For the first time in close to a decade, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, and Sammy Hagar are back together — gracing the same stage each night and playing to sold-out arena crowds on one of this summer's hottest tours. Van Halen's new show is packed with classic rock moments from frontman Hagar's ascension to the top of the lighting rig, while singing, “We'll get higher and higher” during “Dreams” to segments featuring Anthony's bass solo, Alex's drum solo, Hagar's acoustic set and Eddie's bring-down-the-house extended guitar solo. Throughout the set, the band powers through most of its crowd-pleasing hits as well as a few new songs, most if not all of which can be found on its greatest hits double-CD, Best of Both Worlds, which was released on July 20.
With all the drama they've been through individually and as a band, Van Halen seems to have reunited with a common purpose: Have as much fun as possible. They also made the wise decision of hiring lighting designer Steve Cohen, who is also enjoying the best of both worlds these days. On the opening night of Britney Spear's recent (albeit short-lived) tour, he received a call from Van Halen's manager, Irving Azoff, asking him to light the band.
“He said, ‘We've gotten Mark Fisher to do the set and we'd like you to light it,” Cohen says. “So, of course, I said yes. First of all, it's my era of rock and roll. And a lot of really good rock and roll LDs have worked with this band over the years, including Pete Angelus — he and I actually collaborated on a Hall and Oates tour in the really early 80s. So, for me, it was thrilling — and all I had was put together a big, fat rock rig. Mark and I have been threatening to work together for years, but because I do production design quite often, the opportunity hadn't presented itself. And he hadn't had a chance for me to light one of his designs yet, so we were both excited about it.”
The chance to do a straight-up rock show was also attractive. “I was happy to jump on a show that has no dancers, no costume changes, no plot — all the lighting requirements for all these shows that have become a stock-in-trade for me for the past few years with Britney and ‘Nsync and so on,” Cohen says. “Now I'm getting back to my original roots: big solid looks with solid focuses and clarity of color and good musical cues, which the music provides you because it's very lighting friendly.”
Cohen created a 3-D rendering and imported Mark Fisher's designs (including the nuclear reactor-like shell for the video screen) into his. “I built the lighting system in 3-D space, and because it worked so well for me, I was then able to send the band views of what the show was going to look like,” Cohen explains. “So that immediately made the sale to the band and their acceptance of it much easier.”
Cohen then handed the design over to his co-designer, Joel Young, who put it into a more practical form. “This one was challenging because we didn't do the set,” Young says. “When Steve does a set, the set and the rig are intertwined, and for this, the big reactor is the whole set — and there isn't a lot of it. But Steve did a really good job of laying out the truss in a way that it really worked with it.
“As is always the case, I take his drawings and make them into something that we can move in and out through the doors every day,” Young continues. “It was neat for us to work with Bandit Lites for the first time as the contractor. They got us all the gear, including the swing truss from James Thomas Engineering. And it was late in the process when they decided that Sammy was going to go out on the truss. So all of a sudden they had to manufacture a deck for it and handrails.”
With two weeks of rehearsals in LA, the lighting team, which also includes lighting director Ethan Weber, had a lot of time to program. “We had 10 days and then another week in Greensboro, NC, but we walked out of LA all buttoned up and ready to go,” Cohen says. “Ethan was incredibly detailed. Every night, I would leave, and he'd stay for a couple of hours and run everything so he could get a sense of where I felt the cues needed to go.”
“The older bands can sometimes be a little bit more high maintenance,” Young adds. “In this case, they're not, but we felt we needed a lighting director with a lot of maturity a lot of experience — somebody very calm. And Ethan is all of those things, without a doubt. So it worked out perfectly for us to get him out there.”
Weber pursued the position when it became clear that Pink (whose tour he designed) was eschewing a US tour for mainly daytime festivals in Europe. “I've known Steve over the years and respected and liked his work.” he says. “And Joel and I immediately got along well. As much as I love doing my own shows, I love branching out and seeing how other people work and learning from them. There aren't a lot of other LDs I would do this with. Programming was really fun, just watching the whole interaction between Joel and Steve, and they were also willing to accept input from me. It's been a really good experience.”
