Billy Joel and Elton John might seem to have a lot in common to the average rock music fan. After all, they're both famous pop stars who have been making hits for decades. Less well known to the general public is that they both rely on Steve Cohen to design, direct, and help to produce their tours. Having worked with Joel for 24 years and John for the past five, few people are as qualified as Cohen to point out the differences between these piano men.
To illustrate, he supplies an anecdote from the duo's recent Face to Face tour in Australia and Japan: "You go into Elton's dressing room, and it's all plush, with candles and soft lighting; in Billy's, there's a table with a bottle of scotch, a lemon, and a wardrobe case with 10 black suits in it. Elton walked in there one day and said, 'Oh dear, this is lovely. Let's see, shall we wear black, black, gray, gray, dark gray, light gray, or black?' It is pretty funny. Two guys couldn't be more opposite--they're truly 180 degrees apart in their sensibilities and tastes. But when it comes to being piano-playing rockers, they are so close."
It was originally Joel's idea to team up with John, but he asked Cohen to make the initial inquiry to John's manager. "I translated between both camps--what Elton would want, what Billy would want, and how to get that result," Cohen explains. "I love having this position because when both of them are together, I'm the artistic director who handles the shows, from the pacing to the set list to the transitions to the choice of duets. They trust me, so I get my way on these matters. Because I've got a Broadway style, I go for the biggest, fattest bang that I can for these guys."
In the Face to Face shows, Joel and John perform separate sets as well as duets, and each does a song of the other's. On their first outing in 1994 John did "New York State of Mind" and Joel did "Candle in the Wind." This time around, John is doing "Uptown Girl" while Joel is again covering "Candle in the Wind." "Those selections were mine because they are each other's biggest hits," Cohen says. "Also, Elton has said he'd never again play 'Candle in the Wind.' "
With the unprecedented media blitz that surrounded Princess Diana's death, it's common knowledge that "Goodbye England's Rose" is John's "Candle in the Wind" with new lyrics as a tribute to her memory. John performed the song at her funeral last September, and that single went on to sell 33 million copies worldwide. Only about six weeks before that tragic event, John's friend, fashion designer Gianni Versace, was murdered. Cohen had originally designed what he calls a generic lighting system for John's then-upcoming solo tour; he planned to expand that into the stadium tour where Joel would be joining John. "Because of the combination of all these events, the Elton John ticket became the hottest ticket on the planet," Cohen explains. "It didn't seem to make sense to do the stadium tour right away."
Yet, even before the stadium tour was postponed, Cohen had designed a completely new production for John. It came to him in a dream. "That's the truth," Cohen says. "I dreamt about these random S-curve, flowing, graceful shapes." He then drew them and faxed them to long-time set collaborator Tom Strahan of Scale Design. "Elton's tour is very stylized. It's an homage, as it were, to Gianni Versace," Cohen says. "One of the threads that goes through a lot of his work is this Greek key, which is a banding you see on architecture and also on a lot of Versace fabrics." To embellish the curves with even more Versace-type touches Cohen chose highly polished aluminum and ground aluminum to create a shimmery look out of metal and perforated metals, and used backlit Plexiglas to create the light boxes that are the ornaments fixed to the front of the trusses.
Vari-Lite, Inc. and Light & Sound Design supplied the lighting equipment, which includes VL5(TM), VL4(TM), VL2(TM), Icon(R) and Icon WashLight(TM) automated luminaires. "There is almost every imaginable texture up there," Cohen says. "I used the Icon desk as a special effects engine, which allows me to use the Icons for ballyhoos and painting scenery and basically playing along. It made it feel much more organic for me." Warwick Price did the show's initial Icon programming for Cohen. While Cohen left to tour with Joel, Robert Cochran (who did the last two Elton John tours with Cohen) has stayed with the tour as lighting director, with Pat Brannon helping run the show and call followspots.
