“You'll be sorry you messed with the US of A, ‘cause we'll put a boot in your ass — it's the American way.”
Toby Keith, country music's favorite mainstream rebel, certainly isn't afraid to voice his political views, which are pointedly pro-American — unlike some other artists in his genre. Keith's no-holds-barred brand of patriotism, as evidenced by the ticket sales for his current flag-waving Shockin' Y'all tour, is definitely resonating with audiences. “I really think that Toby's pro-American stance has really added to his fan base,” notes Seth Jackson, the LD of the current tour.
Keith's production, which is notably more complex than his former efforts, was initially based on one crucial item: a truck. Not just any truck, however, but a customized Ford F-150 that was handed to co-production designer and truck designer Jim Lenahan. “We wanted to create a real transformer truck, based on the old toy — but one that would actually work,” Lenahan explains. The 8,000lb truck sits on a 24' turntable and, at the beginning of the show, the headlights are facing the audience. Then the turntable rotates, and the transformation begins, turning the stock F-150 into a functioning stage containing five High End Systems Studio Spot 250s, ten footlights, a forklift mechanism, and guitar amps, as well as numerous hydraulic actuators and a plethora of batteries. “It took ten weeks just to modify the truck, and that was a rush job,” Lenahan says.
Once the truck was completed, the next step was to place it somewhere on a standard stage. Lenahan and Jackson began to study the elements of the production: 14 band members, risers, a 13' × 24' video wall, and the truck and turntable. “Jim and I just started putting pieces together in every possible configuration,” says Jackson. One of the biggest challenges was the weight of the vehicle/turntable combination. After considering numerous options, Lenahan suggested leaving out a 24' × 24' section of standard arena staging, and bringing the truck onstage using lifts. “Basically, we fill up the hole with the lifts and the turntable and, once it's in place, legs come down and safety it off,” he says.
The elements finally came together, and the pair began work on the tour's concept. Keith's current album is entitled Unleashed and features a doghouse with a broken chain on the cover. “Toby said, ‘Well, we have the junkyard dog, so I want a junkyard set,’” Lenahan explains. That concept was fine, since the designer had been mulling over the idea of a junkyard set for a while. “Then Toby decided he didn't want a straight junkyard — he wanted something a bit more futuristic, like a Terminator junkyard,” says Lenahan. With that in mind, he began work on a Mad Max-style junkyard, which features a variety of non-working aerospace industry hardware, including dials and instrument faces, that Lenahan had vacu-formed in plastic. “The dials and gauges were all cut out and backed with white Plexiglas® so they could be backlit,” he says. Which is exactly what Jackson did. “I've got 20-plus [Martin] Mac 300s sitting upstage on the deck that do nothing but light gear faces all night,” the LD says. The Mac 300s added another element to the dials as well. “The movement and action of the lights actually make the whole back catwalk/control panel flicker like an old ENIAC computer,” adds Lenahan. The result? “We were really able to get a level of detail to this set that you don't normally see on rock-and-roll shows,” Lenahan notes.
Regarding the lighting rig, Jackson found that Keith had some ideas. “Very early on, Toby said he'd rather not see a big lighting rig if it really didn't do something as part of the show,” the LD says. Since the rig doesn't articulate or do anything that a standard rig doesn't do, Jackson had a simple solution: He hid it. “We blacked off the whole grid with black borders, and simply erased it, focusing all the attention on the set and the three custom cranes, that are loaded with police beacons, chains, hooks, and two Studio Spots,” he says.
While Jackson and Lenahan figured out the details of the production, they were working against the clock. “The time frame for this was completely crunched,” Jackson says, adding, “it was one of the most horrific schedules I've ever had.” That was because of one simple fact: Keith never stopped touring. “There were five days between the ending of the old show and the start of the new production,” says Jackson. “If it were not for the efforts of Toby's key production people, Mark Sissel, Sean Sargent, and Keith Hughes, we never would have made it.” That five days turned into four — one day to set up the new production, two days to program and two days to load out. “Calling it a production rehearsal would be a stretch. All of our time was needed to simply get all the pieces of the puzzle in place,” Jackson comments, “but it was the hand we were dealt.”
