Say what you will about Neil Diamond — he's kitschy; his best songs are way behind him; he wears too many sequins — but at 64, when most Americans are preparing their retirement parties and pricing motor homes, Diamond is crisscrossing the US for his 2005 national tour. After seeing two of his August dates — one at Madison Square Garden and one at the Schhottenstein Center in Columbus, OH — any observer would be hard pressed not to give this jazzed singer his props.
With no opening act and no intermission, Diamond is relentless for more than two hours, crooning most of his hits and a few rarities that keep the audience on their feet a surprisingly large amount of the show. Never once did the singer's basso voice crack or weaken, even as he got into his gospel preacher mode for the concert's traditional finale, “Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show,” when the stage becomes an altar. It doesn't matter what Diamond is preaching to the thousands of fans who pack into various arenas night after night because they — to paraphrase a hit he wrote for The Monkees and performs in concert — “are believers without a trace of doubt in their minds.”
Also among the believers is longtime LD Marilyn Lowey who has been designing concerts for Diamond since 1980 — not to mention TV specials and the concert scenes for 1980's The Jazz Singer, Diamond's first and last venture into movie stardom — and who has managed to yet again create an exciting lighting scheme that makes the singer look fantastic.
In the 25th year of their partnership, the LD says that if she finds the design new and exciting, then so will Diamond and his legions of fans. “If it looks different for me, it will look different for them. If it excites me, it'll excite them,” she says. “We're the jaded ones; we're the ones that use blue on blue on blue on blue — red-blue, green-blue, purple-blue. We started off with five blues; now we have 40 to 50 blues. Does the audience notice that it's a green-blue as opposed to a red-blue? What do we do unconsciously that they're not aware of that creates an emotion that gets them to where we want them to go?”
Of course, it's one thing to light the same artist for a quarter of a century. It's quite another to light the exact same songs decade after decade. “The cues are in the same place, but it's the body of the cues that are different,” she says, referring to the staples in almost every concert tour, i.e., “Soolaimon,” “Desiree,” “Longfellow Serenade,” and the moody, autobiographical “I am…I said,” which for years, Lowey has been going from blues to whites and back to blue with continual builds on top of more builds. “At this point, when we started lighting it, I said, ‘It's one light. One backlight. That's it. That tells the story. That's all you need,’” she explains. “It's funny how I got there. It's enough for that song. You strip it all away. I think it's interesting. I look forward to the new music, because I think it will be stripped away and be raw and real and basic. But it tells the story.” Lowey is referring to Diamond's new album — simply titled Neil Diamond — due to drop on November 8th and produced by Rick Rubin who revised Johnny Cash's career in the last decade, not to mention working with such acts as the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, and more.
According to Lowey, like any visual artist, there is a need to grow within one's art form. “You bring to it different levels of aptitude and artistry, and the technology helps you, and you grow,” she says. “Why do I want to change it? I need to bring something fresh to it. I see it differently now, and I want a different look. The maturity of how I view things visually has grown, changed, and shifted.”
Color plays an interesting role in this tour because many of the numbers are leisurely grouped together by decade, so Lowey uses corresponding colors for each of these sets.
For “Cherry, Cherry,” one of Diamond's earliest hits from the 1960s, Lowey uses colors which mostly came from gels back in the day. “Once we got into cross-fading color, I used more ACL fan outs,” she says, commenting on songs from the 1970s, when lighting technology matured further. “I tried to limit myself, which forces you to come up with different types of cues and stay with the same technology that existed in that time period. Because I chose to do that, the story the lighting is telling with the music works very well and makes for a different look.”
Lowey's rig is rich with moving fixtures, most notably 32 High End Systems Cyberlight® Turbos, 136 Martin MAC 2000s (32 Profiles, eight Profiles on the floor, and 96 Washes), 16 HES PC Beams, 15 HES Studio Spots®, six M3 Lycian followspots, along with MR16 striplights, ETC Source Fours®, and Moles. The lighting and staging for the tour was provided by Premier Global. Also used in a couple of numbers is a stranded star drop manufactured by George & Goldberg Design Associates in Compton, CA. The star drop is comprised of a series of 12W wedge lights that are “dipped” in a steel blue to nicely contrast with the warm non-dipped lamps. These wedge lights were originally created for the automobile industry before the advent of LEDs.
Lowey says that the rig's soft-edge workhorses are the MAC 2000s and the hard-edged workhorses are MAC 2000 Profiles. “I resurrected some Cyberlights. I like them, because the mirrors are fast and the quality of light from their beam is different from the MAC 2000,” she says. “I like the layering of the different fixtures and the quality of light from all of them. I wish the market was not so flooded with pan and tilt head [moving lights]. We need to go back and revisit moving mirror lights. They're labor intensive because they've been through the mill, but they certainly do add a complement of different effects and a whole different quality of light. They're great.”
The tour was programmed by Seth Rapaport and Mike Hallon on two MA Lighting grandMA consoles, and the show runs on one grandMA with one for backup.
For the first time in Diamond's touring history, IMAG is used, courtesy of two bundled pairs of Barco SLM R12 12K projectors that rear-project images of the singer onto 10'×15' Da-Lite Fast-Fold screens that hang on either side of the stage. IMAG is used to tell a story for the people who can really see it so that it is not simply a TV show unto itself, according to Lowey. She added that she did not alter her design to take the projections into consideration, but she did make sure the lighting and projections were nicely balanced.
Throughout most of the concert, the screens are alive with close-ups of Diamond from four different cameras directed by Jerry McReynolds. However, special video packages were created for the Jonathan Livingston Seagull medley and “America.” The “America” video consists of sepia toned photos and video of immigrants arriving in the new world, while the Seagull video is shots of the sky, clouds, and, of course, seagulls. “The video told a specific story, and they have a lot of meaning for Neil,” Lowey says. “He spent a lot of time working on the videos. Of all the tours that Neil had a say in how he wanted it to look, this was the most intense that he participated in.”
For this tour, Diamond does not perform any tunes from his upcoming album, so it is mostly a “greatest hits” collection live, which suited the fans just fine. As mentioned earlier, Diamond's encore was “Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show,” in which the singer takes on the role of an old-school, fire and brimstone preacher. For this number, Diamond is elevated about 4' on a platform while a 15' diameter ring truss that had been hanging above is lowered a few feet above him to create a massive halo of MAC 2000 Washes and Profiles.
“When we first put it together, he wanted to do something different, and I thought that I could use a circular truss throughout the show, and we can lower it at the end,” Lowey explains. Despite Diamond's hesitation at having things move over his head, the LD relented, and the effect is the crown jewel of an exhilarating concert. And Lowey is pleased with how it turned out, more or less. “I would've liked it to be bigger and equipped with [VARI*LITE] VL5s because they can whip around faster than the MAC 2000s,” she admits. “It worked well and gave him a completely different look for ‘Brother Love.’ I sat behind the stage, and I watched to see what he sees when it comes down, and it's fabulous. It goes back to how do you take a song you've been lighting since 1980 and make it different for everyone. That spurs him on and tells his story visually and unfolds onto the audience, and it looks great.”
Next up, Lowey is teaching a course at Carnegie Mellon on lighting arena and stadium shows, where she will not only discuss the how-to of lighting but also the things that most courses don't cover, such as the stress and unending pressure of designing for a superstar cum legend. It may be a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.