Package tours are now commonplace in these days of shrinking touring budgets. Bands who hit their prime years ago can still fill a summer amphitheatre--if they're paired with other bands from the same era. Hence, the Big Rewind tour featured the reunited Culture Club teaming up with Human League and Howard Jones, while Deep Purple toured with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and KC and the Sunshine Band shared the bill with Sister Sledge.
Happily, the B-52s and the Pretenders also teamed up to mount a very successful tour for 10 weeks this summer. But, budgets being what they are (or, rather, are not), having two big-name bands share one stage creates a bit of a quandary for the production staff.
While it was a co-headlining tour, the B-52s produced it, so their LD, Norm Schwab of Lightswitch, was put in charge of coordinating the lighting system for both acts. "But it was clearly stated, and just as clearly felt, that from the get-go we needed to make it as equal a partnership as possible," Schwab explains. "Of course, just to make it more interesting, a third act was added so that neither the B-52s nor the Pretenders had to go on first. The opening act that was chosen, the Royal Crown Revue, is a huge swing band, so that made the stage even more cramped. The B-52s alone take up 20' (6m), so the Pretenders ended up getting squished in there in the front, although we tried to move the B-52s back as far as we could. The lighting budget was also fairly tight, so we were limited in what we could do."
To make the design work effectively for both acts, Schwab and the Pretenders' LD, Alan Parker, realized that they would have to shield the B-52s area. Tom Strahan helped by designing a set of soft goods. "Alan and ourselves came up with the idea that the lighting system would include a grid, with the downstage truss part of the grid working as our midstage position, and that would support the backdrop for the Pretenders," Schwab explains. "We hung a lot of fixtures off the downstage side of it, and then on the upstage side of the grid had trusses that could move and hold a backdrop. That shielded the B-52s and also created a background for the Pretenders.
"Then Alan came up with a great idea--a combination of drops that we hung on two rails of the truss that were both transparent and translucent, which enabled him to create a backdrop," Schwab continues. "He was able to use all my lighting behind that to backlight the drop and also to shoot out into the audience over the truss rig. We were able to make a relatively small lighting system look a lot bigger because he used a lot of smoke and created a lot of large, loud rock-and-roll looks and a lot of bright looks on the drop--and the audience couldn't see the configuration of the lights behind it because they were blocked by it."
For the B-52s' part of the show, the band wanted a psychedelic light show. "They talked to me a lot about trying to do something akin to the Joshua Light Show. There's definitely a B-52s vibe that is very spiritual, and also harks back to the 60s," Schwab says. "Even though their music may not be Flower Power Child, they love that feeling. They wanted the liquid light show, and anything else that could invoke that kind of feeling. They love sparkly strobes as well as a lot of in-your-face lighting. I've always said that with them it's like creating 'a game show in outer space.' "
Schwab used all available space to make that happen. "We didn't actually have a front truss. We had two flown verticals that were angled, hung diagonally," he says. "Amidst those and the three upright vertical trusses in the back, we put all sorts of tacky equipment: star strobes, beacons, egg strobes, rope lights. You name it, we had it back there. The only lights I didn't have were those Uni-Pars that Willie Williams used on R.E.M.'s last tour. Now I wish we had them because they were probably the only thing we were missing in really great tacky lighting. But we did hang little mirror balls all over the place."
The basic lighting system, supplied by Upstaging, consisted of 18 High End Systems Cyberlights(R) and 18 Studio Colors(R). "We chose the Cyberlight because of its ability to create so many different looks with its projection and gobos," Schwab says. "To me, the Cyberlights are very strong. When we used them in the Crown casino in Australia (see "Crowning glory," page 62, LD November 1997), we realized that doing a high-resolution 1,600 DPI pattern gives the clarity of slide projections, and you can use them very much the way you would use Pani projectors for scenic effects. They have a similar brightness. All you have to do is make sure that you don't design broad images that have to look a very specific way. You design them more as pieces."
