Mike Swinford Gives Country Star Kenny Chesney a Rock-and-Roll Look

When he was opening for Alabama, Kenny Chesney had time to look at the work of lighting designer Mike Swinford. When Chesney was ready to hit the road as a headliner, he turned to Swinford to take him into the forefront of the country-rock scene. "Kenny told me, 'I want something that's really rock-and-roll-looking, something that's in your face, that's hard-hitting--no holds barred'," the designer explains. So, Swinford went to work.

Going into the project, Swinford knew that the equipment was going to be provided by Dale Morris Leasing, the firm that also manages the performer. There was also another request from Chesney: a lot of moving lights. So Swinford looked at the stock at Dale Morris Leasing, and was given the green light to go shopping. "I decided that I need a color-mixing light, because Kenny is pretty finicky about color, and there's certain colors he doesn't like--namely magenta," Swinford explains. Of course, Swinford did have a budget, and decided to make it work for him. "Kenny did say he wanted a lot of moving lights, so rather than having 10 big, bright moving lights, I decided I could have 20 of another," he explains. He decided to go with the High End Systems Studio Spot®. Chesney's lighting director Michael Shucher was pleased with the choice of gear. "I'm the biggest High End fan you can imagine," he admits. "The support has always been there for me from High End, and that's critical when you're on the road," Shucher adds.


Rendering courtesy Mike Swinford

Long before rehearsals began, Swinford (who is Brooks and Dunn's set designer, among others) started work on some renderings. "I use 3D Studio Max Release 4.2," Swinford explains. "I've been using it since it was first released in the late 80s as 3D Studio, and I've found it to be one of the best and most cost-effective for my application," Swinford confides. As a set designer, 3D Studio Max is a useful tool for Swinford, but he also uses it when he's doing lighting design as well. "The renderings give a client a good idea of what the actual lighting angles will look like, as well as potential sightline issues," he explains. "The renderings can also show the effects of different color lights on the scenery," Swinford adds.


Rendering courtesy Mike Swinford

All of the elements started coming together for the 11-month tour last fall. "We put the crew together and were in rehearsals in late October," Shucher explains. At that point, Swinford and programmer Mark Butts worked on the show on a grandMA light console and then handed it over to Shucher to take on the road. The band did a six-week stint, then went back into the studio around the holidays and did some fine-tuning of the show, this time with Shucher doing the programming. "I was a little skeptical going in, since I'm a Hog II guy," Shucher admits. "It was a little bit of a transition going from the Hog to the grandMA, but the more I use the grandMA, the more I like it--it definitely gets the job done," he adds.


Rendering courtesy Mike Swinford

From a visual standpoint, one of the most noticeable parts of the production are sixteen 16'x4' (4.8x1.2m) pieces of aluminum grating hanging between the top and bottom of the stage. Chesney already had a set that featured aluminum grating, and Swinford saw it as a design opportunity. "For the lighting design, I decided to carry that theme into the lighting grid itself," he notes. The result is a look that could be found on any rock-and-roll stage today. "I didn't want to have a void between the layers of light, so that's why I came up with the grating idea--I basically wanted to create a wall of light and scenic elements," Swinford remarks. The aluminum grating creates a sense of unity on the stage, and visually brings the lighting and the stage set together. "The grates reflect light really well and they make the show look a lot bigger than it actually is," notes Shucher.


Photo ©2002 Todd Kaplan

Aluminum grates can also be found on the front of two trusses filled with PAR cans, acting as sidelights. "Those are the only PAR cans on the show, and they're really never focused, and they really work quite well," Swinford admits. Finding the correct angle for the PAR trusses proved to be tricky at the start of the tour, but Shucher and his crew found the best working angle for them, and they add an interesting dimension to the rig.

Next to the limited use of magenta on the show, the show also has a lack of wildly spinning gobos on stage. "We use the gobos quite a bit because of all the in-air effects we do over the audience," Swinford explains. But Kenny doesn't like a lot of rotating gobos--he specifically said, 'I don't want twirly things on a backdrop'," the designer explains with a smile. And there really aren't any, although Swinford and Shucher haven't gotten rid of the onstage gobos entirely. "When we do use rotating gobos, it's mostly during a ballad, and they're just creeping very slowly," notes Swinford.


Photo ©2002 Todd Kaplan

Chesney also isn't a fan of looks that contain a rainbow of hues. "The show is a lot of ambers, red, and blues--it's saturated, but not a lot of fruit salad," Shucher says. Swinford echoes his thoughts. "Anytime I'd get into more than a two-color mix, Kenny wouldn't like it," he comments. "In fact, the most challenging part of the show for me was to have a lot of diverse looks and not use a lot of color-mixing," Swinford adds.

Swinford's rig also lacks a front truss. "I felt we didn't need a front truss because the show is about Kenny and the band is well covered with side- and backlight," notes the designer. "Because there is no front truss, you have a nice view of the upstage hardware," he adds.


Photo ©2002 Todd Kaplan

While Swinford, who just finished working on the set design for the NBA Draft, is back in Nashville working on his next project, Shucher, a former airline employee who started in the business in 1991 at age 30, is more than happy to be out on the road with Chesney. "A designer can come in and design the show," he begins, "but when I come in, I add my own touch and enhance what they've done." Shucher has nothing but praise for Swinford. "Mike Swinford is a terrific person and an outstanding lighting designer," Shucher notes. "He was also very nice about letting me have some input on the show as well, especially after the first leg," he adds. In turn, Swinford has nothing but positive comments about Shucher. "Michael has proved to be a very good lighting director--he's very dedicated to the tour, and Kenny and his management love him," Swinford remarks.

The name of the tour is No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem, and as the summer rolls on, it may become more of a way of life for the road crew. "This summer is going to be like that for us," Shucher says with a smile. "My shirt's off, my shoes are off, and we really don't have many problems," he notes.

Contact the author at sstancavage@primediabusiness.com.

KENNY CHESNEY NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO PROBLEM

Lighting Designer
Mike Swinford

Lighting Director/Crew Chief
Michael Shucher

Master Electrician
JD White

Moving Light Tech
Jason Barbour

Cable Guy
Brian Sherman

Lighting Supplier
Dale Morris Leasing

Lighting Equipment

30

High End Systems Studio Color 575s

34

High End Systems Studio Spot 575s

9

High End Systems Turbo Cyberlights

96

PAR-64s

16

PAR-56 stubby truss toners

4

Thomas 8-lights

16

Tomcat IT truss sections

8

Thomas PAR truss sections

10

Thomas 8' sections Minibeam truss

20

Columbus McKinnon Lodestar 1-ton motors

5

Columbus McKinnon Lodestar 1/2-ton motors

2

Avolites 48-way ART 2000 dimmers

2

Motion Laboratories 16-way motor distros

1

Motion Laboratories 48-way power distro

1

MA Lighting GrandMA light console