"Robert programmed seven songs by himself this time, so he really got to put a little bit of his signature on it," Cohen says. "They're in good shape. I'm pleased with the show's consistency. I've choreographed it with cues that were very unique to what I do, so they're very difficult to execute unless you really were playing along musically. So this was interesting for Robert, because he has a lot to do manually, which is great, because he's got a very good sense of timing and a great vision. He's an incredible perfectionist. It's a Steve Cohen/Robert Cochran show now."
Cochran admits that running both the Artisan(R) and the Icon Consoles(TM) during the show has been a great challenge. "The hardest part is between songs when I also have to look at Elton to see if he wants the audience lit," Cochran says. "It's a three-hour show that flies by for me every night."
Cochran is using Vari-Lite's VLQ(TM) to help him run the Artisan console. "It allows me to automate the Artisan down to one button per cue so that I have one hand free to run the Icon desk," he explains. "Then I've taken that one step further by making the one button I press be a Vari-Lite button by using the MIDI to trigger the VLQ. That was really necessary because I wouldn't have been able to do justice to the show the way Steve wanted it unless I automated the desk. That's not my preferred way, but it works and it gives us some delay options that are nice to have."
While programming this tour, which is in support of John's The Big Picture album, the LDs found that about 75% of the songs had been in the set list on the last one. "Even so, Robert and I found ourselves making up a lot of new cues based on this scenery," Cohen says. "But there are still signature touches. A lot of the color palettes are the same because certain colors work for certain songs, and there is no reason to change them. We warmed up a lot of cool-palette songs and vice versa. But mainly, the gags are different because the scenery is different."
As far as programming, the show obviously had to start from scratch. "We had to program 30 songs, and Elton added another seven or eight to this particular show," Cohen says. "So there are almost 40 songs that are programmed that can be operated. You have to do that, because Elton is going to change that set four or five times. But a lot of the looks are interchangeable. For example, if he switches "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" with "Rocket Man," you can make that work for both with a few changes. There are a few songs that can interchange."
The stage design also incorporates the Versace Medusa logo on three disks of descending size that hang above stage right. Each contains five Vari*Lite automated luminaires and VLM(TM) mirrors. "There is a cap made from a three-dimensional foam model turned into fiberglass of the logo," Cohen says. "It was Robert's idea to stretch the black fabric over the front of each to make them disappear. It's also masked on either side, so that spill wouldn't light it up, since it is a three-dimensional piece. Then we cut a couple of holes, and lined up some VLMs so that they hit the holes and pick up the other lights. So every once in a while you see the face glowing through the scrim--it's a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't magic, which looks very cool."
The lighting system's shape is basically the entire production value of the show because the arenas are sold 360 degrees around. All Access built everything except the free-standing fascias and the risers, which were done by Michael Tait/Tait Towers. All Access ended up doing the finished work on all the masking and additional metal work. The fascias are made out of channel aluminum with Plexiglas and rope light inside so they look very ornamental.
"To provide unobstructed views, I couldn't have a huge lighting rig coming up from the stage and I had no backdrops to work with this time," Cohen explains. "That was difficult, because you had to paint the audience and make them the backdrop, and they get kind of bored when you're putting lights in their faces the whole time. The set really needed to have an elegance to it so it could just sit there--I was hoping to make a kind of temporary sculpture, almost a mobile. It's doing what it's supposed to do, and I think it's applicable to him. I think there are times when it looks like a jewelry store, which is a lot of what Elton is about. But there are also times when it can look very cold and very Middle Eastern, which is also part of Elton's sensibility."
At first Cohen was a little nervous about how obvious the design would look. "I didn't know whether or not we were doing a tip-our-hat tribute, or if it was going to look like 'Steve does Versace.' I really didn't want to be accused of plagiarizing," Cohen says. "But when I showed it to Elton and John Reid, they both were very touched--they loved it. John had said that the Medusa idea was the best part, and thought that the Versace family would feel honored that Elton decided to do this. We never asked Versace for clearance because Elton knew that his arrangement with Gianni was such that it would be understood as a tribute. And it has."