Keeping this technique in mind, Schwab decided to place many of the Cyberlights on the floor. "That way they could sneak in between set pieces to hit the backdrop, and then also turn around and come out into the audience, or up through the band, to build a little collage of projections," Schwab explains. "The Bs don't like anything that could possibly pollute them, so they won't really let me use smoke. Sometimes we might sneak it in a little, but I mainly depend upon lighting surfaces. As a result, the value of the Cyberlights and the Studio Colors to light the scenery with strong, vibrant colors and very clear patterns was so important."
Though not a custom pattern, Schwab used sunflower gobos during the show, which did look much more like projections than lighting effects. "We also combined patterns to create liquid light," he says. "We would morph with depth of field, going back and forth between two gobos and blending them together along with split colors. You can create effects that don't look like a normal gobo pattern. Just about every pattern we had in the unit was either a custom or non-standard pattern. That's how we were able to make a show that didn't have a big budget have a lot of different looks."
Set designer Strahan points out that the nature of the band demands that its tour look very different from the average rock show. "Having worked with them in the past, it was clear that we really had to talk to them first--it's always suicidal not to speak with the band, but in the case of the B-52s it's really important, because they all have different ideas and notions. They want to be a part of the design process--and they should be. The beauty of working with them is that they have always been a bit offbeat and there's nothing more a designer could ask for. I was thinking of movies like Barbarella--futuristic but also retro at the same time. That may sound completely contradictory, but it's perfect for the Bs."
Strahan also used 60s psychedelia as a jumping-off point. "We combined that with the concept of disco--hence the mirror balls--and mixed in the futuristic and cosmic elements, which put it into yet another realm. But it took a lot of careful planning to come up with a way to do all this with the money we had. Luckily, Norm came up with some of the items that made translating what they wanted a little easier, like the 10'-diameter (3m) globes and the mirror balls."
Those globes were actually two balloons from Scott Thurm at Universe Lighting. "They take helium balloons, and put red, blue, and green bulbs in them, plus strobes. The ballast for it is actually a small dimmer that you can attach to DMX, so you can do color mixing on the balloons," Schwab explains. "We had two of them and they turned into great items to project Cyberlight patterns and colors onto. But they also shine from within, so they were great for all sorts of songs like 'Planet Claire' and 'Rock Lobster.' Plus, they pack into a cooler, and take just a very small amount of helium. I'd love to use them more, and they're talking about trying to build them in different shapes. Anything that can be done to make things more compact and to do more with less is incredibly important these days."
"The whole process was based on trying to eke out some design on a minimal budget, so all of the platforms came from their tour nine years ago--they had been sitting around MHA Audio's warehouse," Strahan adds. "They took some of my drawings and pulled out some of that old material to see if it would fit, then called me back to say that they found something close. It was kind of fun, but also difficult under these constraints to find something that would make me happy--and, hopefully, the band as well."
Although production rehearsals were frustrating for almost everyone involved, the designers were ultimately happy with how the show turned out. "We bid out the lighting system between four companies, and Upstaging got it," Schwab says. "As part of the deal they threw in the ability to set up the system in their shop and do some pre-programming. This was invaluable, because we only got about two days of production rehearsals in Poughkeepsie, NY, in a building with a very low ceiling, where we couldn't really see the full rig. Those two or three days atUpstaging with the full rig set up enabled us to pull off the show--their people are very good with High End products, and got us whatever custom adapters we needed to make it work."
Schwab and lighting director Mike Duncan programmed the show on the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II. "This was the first Bs tour that I didn't have to go out and run," Schwab says. "Mike and I have been friends for a long time, and I thought he'd be a great person to bring in as lighting director (Counting Crows, which Mike had been out with, and the B-52s have the same management). We worked together to come up with the design. Since I was handing it off to him, we wanted to program the show as a button push--we programmed every cue for every song, in order, which can be a lot of cues and a lot of orders. But in the end, it made it so easy for Mike to run. Occasionally, we would put a few drum hits or a few fills on some of the submasters, but for the most part it was run Broadway-style."
