While the new release that Counting Crows is currently on tour promoting may be titled This Desert Life, there is nothing dry about the show's look. LD Mike Duncan began discussing the tour's design with other members of the production staff and the band's lead singer, Adam Duritz, last spring.
"We originally talked about creating an urban feel, not unlike the VH1 special we did a few years ago," Duncan explains. "But then Adam and I were talking about the album artwork by Dave McKean, which is pretty fantastic. Each song on the album has a piece of its own representative drawing on the jacket sleeve. They all feature everyday objects put together with others in really interesting ways, like the guy in the top hat with the goldfish bowl head, which is on the cover. The images are so strong and beautiful that it made sense to go in that direction."
The LD then enlisted Tom Strahan of San Francisco-based Scale Design to create set pieces by pasting some of the images together. The artwork for one song in particular, "St. Robinson and His Cadillac Dream," is a landscape painting depicting a small town fair with a ferris wheel and clouds. "We decided that would make a fantastic backdrop to put behind everything else as a unifying factor," Duncan says. "That could, in fact, be our landscape, and I'd hoped all of these other images would just pop up out of the scenery not unlike the Broadway production of 'Sunday in the Park with George.' That was our premise. So it's more of a dreamscape; it's a bit surreal."
George & Goldberg Design Associates constructed the set. "They did a great job of fabricating some wonderful pieces for us," Duncan says. "In keeping with the reality of truck space and budget we tried to keep it as simple as possible and let the lighting do most of the work."
Upstaging is the tour's main lighting contractor. "My crew includes my good friends Bill Frostman and Scott Zemadis," Duncan says. "I was lucky to get them." Upstaging also provided the four T bars the LD used in the rig. "I saw them in the Lighting Dimensions [March 1999] article on Ethan Weber's design for Marilyn Manson," Duncan says. "It's a great look, and I needed a place to put spot fixtures that wasn't four of them in a row up above. I usually have towers, but this time I wanted to do something different. So on the straight line coming down I had a fluorescent tube, then directly underneath that a Diversitronics strobe unit, and under that a [High End Systems] Studio Spot(TM)."
Duncan's lighting design includes a combination of automated luminaires and conventional equipment. "We brought in a couple of interesting pieces that I'd never really played around with before, like the fluorescent tubes and these cue lights, which are little quartz fixtures that you can chase and blink on and off," Duncan explains. "They provide some wonderful shadows."
For the High End Systems Cyberlights(R) the LD had some custom gobos made based on the album's artwork. "I also used some of their semi-custom gobos and we project those from the midstage truss," Duncan says. "I chose the ones that implied texture. The set pieces and the backdrop all take light really well, so there are times when it quite literally looks like just the set pieces and the backdrop, and other times when that all seems to disappear under the gobo projections from the Cyberlights."
The system also includes High End Systems Studio Colors(R) and Morpheus ColorFaders. "The word to define this system is ergonomic," Duncan says. "We made some cuts at the beginning because we wanted every piece to be important, but we didn't want to have anything up there that we didn't need. We wanted it to be as lean and mean as possible. Every piece in the system makes sense and has a specific function--if you take one away it's sorely missed. The Morpheus ColorFaders were a big part of that plan because we use the XL Faders to light the backdrop and the ColorFaders light the downstage truss. That really made all the difference in the world because their color-mixing abilities are just amazing. The transition was so beautiful and subtle that I could do it in the middle of a song. I wasn't limited; I could mix colors as long as I wanted to and come up with just the right one. So I've got some really outrageous colors in the show. If nothing else, it's not a rock show; there is no real bump and flash. That approach has always worked well for this band."
Having done some makeup dates in US theatres earlier this year, the band is currently touring Europe and will do a summer shed tour in North America.