Not many performers could get gussied up in a mirror suit and still be taken seriously as an artist. But over the years, Chris Isaak has earned a following with his unique blend of soulful vocals, heartbroken lyrics, and rockabilly-tinged sound, as well as his quirky sense of humor. To support his seventh album, Speak of the Devil, Isaak's design team, set and lighting designer Jonathan Smeeton and lighting director Lane Hirsch, put together a multilayered show for the--pardon the pun--multifaceted musician.
Smeeton first worked with Isaak back in 1996 on the Forever Blue tour. "That was a very budget-oriented tour," Smeeton explains. "This time, he said he wanted to go a bit further, so I met with him in San Francisco, and he had a large amount of ideas--he's got great drawing skills, he's a fabulous cartoonist, and can really illustrate what he's talking about. He showed me stuff and I showed him stuff, and we chose a combination of all those." What resulted is a compact and versatile rig that can be lit in various ways to give lots of different looks to the songs, which are quite eclectic, blending several musical styles and encompassing many moods.
The key to the design is the layers of backdrops that provide different textures for the light to play on. There is a black rear-projection screen which is lit with six Thomas 8-lights with Wybron color scrollers, a rope curtain ("a relic of the previous tour," notes Smeeton), ten 8'x4' metal mesh panels, plus gray sharkstooth scrims overhead which get various pattern and color treatments. Another touch is the ray-patterned Marley floor which fans out from the drum riser. One scenic element that didn't make the final cut was a UV backdrop, for two reasons, Smeeton explains. "One was that it was extremely expensive, the other was that Chris saw John Fogerty in Stockholm and he thought it was not him after all. At that point we went for more abstract layers of materials and surfaces, and it works very well."
The LD decided on a mostly-Martin rig from Bandit Lites. "Bandit came back with the best offer, which included rather nice rehearsal space in Nashville," he says. "Bandit had a good stock of equipment. When I first put this out to bid, I didn't specify too much of the brand names, to give everybody a chance, because everyone has different equipment on their shelves. It's just, let's see what people have got and what they can offer." The tour's equipment includes Martin MAC 500s and MAC 600s to illuminate the scenics and the stage, Martin Roboscan 518s and PAL 1200s for pattern projection, and ETC Source Four 19-degree ellipsoidals to light the musicians. "This time it's almost all moving lights or automated something, with the exception of the Source Fours and some 8-lights with color changers--that's the low-tech, and everything else is Martin Professional high-tech," Smeeton says. "I'm rather pleased it's Martin; their gear has done really well in the last few years." Everything is run off a Martin Case 2 controller.
Bandit flew the rig at its Nashville facility, and Smeeton, Hirsch, and programmer Jorge Valdez spent five days designing 25 songs. The show combines theatricality, romantic songs and angry songs, and interludes of song commentary, so quite a variety of looks was needed. This was accomplished by exploiting the layers of the set, which were lit in different combinations, from various angles, in complimentary or contrasting color layers as appropriate to the emotion of each song. Smeeton says that "Lane was a huge advantage there, because he's been touring with them prior to this." "Jonathan and I think a lot alike as far as what we're trying to do on a song, color-blending and ideas for what should happen during a song," Hirsch says, "so it's been a very harmonious relationship."
Looks were based on the moods of the songs, and lighting effects were programmed to accent musical structures such as guitar flourishes, key drum beats, and especially Isaak's trademark vocal stylings. "Everything was timed out," says Hirsch, who is also the band's drum tech. "We knew exactly how long that vocal was supposed to go every night. One of the tricks we do is that we time everything out and it's all broken down into verse, chorus, solo, bridge." This approach ensures that only the most important parts of each song get special lighting effects, heightening the emotional impact for the audience while avoiding sensory overload. "It's not too busy, it's not bumping and flashing; it's changing at poignant moments as opposed to being played with," Smeeton says. "It's a sequence of good statements."
On the other hand, Isaak obviously enjoys showbiz flashiness. "This was to be pretty much a man in a mirror suit with a very bright and colorful light show, and a certain amount of theatrics," Smeeton explains. "There's an element of retro about him, and there are some very tacky things from the 60s which are very appropriate. You have to bear in mind that Chris is very tongue-in-cheek about it all, he's actually quite a modern guy, but he has a leaning towards that retro." The show's coup de theatre comes a little more than halfway through the show, when Isaak comes back out after changing into the mirror suit: As he strolls to center stage, a silver Mylar fringe curtain is pulled across, just behind the metal panels. All this glitter is given even more gaudy Las Vegas flavor with outrageous purple, green, and gold accents for "Super Magic 2000," a surf-and-spy-flavored instrumental. "Every song has got a fabulous treatment; I'm really pleased with it," concludes Smeeton.