Joel's tour has also become a tribute of sorts--to his loyal fan base. When John's tour was taking off and the stadium tour put on hold last fall, Joel decided to go out on the road anyway. He had no new record to promote unless you count Greatest Hits Vol. III, but since he already had the band and the production staff lined up, he decided to go for it. Starting in his home base, the Northeast, arenas began selling out faster than anyone had anticipated and he broke his own record for the most sold-out shows at Nassau Coliseum and Philadelphia's new Spectrum. "The nickname for the tour is 'Billy's Used Cars,' because we're playing songs that have been hits before--they've even been repackaged before--and we're coming out and redoing them," Cohen says. "The songs are off [the albums] The Stranger, 52nd Street, and Glass Houses, which he hasn't played in many years."
In the tour's initial production stages, lighting director Joel Young became very proficient at operating a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console. "We decided that the Vari*Lite system would be a DMX-based Vari*Lite system. And my favorite of all the Vari*Lite DMX lamps is the VL5," Cohen says. "I love it. The more I use them, the more I find that they're exactly the instrument that I need."Cohen chose High End Cyberlights(R) as the other moving light instruments in the design. "We were looking to utilize the new Technobeam(TM) because I saw it at LDI, and I thought they would be a great addition to the show, because they have the spinning gobos and were just perfectly bright enough," Cohen says. "Budget-wise it made a lot of sense because there was the new hot link and they were going to be affordable. But they weren't available, so we went with the Cyberlights because they're really bright, and they do great in-air graphics. Plus, we knew we'd have to be able to replace these anywhere internationally, and most everybody has Cyberlights in their inventory."
Vari-Lite and Christie Lites are the tour's lighting suppliers, and the rig also includes about 60 PAR cans. "They are up there not so much for another light source but to fill out the rig--they do fill out the graphics," Cohen explains. "There are no color changers on those, we just have three color washes in there that enforce the colors we're using, and I can swap between them and the automated lights." The band rehearsed 50 songs, out of which Cohen and Young programmed 30. "Still, there are usually about six songs per night that we have no looks for."
Operating this way might be nerve-wracking for some designers, but Cohen has Billy Joel's repertoire completely ingrained in his psyche by now. For Young, however, "Steve would be singing the songs in his head and typing out cue lists that were all dead-on and all I could think was, 'I'm in so much trouble," Young says. As Cohen points out, "I was there when all of these songs were born. And Joel [Young] is a quick study."
Cohen does the set list for every show with Billy Joel, but that fact hasn't made catching up with the songs any easier for Young on this tour. "The first six songs are either/ors. He asks the audience to vote on what song he's going to play," Cohen explains. "That's really great, except you've got to give somebody enough time to load that particular page into the machine so that you're set up. And of course, Joel [Young] doesn't know this material as well as I do, so I've got to try and cover that. It's been very challenging."
The LDs actually run the show from two Wholehog II consoles. "Joel [Young] came up with this expansion wing option on the Wholehog which gives me a series of focuses, color palettes, and intensities on a combination of instruments, and I paint from scratch," Cohen explains. "I didn't want to get into having to learn how to operate a Wholehog, so Joel set it up so that each one of the buttons above every one of the faders is a momentary swap. At any given time, I can push one button, bring up a bank of lights, and it kills everything else in the system. Traditionally, I've manually run very cue-intensive songs like 'Angry Young Man,' 'Billy The Kid,' or 'Pressure,' but it's difficult to write 250 cues. And sometimes it doesn't make a lot of sense to do that. So it's set up so that I can reach over on my board and intensify the cues by adding more cues within cues. If I feel like it, I can put in a bunch of cues that are literally using the same gear that's already in preset, and keep it very alive. Sometimes I'm all over that console; sometimes I let the cues just run."
"Also, if we're up on a look and Steve decides he wants to do color bumps on the VL5s, he can do that," Young adds. "As soon as I go to the next cue, it goes back into the original cue, so we're running this show in real time. The expansion wing has 16 more pages for manual control so that Steve can use them to do washes and bumps. It allows you to swap everything out for something else which you could never do with a separate board."
