Jason Boyd sees America with Natalie Merchant

Blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in pop music, but not a natural love for the spotlight, Natalie Merchant was initially famous, or notorious, for singing with her back to the audience during concerts. Still a teenager when she joined the band 10,000 Maniacs as its lead singer in 1981, she spent the following 12 years with them, released six albums, and became known for her literary songwriting style. By 1993, Merchant was more comfortable onstage and she spread her creative wings by launching a successful solo recording career.

Thanks to Merchant, LD Jason Boyd launched his own concert career. Boyd was a New York theatre LD when he met Merchant through mutual friends. In 1998, the singer enlisted him to design the lighting for her section of Lilith Fair. A particularly long (18-month) tour to promote her second solo album, Ophelia, followed and finished up with the filming of her show at New York City's Neil Simon Theatre. While she's had many pop hits (“Carnival,” “Wonder,” “Kind and Generous”), Merchant's storytelling style is best accentuated by a more subtle and theatrical design than the average rock show, so Boyd's background made him a perfect fit.

“After we did the live film and the DVD came out really well, Natalie was completely convinced that I understand what she wants,” Boyd says. “She trusts me a lot now.” The LD has since designed tours for Liz Phair, Natalie Cole, Blues Traveler, and the Australian band Powderfinger. “I designed most of this show from the road, while I was on tour with Powderfinger,” the LD says.

CONCEIVING THE THEME

“I had three designs that I had done for Natalie originally and we bounced those around a bit before realizing that I should try to make the design a little simpler.” While looking out his hotel window at the Story Bridge in Brisbane, Australia, Boyd decided to adapt that type of structure to his lighting rig. “I wanted to create something with the feel of a horizon,” he says. “Because I knew Motherland was the album's concept, I felt the design should allude to heaven and earth or sunrise and sunset. Doing that would give me the options to create those kinds of looks.”

To the arch Boyd added strings of “stars” — little chains of zip cord suspending 21 blue light bulbs — nine downstage and 12 upstage. “They're just 25W blue light bulbs, and I run them at every different intensity level — it's the chat light for the show as well as theme lighting for certain songs. I tried to get that nighttime effect going on, especially for ‘Cowboy Romance’ and some of the older and more somber songs.”

Merchant kicks off the show on a somewhat somber note by singing the title track to her third solo recording. Completed just two days before the attacks on America on September 11, “Motherland” includes strangely prescient lyrics that describe a people on the verge of rebellion.

“The idea of the show was to start slowly, and then build from there,” Boyd explains. “You don't actually see a fixture move until the fourth song. I have MR-16 footlights at every band position, so there is no focusing from above. Actually, everything is focused from the floor except the Molefays, and they just point straight down.”

CHOOSING THE GEAR

The rest of the rig includes 20 High End Systems Studio Colors®, 11 Studio Spots®, and three x.Spots®. “I first used the x.Spots on Blues Traveler and I had two of them on Powderfinger,” Boyd explains. “Here, I'm just using them as projection lights on the black backdrop — they only have a couple of focuses. I like the lights a lot. It's amazing how bright they can be, even on black velour, which is known for its ability to soak up light. We put all kinds of projections on it from all the different colored LithoPattern® gobos and the colored gobos with the broken-up glass that come with the lights. We tried to keep it really abstract. Natalie prefers that — she doesn't like for it to look too much like a picture.”

One of the LD's favorite effects comes in for the song “Golden Boy.” The x.Spots “have these photographic cloud [gobos], so we project the clouds out a little bit while we have another gobo rotating slowly, undulating underneath in the background. That makes it look like the clouds are actually rolling. I love that there are lots of good, trippy gobos in there to choose from, although I would like one that looks like stars — like tiny points of light. But the x.Spot is a good light and it's really fast. We also use them as wash lights. I put a flat color in there and then overlay some other color from the bottom Studio Spots to break it up a little bit.”

Merchant stretched her style a bit on Motherland to pay tribute to some of her musical influences, mainly gospel and soul singers. “The album is great — there are a lot more rock songs on it, which is really good for me in terms of lighting, because it lends itself to more cue-heavy lighting and more interesting cues as well,” Boyd says. “She still has her signature pop songs, but there are also some really bluesy songs too, which has been fun.

“For ‘Put the Law on You’ I make everything red, and one night someone threw a pink boa up onstage and she worked it right into the performance — she did the whole cabaret shtick — it was great,” Boyd says. “We've had a blast with all those new songs. I'm using more patterns and textures for the trippier songs she does. I love when I get to do that, so it's worked out pretty well.”

TOURING THE MOTHERLAND

Of course, like most music tours, working everything out beforehand was not really an option. “Essentially, I had no pre-production time,” Boyd says. “We had one day to set up the whole rig — sound and lights — in the Orpheum Theatre in Portland, ME. We set it up in the morning and teched through it in the afternoon. Then the band came in late that evening and we did a sound check. I kept building cues the whole time. Natalie came out to front-of-house and I brought up the blue bulbs. She liked it immediately — she said it looks like stars — and we've gotten a lot of good feedback from everybody on the tour.”

Boyd was able to program about six more songs the following morning. “I'm using a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console, which is standard for me. Luckily, I had some old disks and I had similar patches and instruments, so there were a few songs I was able to use from last tour,” says the LD. “By the third day, I had gone back and changed all of that as well. Within 10 days I had finished the whole show.”

Two of Boyd's most trusted friends, lighting technicians Jeff Sugg and Gerard McCarthy, prepped the rig in Los Angeles at Delicate Productions, which is supplying both lighting and sound for the tour. It's good to have friends along — especially when the tour is scheduled to be out until late summer. The tour began with a brief leg hitting major US cities October through December. Beginning in January, stops include: Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, North America again (the college circuit), and Europe. Then it's back to the States for a full-blown summer tour in sheds and theatres.

On one of the college dates, Boyd is hoping to return to his own personal motherland by spending some time with technical theatre students at his alma mater, Webster University, in St. Louis. “I'll have the students come down and check out the rig and give them a demo — show them some rock-and-roll lighting,” he says. “Although it is difficult to get into the music industry in terms of lighting, it's nice to have inspiration. If somebody had come in to show me how a real tour works when I was in college, I would have been totally stoked — just to get a glimpse into something I could do.”

Catherine McHugh is a New York-based freelance writer. She can be contacted at cmbmc@earthlink.net.