Cohen's “big, fat rig” includes a lot of powerful lights including 24 Synchrolites and the new Coemar iSpot Flex 2000W units. “The Coemar hard-edged light is brighter than anything up there,” Cohen says. “They put about 24 of them out on Britney so we could road test them. They were very generous about that. So we took them out on the road, and they were great. We have also MAC 2Ks because the old Coemar CF1200s don't live anymore. I'm sad to see them go, but the MAC 2Ks are doing really well. I have the usual T truss and followspot truss — basically a lot of the same materials I use when I tour with a rock show as opposed to a theatre show.”
Certainly, the design brief from the band asked for powerful lighting. “But they also wanted little bit of the pop theatrics that I've been known for,” Cohen says. “So they evidently wanted to merge my style with their show. This is as much a pop band as they are a rock band. Just look at all their hit singles. There is good lyric content. Sammy being out here requires that you have to keep a bit of theatrical sensibility.
“The guys wanted to have something that was lifted up from what they had before,” Cohen continues. “My style is recognizable. I do a particular show in a particular way, the same way that Roy [Bennett] and Patrick [Woodroffe], and Peter [Morse], and the rest of us do. If you like that particular style, then you hire that person to do that. At this point, we can't completely reinvent ourselves because we default to certain things based on time and instrumentation. It's very beamy and very strong. They wanted strong colors and a lot of definition. I just did what I wanted to do, really. After the first show-and-tell with the band, they said that they didn't have to worry about it. It was exactly what they had been envisioning. So it's all good.”
Good is, arguably, an understatement. Most rock shows have big looks, but Cohen and Young have a signature style that brings out the musical nuances without overwhelming the band onstage. “We're big on composition,” Young says. “You can take 40 lights and make them look like one source. It's pretty powerful when the whole rig flashes up from one side and down from the other. That's a really strong statement. I think that a lot of people have a problem when they program lighting for rock shows in that they're too conservative about the way they focus lights and what they do with them, and Steve and I are not. We make huge looks because we're creating an environment.
“In a production show like ‘Nsync or Britney, you've got eight to 10 dancers onstage and six band members and backup singers and props, and you've got to dedicate so much of your equipment to lighting the space so that the performers can be seen,” Young continues. “When you get back to a band like this where everybody's in a spotlight, it frees you up. You always want to light the set, but you don't want to have to dedicate a lot of light to just lighting the stage. So that was fun. I'm very proud of this show, and putting it together was really a painless process, even though we went back to using a Wholehog®II instead of a Maxxyz because Steve wanted to have wings to be puntable, and the Maxxyz wings weren't quite out yet.”
The Wholehog II wings played a very important role in the show's design process. Watching Cohen run a light board is nearly as entertaining as watching the concert because few designers find such obvious joy in running a show the way he does. “I knew that this show was going to require a component that we would want to be able to do things on the fly,” Cohen says. “Because for all my shows, I like to have a console in front of me so I can add the cues that you just discover as the show goes on.
“I find that there is a sort of default way to light music. If you fight it, you don't do it any service,” he continues. “And it's really interesting because I had this concept at the beginning that I wanted to play the first song in just spotlights. They were opening up with ‘Jump.’ Then, I wanted the second song to be a very simple, no movement song, and then the third song, we'd start opening it up.”
But it didn't work. “We looked at the run-through in LA and knew. It's ‘Jump.’ It has to be big because it felt like we didn't get started,” Cohen says. “I got a comment from someone who said that it felt like the band didn't really get started until the third song. Well, it was actually the lighting that didn't get started. When you hear ‘Jump,’ you want to be ripped out of your seat. So it ends up being one of the biggest songs of the show, and we ended up programming that one the night before we opened.”
Cohen toured with the band for the few shows, where he was clearly in his element, running the wings like musical instruments.
“They're a great band. It's just a blast. I love doing this! I wish I could do more of these shows, where you just have a good band and a good bunch of people,” Cohen concludes. “I don't tour anymore, but if I did, I would tour with these guys because it's fun every night.”
VAN HALEN 2004 TOUR
Steve Cohen and Joel Young
Lighting Crew Chief
Mark “Stinky” Lepetich
Chris Keene, Michael Stehr, Michael Cummings, Adam Macintosh, and Travis Shirely
Ralph “Stanley” Kimberlin and Bobby “Bobby D”
Lighting equipment list:
|24||Coemar ispot Flex luminaires|
|27||Martin 3000 Atomic strobes|
|29||Martin MAC 2000 Profiles|
|82||Marin MAC 2000 Washes|
|10||Lycian M2 spotlights|
|2||Wholehog® II consoles plus one backup|
|2||Wholehog wings plus one backup|