Parker was still in England at this point, touring with Marillion and also using a Wholehog II. "So we sent Alan the plot, and he did some pre-programming on the Wholehog there," Schwab says. "That helped him, but as usual with rock tours, you create the songs and continue to update as you go along."
"The show was satisfying for me to run, even though at first I wasn't sure it would be," Parker says. "Norm selected the desk and the equipment. Up until the day before I was on another tour, using a Hog II, Cyberlights, and Studio Colors--it's the only desk I use now. When I arrived and the equipment was the same, that was great. I banged a lot of cues into the desk and then just busked large parts of the show at the beginning. The majority was done by me programming blind during the day on the spare desk. Then I'd run it the first time during sound check, but would never really see it until the show that night. If you're confident enough in what you do for a living, you can be fairly certain how it will work out. I knew how I wanted it to look, so I think we ended up with a good-looking show."
Obviously, Parker's lighting for the Pretenders did not take its cue from the psychedelic era. "It's a different show from Norm's but I was happy with the way it all worked at the end of the day," he says. "I had to have a show that could compete with the B-52s, but I had to take a different approach. The Bs are a cool band, but the Pretenders have Chrissie Hynde, and it's impossible to take your eyes off her--she commands your attention. You have to keep watching her to find out what's going to happen next in the set. She can do anything anytime--and she frequently does. I love working with people like that, and I have enormous respect for her. They're a great band to work with and there are no constraints on what I do."
The tour was also a learning experience for those involved. "I learned a lot from Mike and crew chief Bill Frostman about the Wholehog, and they in turn learned some new things about it from me," Parker says. "Mike is an excellent operator--I was so impressed."
Great praise, considering this was the first time Duncan had run a Wholehog. "Bill was about the same level as me, and now we're both really well-versed on the board," Duncan says. "Norm did some looks with color and patterns that I had never considered. We gigged every day, so it became very smooth pretty quickly."
Despite the initial rough patch, Parker has fond memories. "I thoroughly enjoyed the tour--it was interesting to work with Norm and Mike," Parker says. "Norm was nothing but courteous and helpful with everything we talked about. His design was very eclectic, and well suited to the B-52s, but all the time he was very aware that it was a double header, so he was keen to keep a lot of equipment usable for me. Anything I wanted to use was never a problem with him, although some of it was impractical, considering his position. I've always been the main LD on a tour and have never had to work with somebody else using the system. But it was a great joy to work with everyone involved."
Lighting Designer Norm Schwab/Lightswitch
Lighting Director Mike Duncan
Set Designer Tom Strahan/Scale Design
Production Manager/Sound Engineer Mike Scarfe
Stage Manager/Rigger/Carpenter Harold Behrens
Tour Manager Matthew Murphy
Lighting Crew Chief Bill Frostman
Moving Light Technician Scott Zematis
Monitor Engineer John Bracken
Sound Technicians Keith Suffecool, Robert Bowers
Lighting Designer Alan Parker
Tour Manager Tim Bricusse
Sound Engineer Chris Ridgway
Monitor Engineer John "Grubby" Callis
Main Lighting Contractor Upstaging
Balloons Universe Lighting
Sound MHA Audio, Inc.
Set Construction Stagecraft
Lighting equipment (20) ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (44) ETC Source Four PARs (100) PAR-64s (4) 8-lights with 650W PAR-36s (6) 8-lights with 250W 28V ACL PAR-36s (14) Wybron Colorams with 11-color custom scrolls (24) High End Systems Dataflash AF-1000s (60) Diversitronics star strobes (18) 20' strands of chasing rope light (18) High End Systems 1,200W Litho Cyberlights (18) High End Systems Studio Colors (2) Reel EFX DF-50 foggers (Pretenders only)
Upstage grid (2) 40'x20 1/2" box truss (2) 8'x20 1/2" box truss (2) 4'x20 1/2" box truss
Vertical trusses (4) 90 degree corners for 20 1/2" box truss (3) 20'x20 1/2" box truss (1) 16'x20 1/2" box truss (1) 12'x20 1/2" box truss