. The band had a month off in June, and that's when the x.Spots were replaced with a brand-new x.Spot with a new zoom. “The new zoom will make the x.Spot twice as bright as it is now,” says Marrinan, “and I really like the added intensity.”

Another integral part of the rig is the venerable PAR can, which adds a level of warmth to the show, a texture that can't be found in most moving lights. “For this band, PAR cans really add some punch when you need it,” says Williams. “When it comes to a rock-and-roll drum beat, I don't think you can beat a PAR can.”

Williams and Marrinan are more than just employees hired to do a specific job: They're a longtime part of the family. “We don't just work for this band, we're also fans, and I really enjoy the music,” Williams says. Marrinan concurs: “This has always been my passion. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to work with Fenton and this band and also to have Theatrical Media Services as our lighting vendor.”

Fans can catch the Dave Matthews Band this summer through the beginning of September. You might want to see more than one show, since no two are alike.

Contact the author at sstancavage@primediabusiness.com.


Lighting Designer/Video Director
Fenton Williams

Co-Designer/Lighting Director/Programmer
Heath Marrinan

Production Manager
Hank McHugh

Lighting Crew Chief
Pete Franks

Lighting Technicans
Bob Chaise, Mike Rinehart, Ray Werthmann

Lighting Supplier
Theatrical Media Services

Lighting Equipment

176 James Thomas PAR-64s
14 James Thomas stubby PAR-64s
18 James Thomas 9-lights
22 High End Systems x.Spots
14 High End Cyberlights
22 High End Studio Beams
8 High End Studio Spot 575s (CMY)
24 High End Studio Spot 250s
24 High End Dataflash AF1000s
2 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles with expansion wings and overdrive
16 Wybron Colorams for PAR-64s
18 Wybron Colorams for 9-lights
20 Wybron CXI Color Fusion color-mixing scrollers
14 ETC Source Fours 19°
32 Columbus McKinnon 1-ton motors
2 ETC Sensor 96-way dimmer racks
1 Leprecon CAE VX2400 12×2.4kW pack
James Thomas Engineering truss