Wacky monikers are nothing new for Canadian rock bands, but my vote for most clever goes to the Tragically Hip. Hugely successful in the Great White North, the band has been steadily gaining in popularity in the US as well. They did a six-month tour here last year and recently finished up a three-week tour on May 23.
"When we play the States, I carry six [Vari*Lite(R)] VL6s(TM) and use house gear," explains LD Dan Cassar. "Sometimes I'm running three consoles, but it's a lot of fun because it keeps you on your toes--always flying by the seat of your pants, which I love."
Back in its native land, the band's Phantom Ghost tour, which ran from January 29 through March 12, featured the largest lighting and stage system it has ever had. Yet, ironically, the design concept strove to create intimacy in an arena setting.
Cassar, who has worked with the band for the past eight years, explains, "I had gone over to Europe with Loreena McKennitt, where we played in all these really beautiful theatres, so we wanted to try to carry that feeling over into an arena," he says. "There is always a lot of collaboration between the band members and production. They like to keep the same people around so we have more of a family vibe on the road, and we all agreed that this time out we wanted to make it feel like a theatre."
Cassar worked with set designer John Webster to put the tour together. "We worked on it for about four months and then we had three days of pre-production to program the lighting," says the LD. "Tracey Ploss [McKennitt's LD] did all the programming on the [Flying Pig Systems] Wholehog II console. Other LDs, including Tracey, had recommended it to me; I decided to try it, and I love it now. I'd tell him what I wanted and off we went. I love working with him. Then I was able to run the whole show off the desk--it's really user-friendly and it works. And it's really powerful for its size."
Supplied by main lighting contractor Westsun and Vari-Lite, the tour's lighting equipment included six VL6 automated spot luminaires, 42 VL5(TM) automated wash luminaires, 21 High End Systems LithoPattern(R) Cyberlights(R), six ETC Source Fours, 21 Thomas 1kW PAR-64s, six FE Blinder 75W MR-16 20-lights, six Wybron 24-frame 5k Colorams, two Flying Pig Wholehog II consoles, 26 Columbus McKinnon 1-ton chain motors, 12 CM 1/2-ton chain motors, and two Reel EFX DF-50 hazers.
"I go about choosing instruments based on the ones that work," Cassar says. "Over the last few years I've been able to get to the other end of the snake and be a tech, so it's trained me to think about what gear works and what gear doesn't. I don't want to have my crew climbing the truss trying to fix instruments all the time. Plus, the VL5 is probably my favorite light, not only because it always works, but I just love the look of it. I find that it has more subtleties than the Studio Color. You can put them anywhere.
"I also love the Cyberlights, and they gave me a lot of space to light all the drape we had on this," continues the LD. "That worked out well because we wanted to make a set change for every song and we were able to achieve that." Although Cassar didn't use custom gobos, he was really pleased with the choices available for the Cyberlight. "We only changed three from the standard wheel," he says. "One was the magenta fusion fire, which looked amazing. It was pretty trippy."
Unsurprisingly, the band members are big hockey fans, and a couple of their songs focus on that sport. "One is '50 Mission Cup,' and it's about the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup--a way long time ago," Cassar laughs. "So the chorus is my big blinder cue. 'Gift Shop' is another song that features audience lighting. It has a real slow build up, so I do a fade up of all the Cyberlights in the crowd in a pinspot cyan look--it takes 30 seconds. The crowd's usually losing their minds by then, so it's a little cue that gets a huge response."
To add to the production's intimacy, the stage was only 30' (9m) wide. "The guys don't move around a lot, so it's a small setup," Cassar says. "The backdrop was a sky look that took gobos and color really nicely. We had that bordered with a red velour drape to give it a theatre look. Plus, all the techs were hidden under tents on the sides of the stage. The techs didn't much like it, but when you're standing out front, it looks great. And they truly are one of the best live bands I've ever seen."
Working with the Tragically Hip got the LD back into lighting after he left the profession to work as a house carpenter for many years. "I originally got into lighting through my buddy's high school band and went on my first tour when I was 18," he says. "Three months later they were broke. But the drummer, Brian Jenning, now works for The Agency and he met Jake Gold, the band's manager. Gold mentioned that the band needed an LD, so Brian called me. The rest is history."
Cassar credits Ian Gordan at Westsun for helping him get back into lighting as well. "As far as being a designer, I'm still working on it because I don't know a lot about rigging, so I take my ideas to Ian and he helps me out with truss configurations and any other questions I have. And I now do a lot of work out of the Toronto shop, which is getting bigger all the time.
"I also had an amazing crew: crew chief Scott Gross, lighting techs Jen Bernard, Mark Olesen, and Darryl Magura, and Tracey Ploss stayed on as FOH tech," Cassar adds. "They were the best crew I've ever had. It was a mix of West Coast and Toronto people, which worked out brilliantly--a good bunch of people, and lots of laughs."