Thankfully, Jackson had some help in the form of Keith's lighting director of eight years, Eddie “Bones” Connell. “Bones left the tour — during the show, mind you — to come to rehearsals and work on the new show with me, leaving his crew chief, Ken Sorrell to run the remaining shows,” says Jackson. Connell also came armed with a tape of Keith's current tour, as well as a detailed list of cues for the current show. Both men approached their new collaboration cautiously at first. “I've never worked with a lighting director who was with the artist before, and Bones comes from a PAR can-bump-and-flash background, while I'm more theatre-based,” says Jackson. The result of their collaboration was a show that's completely different than anything Jackson has done before. “This show is my Billy Joel,” Jackson says, “I finally was able to do a show that's artistic, yet with a rock-and-roll attitude. This is my Steve Cohen influence gone country.”
Collaboration was the key. “Bones has a wonderful sense of timing and a great cueing sense, and he knew the show and knew where the cues were. All I had to do was design the looks around the cues,” Jackson says. The designer also built quite a bit of freedom into the design as well. “Bones also wanted to have things that he could accent with bumps and flashes, which was the way he was doing things before,” comments Jackson. “So we took 40 Mac 300s and used them as his PAR cans. Now he has the freedom to add in accents, but they're built into the context of the song.” The result was a show that's different every night, depending on the audience reaction.
The color palette of the show is also based on what Keith had in his former tour, at least to some extent. “Bones tended to revert, color-wise, to what he did with his PAR can rig,” Jackson says. Instead of duplicating the former show, Jackson simply introduced Connell to the color palette on the automated rig, and explored the spectrum of a specific color. “Actually, as it turned out, my color choices for many of the songs were similar to what Bones was already doing.”
Jackson's rig is heavy on Martin and High End gear, and he's assuredly a new fan of the Mac 2000 wash light. “The beam spreading on the Mac 2000 wash light is amazing — you can get these beautiful tight beams of light that are just saturated to the hilt with color, and an instant later, 8-lights can wash the entire stage with deep saturations,” the designer says. Another integral part of the show are High End Cyberlights, which are a holdover from Keith's previous tour and come from Connell's company, EWC Lighting. “There are times that you need to get the light somewhere right now, and the mirrors on the Cyberlights are great for that,” he reports. The rig also contains High End Studio Spot 250s, Martin MAC 600s for front light and Turbo Cyberlights used as truss spots.
Keith's Shockin Y'All tour opened in St. Louis in August, and is expected to continue until spring. “Toby's out there having a great time, the crowd loves it, the show's just a two- hour party,” Jackson concludes.
THE SHOCKIN' YA'LL 2003 TOUR
Seth Jackson and Jim Lenahan
Transformer Truck Design
Eddie “Bones” Connell
TKO Management, TK Kimbrell
EWC Lighting, Dallas, TX
B & R Scenery, Camarillo, CA
FLIX FX, North Hollywood, CA
Impact Imaging, Reno, NV
Transformer truck construction
WonderWorks, Canoga Park, CA
38 Martin Mac 300111
12 Martin Mac 600111
12 Martin Mac 2000 Profile111
8 Martin Mac 2000 Wash111
11 High End Systems Studio Spot110
10 High End Systems Cyberlight110
2 High End Systems Turbo Cyberlights (fitted for Cyberspot operation)110
14 police beacon
8 Thomas 8-lite mole117
1 ETC 72×24kW Sensor dimmer rack118
1 High End Systems Wholehog II w/expansion wing110
1 High End Systems Hog PC w/four widgets (control backup)110
20 Duff-Norton 1-ton hoist119
370' Thomas 20.5" GP truss117
Circle Number on Reader Service Card