"This is the most incredible flexibility I've ever had with an automated lighting system," Cohen says. "With another console, I'd have to coordinate it with another operator. The whole purpose of me being out here is to judge that feel. At a particular time I might want to push the lighting cues because I'm feeling the audience lagging behind, or there's a certain amount of urgency that I need to create. >From the opening show, we've had remarkable results because the key to doing Billy Joel for me has always been to play the music along with the guys up there."
Yet Cohen deviated from that technique on Joel's last tour, River Of Dreams, in 1994. It also marked the first time Cohen had incorporated automated lighting into Joel's shows. The result was an intensely layered, heavily cued show that looked stunning, but soon became dull to the LD. "This time I didn't want to be so structured, with 30 songs cued to the nth degree," Cohen says. "I wanted to have a little bit more freedom so I could play along. The last time, everything was on an Artisan, and it was very structured. I got quite bored with a year and a half of calling followspots."
Interestingly, Cohen had only gone the all-automated route because he was concerned that his style of lighting design might not be the best way to serve his client's music. "I got to the point where I was questioning the wisdom of the way I was doing lighting," Cohen says. "Am I just entertaining myself by hitting buttons and making colors change on the beat? Am I the only one who gets it? So I took my priorities away from being musical to being more visual--more art for art's sake. With a song that should have 15 musical cues in it, I would boil it down to five, and just make sure that each one had looks that you could sit and stare at for a long period of time."
Cohen also thought this would be a more productive way to work with his programmer/operators. "My feel is my feel and to try to have another guy pushing buttons--no matter how good they are, they're never going to do it the way I do it," Cohen says. "It's never going to be comfortable for me."
While Cohen admits he missed the adrenaline rush he gets when the house lights go out and he goes to work, he also noticed that he was no longer eliciting reactions from audience. "Now, when I'm blasting the Molefays in the audience, or hit Billy with all the lights when a particular musical cue would happen, the audience responds," Cohen says. " 'Angry Young Man' is a great example, because when we open with that, and the first 16 cues happen, the audience usually goes crazy. Yet, last time, it didn't. Neither the music nor the performers were any different, but all of a sudden, it was a whole other world out there. So it confirmed for me that lighting did have a very physical impact on the degree and level of applause. I found that just as musicians put a lot of layers on a record, inconsequential as they may seem, it's the combination of all the pieces that creates impact," Cohen says. "And if I can't create impact with lighting, I might as well go home. It's not about just making pretty pictures to me. It's about creating emotional responses from the lighting. These are all very subtle, instinctual feelings that I would swear was a bunch of bullshit up until this tour. I had always felt that I was doing something important, but I didn't realize how important it really was until I didn't do it. Now I feel vindicated that my original instincts were really correct."
Yet the LD certainly hasn't decided to abstain from the wonders of modern technology. "It was amazing that we got so much programmed before we even went into rehearsals," Cohen says. "Joel [Young] got all the work done really fast, and when we were writing cues, we would first look at what the Hog had to offer and then use its chases or write our own," Cohen says. "I would say 50% of the effects come off the effects engines with certain modifications.
"I feel that a lot of lighting designers don't try these built-in options because they feel that by using something that's put in a computer as an effect, it's not as creative," Cohen continues. "If you take something that gives you a base and work from there, you can utilize that time more efficiently. You put your stamp on it by where you place it, by how you modify it, and how you use that particular effect."
Certainly some of the show's most spectacular effects are the cues for "We Didn't Start the Fire." "Robert Cochran came up with that when we were doing the two-man show in 1995," Cohen says. "I said it would be nice to see a scissor effect, then Robert came up with the idea of pointing one light into another one. It almost looks like one light powers the next light, then powers the next light. Then Joel put in a generic Wholehog color chase with parameters like a sine wave in there. So the difference between the two-man show is that it's only one chase, and in Billy's it's actually three chases. The colors change from orange to yellow, yellow to orange, orange to yellow, and yellow to straw. It took about three or four hours to come up with. But the advantage of the Wholehog is that once the chase was written on an Artisan, to duplicate it on a Wholehog was really quick.
