Lighting Ben Harper's European tour
I spent 20 years touring the world with various musical acts. In 1999, I decided it was time for a break from the road. I still design concert lighting for a few bands each year, but once a tour is up and running I leave the lighting to a director. Touring is a young man's game. Plus, this enables me to keep a hand in multiple projects.
Once summer rolls around, a lot of my corporate lighting work — trade shows, business meetings — slows down, leaving me time to catch up on the latest drawing software or new innovations in lighting and video fixtures. At this time, I usually get calls from old friends who try and talk me into going back on the road with their current tours. I am always happy to talk to them, but I have no interest in going back on the road.
That was the case until a few months ago when I received a call from Kerry Nicholson, production manager for the L.A.-based musician Ben Harper. Nicholson asked me to cover the lighting on a short six-week European run. I told him I'd consider it.
I purchased some of Ben's music to see if I could groove with it, and it grew on me quickly. Ben is a guitar player of the highest regard. His music covers everything from folk to rock to gospel to jam band — he cannot be categorized. Since the time slot was open on my agenda, I decided to take the gig.
European Road Trip
The tour consisted of 22 shows, 10 of which were festival gigs. There's a string of two- or three-day festivals that takes place in Europe each summer. Many have multiple stages with up to 10 bands on each stage per day. Each stage has an individual lighting rig and console, designed by someone from the promoter's team. In between festival dates, Ben was booked to do his own shows with a lighting rig I designed.
Before starting the tour, I drew my specified light rig in the visualization studio at Upstaging Lighting's Chicago facility. Upstaging is a major U.S. rental house whose gear I use whenever possible. The people at Upstage were kind enough to donate the use of their facility to me for this project. I used a program called Martin Show Designer, which enabled me to hook my Wholehog III lighting console directly to the computer and simulate what the stage lighting would look like for each cue to every song. In two days, I was able to program basic looks for about 20 songs.
My first show was in Madrid. Ben Harper was headlining a Friday night festival. I arrived at the venue the night prior to our performance. This enabled me to focus my lights in the dark and set up a punt page — the programmer tries to fit as many stage lighting looks onto one page of the console as possible — for the next evening's performance. If the punt page is done correctly, any LD can then choose focus positions, or movement cues, color schemes, gobo patterns, and intensity levels through a variety of faders and push buttons. Most designers have specific ways they like to set up their punt pages.
The lighting on this night consisted of about 100 PAR 64 conventional lamps and 30 Clay Paky stage zoom fixtures. I had never used the Clay Paky fixtures since they are not common in the United States, but I was pleasantly surprised. The lights were bright and the color consistency was very close in each fixture — their movement was smooth. The only drawback was the one-second delay it took the light to strobe. The show went ok, and that's about how it looked. It was my first time seeing the band live, and I had to get a feel for them.
The next day featured a performance at the Rock in Rio festival in Lisbon, Portugal. The sheer size of the stage and surrounding area was huge. LD Danny Nolan headed the lighting at this festival and did a fantastic job. As soon as I arrived, I was ushered into a portable visualization studio where I could simulate my lighting cues and write another punt page. I spent two hours focusing some lights and building color schemes. I then spent some time picking out video content for all the songs I thought Ben might play. Nolan operated the video wall behind the band through the use of a High End Systems Catalyst.
For Rock in Rio, I used about 300 PARS, 50 Martin Mac 2000 profiles, and 50 High End Studio beams as my predominant fixtures. For consoles, each LD could choose between an Avolites Diamond 4, a Martin Maxxyz, A Wholehog II or a Wholehog III with wings. They did not have one of the new Maxxyz wings available. I am unfamiliar with the Avo line of consoles, so I went with the Wholehog III. It's easy to use and afforded the most versatility. The 90-minute set was well received, and I felt I had a great show. Much of this was due to the tremendous work by the German lighting crew from Pro Con lighting, which had only one day to set up this enormous system.
Next, it was on to France for some solo headline shows. Ben does good business in France, and the arena had two sold-out shows. I used a French lighting company named General Location as the supplier. They did a superb job, although, due to budget constraints, I had to use a few different fixtures than the ones I had planned on using for the show. I used the Wholehog III console.
The console has the unique feature in its patch called Change Fixtures that enabled me to exchange all the Martin Mac 2K profiles I had previously programmed with for High End X spots. The console also exchanged Mac 2000 wash lights for Elation Servo Colors and Mac 300s for High End Studio Colors. It took about two minutes to make the changes in the program. I was simply amazed when I started running through cues and found that all the lights were doing precisely what I had programmed other lights to do. The preset focus positions I had devised weeks ago in the Martin Show Designer program were dead on.
This is due to the fact that the Wholehog III focuses its lights in degrees, as opposed to focus increments of 0 to 100 percent. Each light starts out pointing straight down at zero-degrees pan and zero-degrees tilt. As you move the fixture, it remembers how many degrees it panned. You can swap any fixture types, and the focus will remain the same. This was a lifesaver, giving me extra hours of programming time to tighten up lighting cues.
After these shows, I was in a groove. All the other festivals ran smoothly. When I got to the U.K., I hooked up with Neg Earth Lighting, which provided all the lights I originally picked for the rest of Ben's shows. I once again changed fixtures in the console and had some beautiful shows.
Nook Schoenfeld is a 20-year veteran of the concert touring industry. He divides his time between teaching lighting and designing lighting for concert and corporate events.