Hirsch also programmed a small library of spare looks which could be mixed and matched for those times when the band would throw in a surprise song. "Chris and his band have been together for a long time and they've got a huge amount of songs that they can put into the show," Hirsch explains. "So, you always have to be ready to do a song on the fly; it could just come up anywhere in the show." Which is where the Case 2 controller made itself extremely useful. "When he starts doing a song that's not on my list, I go to one of the spare looks and do some ad-libbing. Because with the Case controller, you have your different cues, but you also have playbacks on the cues, which allow you to add and delete and do various things. I thought after a couple weeks into the tour I was handling that really well, and if he went off the list in the middle of the show, I was able to really make it look good."
Isaak's versatility as a performer forces everyone to stay on their toes and watch him for their cues. Not only does he throw in unplanned songs on the spur of the moment, he also has developed wry dramatic monologues as introductions to two songs. These let the band and crew know what song is next, but the length and content of the monologues varies night to night. "When he's going into the song you know what he's about to do," explains Hirsch. "There are certain key things that you're looking for. If you wanted to take a cigarette break, that's when you'd do it, is when he's doing his spiel, but you always have to pay attention, you wait for him to say that key thing that lets you know that he and the band are going to start firing up the song." So he programmed looks for these interludes as well. "At that point you go into a link position, so all the lights are in the proper colors and positions waiting for you to hit the next button. On 'Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,' there's audience lights sweeping in a breakup of tight little beams in an ultraviolet blue, trying to making the audience feel like they're part of what's going on, and as soon as they actually start the song, those same lights come onto the stage in a lighter blue and sweep the stage during the song, so it's all connected."
Hirsch is enthusiastic about his experience with the Case 2, which he had never used before. "The Case controller is pretty user-friendly, it's got some ideas in it that are really brilliant. You can set up cues and groups of cues, and use playbacks off your cues. The best thing about the Case controller is it has an effects generator, which gives you the ability to do a lot of things that normally would take hundreds of hours to program. You can just go to various menus--shutter chases, sweeps, color chases--and it gives you a huge variety to choose from." Overall, Hirsch was impressed with the Case 2's ease of use. "The graphics on the video monitor are all in brilliant color, very understandable, and you can see exactly how the lights are set up onstage. The way the board is set up is much easier than most of the moving-light boards out there, so that a lighting director like me can come in and learn a board over about two weeks and have a flawless tour, and I think that's a credit to how they built the Case controller and how it's adaptable to touring."
The compact set and lighting rig is also very adaptable; nevertheless, Hirsch had to do some finagling to fit it into some venues on the tour. "It's the LD's job to come in every morning and make certain decisions about exactly what to do in each venue," he says. "Certain buildings have rigging points that are fixed: You don't tell them where you want your points, they tell you where your points are, and there's a big difference. A lot of times you're basically stuck with what the venue has to offer. Sometimes it's an impossible task, and we just do our best, and in some places it looks pretty cool, but in some places it doesn't. We did the new 930 club in Washington and we put our moving lights on their truss, and they said it was the best light show they'd seen in that building. And I think with the crew that we had, Andy and Eric and Matt, the guys really helped me to make a lot of those decisions on what we could physically put into each venue, and we just did our best to make it look as good as we coul d. I get proud of a show, and when I leave a place I want to be proud of what I've done there, so a lot of times we put a lot of extra effort in, trying to get as many lights as we can into some of the smaller venues."
Compliments go around for everyone involved. "The tour went pretty flawless for us," Hirsch concludes. "In a total moving light system, we did not have one failure during a show, which is unheard of, we never had any problems with the new Case controller, I was really impressed with all the lights. It was just really a great tour for a lot of reasons." "Bandit Lites are excellent," says Smeeton. "They did a superb job for us, and they will do for the rest of this year." The tour should start up again this spring, and include Europe and Australia, plus another US leg with outdoor venues over the summer.
LIGHTING DESIGNER Jonathan Smeeton
LIGHTING DIRECTOR Lane Hirsch
PROGRAMMER Jorge Valdez
CREW CHIEF Matt King
MASTER ELECTRICIAN Eric "The Rock" Shafferman
MOVING LIGHT TECHNICIAN Andy Knighton
TOUR PACKAGE SUPPLIER Bandit Lites
EQUIPMENT LIST (18) Martin Professional MAC 600s (12) Martin Professional MAC 500s (8) Martin Professional Roboscan 518s (6) Martin Professional PAL 1200s (12) ETC Source Four 19-degree ellipsoidals (6) Thomas 8-lights (6) Wybron 8-light scrollers (4) AC Lighting 2kW tubular ripple effects machines (24) egg strobes (2) Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion hazers (2) Martin Professional Case 2 consoles (1) Avolites 30x2.4kw dimmer (1) Clear-Com rack-mount mains station (4) 10' sections Thomas A-type black truss (6) 8' sections Thomas A-type black truss (14) 4' sections Thomas A-type black truss (8) Thomas A-type black corner pieces (10) Coffing Hoists 1-ton motors (2) 25' single-pull bi-parting curtain tracks (2) 38'x15' white sharkstooth scrim panels