"So many of the cues we create in moving light shows are combinations of different kinds of parameters--movement, color, and time--and with most consoles you have to plug in each individual parameter and have that relate to each individual light," Cohen continues. "The Flying Pig Systems technicians were smart enough to come up with certain types of electric information that causes certain actions to happen with anything: a television screen, an Etch-a-Sketch, or some kind of robotics. It's basically a pulse generator that triggers certain information. The Wholehog allows you to plug in those generic pieces of information and adjust the parameters of the wave--shorten it, lengthen it, take the middle part. It's very much like when you're drawing on a computer graphics program, like Photoshop, where you can manipulate the digital information by changing its parameters. So instead of typing in numbers, you're just grabbing the whole group of information and putting them through a filter and having them change. Which is very cool if you use it right. If you just use it as-is, it will look very boring and very un-musical. But it's great to build on.
"The only disadvantage to this is that I've found there's a subtle difference between letting the board fly you and you flying the board, in that you don't have those glorious little mistakes," Cohen says. "On some boards, when you plug in a particular pattern of information to make the lights go from point A to point B, instead they may do something a little tweaky, like the chases have to catch up to one another. Sometimes it gets in your way, but sometimes it's very cool. Conversely, with the Wholehog, when you're writing series of cues, you set in the default time for the cue to go back to another cue, and it will automatically write a cue for you. And then you decide whether or not you want it."
Having a large spotlight call is something that Cohen always wants--especially on Joel's tour. "To convey this emotion that I try to convey with lighting in Billy's shows, front light washes it out," Cohen says. "So I give everybody on stage a key light, and I give Billy some back lights, and then let the lights play around him. In so many ways it's a cleaner look, and Billy is always lit.
"Also, he's got the piano on a turntable so you can't really do those wonderful fine focuses of hard-edged instruments that look so great, because you never know what way he's going to be facing," Cohen says. "Since I have to do broader, more generic focuses on the piano, that frees up all of my hard-edged instruments for graphics and washes as opposed to having them tied into doing specials. I've been carrying a T-truss of some manner on every show that I've done since 1980. I've found it to be the best way to keep the followspots from breaking up the fourth wall."
Cohen believes that the T-truss in his designs may be his most recognized signature. "With Billy and Elton outdoors, we have a roof outdoor cantilever that goes 24' (7m) downstage at the downstage edge that has got 12 followspots on it," Cohen says. "I don't have to have 24 Gladiators up there from the tower killing a million seats, so there's a practical reason for it as well. I've got a show call with 16 people on it, which I could replace with robotics, but I like the idea of talking to the guys over headsets."
In March, the crew took a beefed-up version of Joel's lighting system to the stadium dates with John in Australia and Japan. "It's basically the same architecture with a few different instrumentation additions," Cohen explains. "We do 15 or 16 programmed songs, and the rest are combinations of looks from those. We retained the cues we had done specifically for Elton on the stadium show, and they were some of the best looks that the system could do."
For Joel's show, Cohen extracted bits and pieces from Elton's lighting looks and built cues that he ran manually. "I physically ran 85% of the Billy Joel segment of the show, whereas the Elton John segment of the show, Robert ran 85% of it and I ran the other part," Cohen says. "I was running the generic lights and the Cyberlights off the Wholehog, and I had a great time. I was doing shows in stadiums with no rehearsal--it was just like the old days of hitting faders and punching smoke buttons. I was having a ball."
Halfway through the tour, the stars switched. John went on first in Australia, then Joel went on first in Japan. "That meant that all the looks that Billy had acquired, which were after Elton had been on stage for an hour and a half, now became the first looks that you saw in the show. When we got to Japan we made changes in Billy's show to make it look a little bit more unique, so you wouldn't get tired of looking at the same type of looks for the three or four hours."
