Natalie Merchant released her second solo album, Ophelia, in early 1998. A year and a half later she is still touring--this time to promote her upcoming live album. Beginning with 1998's Lilith Fair tour, LD Jason Boyd has been with Merchant for the long haul.
Boyd met Merchant through mutual friends, and she would sometimes check out his lighting design work on New York theatre productions, such as Field of Mars and The Gospel of Colonnus. "Each of Natalie's songs is like an operetta or miniature play," Boyd says. "Each song has its own story, especially 'Ophelia,' which is like a rock opera. Each Ophelia has her own opinions and characteristics, and there are seven of them in the song. I kept trying to come up with a way to link them together, and it dawned on me that the first six could each be a color of the rainbow. Then I realized the seventh woman that she talks about is the crazy one, so I did a big white hurricane cue. Then she talks about all the Ophelias, so I dumped that into the rainbow, which brings them all together.
"Of course, I knew that no one would get that I was being that esoteric," he continues, "but in the end it worked, and it told the story. Whether people got it or not didn't matter because the vibration was there, and they picked up on that."
All of that thought went into just one song, but Boyd proved he had plenty of ideas for his first rock tour. "Four days before Lilith Fair started, I flew to Vancouver and stayed up from midnight to 8am programming on the Wholehog with Stan Green, who is an incredible programmer and great designer in his own right," Boyd says. "We hit it off immediately, because he is a theatre guy, too. So our show looked completely different than Graeme Nicol's show for Sarah MacLachlan, which I was very grateful for.
"Natalie's music lends itself to saturated color, and she doesn't like white light a lot, so I save it for when she says, 'Thank you. Good night.' Then I snap everything to white," Boyd continues. "I have to give Stan complete credit for teaching me that. It always makes the crowd go crazy."
The following autumn, Merchant changed management and put together a new UK tour. Afterwards, Boyd returned to New York, where he worked on the next GAle GAtes et al. [Brooklyn-based theatre group] show and also designed Liz Phair's tour. Merchant then booked East and West Coast dates and planned to finish up touring by Christmas. "So we put together another system that was an upstage truss, a 32' truss full of PAR cans, and an 8' truss left and right standing on a corner block," Boyd explains. "I took a dance light plot and applied it to rock and roll; she dances through the whole concert anyway, so it was perfect."
Before hitting the mainland, Merchant and crew played Hawaii, where the LD added four more High End Systems Cyberlights(R) to the upstage truss. "I was a drummer before an LD, so I would try to bring a bit of rock-and-roll edge to my theatre work, to spice up the visuals," Boyd says. "Now I bring theatre concepts to my rock-and-roll work; I try to make it a little more subtle, a little less bombastic. Natalie's first comment to me was, 'Would you like to come over and make my rock concert look a little more like a piece of theatre and a little less like a rock concert?' So starting off in the rock business with her show was perfect for me."
For this leg of the tour, Boyd was able to use WYSIWYG to program the show at Lighting Technolgies with help from Richard "Nook" Schoenfeld. "I appreciate everything Robert Roth and the rest of those guys did to help me," Boyd says. After a big Christmas show in New York Merchant decided to keep the crew on retainer and booked another four months. "Management gave me the green light to design the light plot I had wanted all along," Boyd says. "I made it deep but relatively cost-effective: two mini-trusses with High End Technobeams(R) and Studio Colors(R), and four Studio Spots(TM) because I wanted to try them out.
"Because Natalie's music is mainly very subtle, I created a specialty button in the Wholehog that was a soft focus for gobos," he continues. "Every time I hit a gobo I also hit that button. I had layers, but almost nothing was hard-edged in the whole show. There were a couple of dance-like moments in songs like 'Carnival' or 'Wonder' where I used a sharp-focused gobo, but mostly it was soft-focus and kind of surreal."
Delicate Productions served as the tour's main lighting contractor, and they sent Joe Allegro from AC Lighting to help Boyd set up this leg of the tour. "He and I hit it off instantly, which was great because we had hardly any time to program, and they had added some new songs," says the LD. "Between Stan, Nook, and Joe, I learned quite a bit. As the show progressed--and as I got more adept on the Wholehog--I would make changes. I was able to spend two hours just about every day adding to the show. Tiffany McLane did a great job as my tech on the road."
In addition to the lighting changes, the show gained a big blue drape for the set. Boyd and set designer/production assistant Megan Ingalls came up with the idea while the tour was in Dublin. "Originally, I had the white backdrop and the black scrim, and Natalie loved how the colors looked changing on them," Boyd says. "I really wanted something with more texture, so we were able to get a blue crushed-velvet drape from Rose Brand. It's flame-retardant polyester, inexpensive, and it held up great. It's the perfect rock touring drop."
The Ophelia tour officially ended in June with five sold-out benefit concerts at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. This time the LD was able to surprise Merchant with confetti from Flutter Works. "I really enjoy working with Natalie," Boyd says. "She was big on making sure the whole show looked good, sounded good, and worked as an integrated show. It was a collaborative effort."