Through it all, Cohen was worried that there wouldn't be enough variation between the two acts. "It's interesting that there was enough of a difference, because it's the same instruments, the same backdrop, the same stage--and I have a particular style that's the same style, and the same operator," Cohen says. "I wanted to have each segment have a particular personality."
For John, the LDs did a lot of graphic painting on the backdrops with a lot of movement and texture on the scrims. "It was more of a psychedelic aquarium up there, because it was a lot of really interestingly graphic, huge picture-window gobos and dot-grid gobos all in these big cloud cycs, which created this cyclorama around him," Cohen says. "That was the signature look for Elton. Whereas with Billy I used a lot more smoke, and I did most of the focuses on the band and on the stage. It was a much harder rock look because that's the nature of Billy's music. Elton's is a bit more flowing and dramatic in a lot of ways. Luckily there was a uniqueness of style that worked."
Flanking the stage are two huge antique-looking parchment scrims painted to depict the American Revolution in a sort of Brits-versus-the-Americans configuration. "When they were flat-lit, that's what they looked like; at other times, they were just huge canvases for us to splash with gobos and graphics."
As this issue goes to press, John and Joel will be finishing up the European leg of their Face to Face tour, during which they fit in a live broadcast for HBO, which David Mallet directed. There is also talk of the two coming back out and doing a full US tour again, which Cohen predicts will require a bit of modification in the designs, and maybe some additional lights. But in the meantime, Joel and John are both going back to their respective solo shows, with Cohen once again joining Joel. When these tours finally wrap up, whenever that may be, will Cohen miss seeing a piano everyday? "Well, I live in Vegas now, so maybe I should put in a piano-shaped pool like Liberace did," he laughs. "There would be some nice irony in that."
Lighting/production designer Steve Cohen
Lighting director Joel Young
Lighting crew chief Steve Gomes
Head electrician Don Gordon
Vari*Lite technician George Keim
Cyberlight technician Mark Foffano
Rigger Steve Olean
Carpenter/lifts Sean Fox
Carpenters/ground riggers Vinnie Polifrone and Larry Doby Jr.
Production manager Bobby Thrasher
Tour director Max Loubiere
Road manager Mike Grizel
Assistant tour manager Mickey Heyes
Assistant road manager Bill Zampino
Stage manager Malcom Weldon
Production assistant Liz Mahon
Stage construction All Access Staging
Main lighting contractor Christie Lites
Additional lighting Vari-Lite, Inc.; Arc Lighting, Inc.; Vanco Lighting Services, Bash Lighting Services
Lighting equipment (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II control consoles with one expansion board and four monitors (1) Jands 48/24 DMX console (76) Vari*Lite VL5s (33) High End Systems Cyberlights (10) bars of six VNSP PAR-64s (8) Mole-Richardson Molefays (9) Wybron Molefay color changers (14) Lycian 1200 truss followspots
Lighting/production designer Steve Cohen
Lighting director Robert Cochran
Initial Icon programming Warwick Price
Lighting crew chief/Icon operator Pat Brannon
Vari*Lite technicians Pete Radice, Gretchen Fields
Icon technician Joe Gonzales
Lighting technician/ground rigger Tim Schiavone
Lighting technicians Tom Horton, Marty Langley
Rigger Mike Wiesman
Video director Paul Becher
Co-set designer Tom Strahan/Scale Design
Tour/production manager Keith Bradley
Video supplier Nocturne
Set construction All Access Staging Tait Towers
Lighting suppliers Light & Sound Design Vari-Lite, Inc.
Lighting equipment (18) Light & Sound Design Icon automated luminaires (48) Light & Sound Design Icon WashLights (19) Vari*Lite VL4 automated spot luminaires (40) Vari*Lite VL2C automated spot luminaires (48) Vari*Lite VL5 automated wash luminaires (6) Vari*Lite VLM automated mirrors (12) Mole-Richardson Molefays (12) Lycian long-throw followspots