A Trio of Technical Challenges for Licks, the Rolling Stones' 40th Anniversary Tour

When you've been filling theatres, stadiums, and arenas for as long as the Rolling Stones, how do you top yourself? That was the question on the minds of Mick and company when the band got together at the beginning of the year and started kicking around ideas for their next tour, which was to feature a significant set of classic Rolling Stones hits as well as new songs and dubbed the Licks World Tour 2002/03.

The answer: why not fill the theatres, stadiums, and arenas all in one shot? In an attempt to make this tour more exciting and rewarding for both the band and the fans, the Stones decided to play different size venues in the major market cities, all at the same time. For example, in New York City, the band played Madison Square Garden with an indoor arena setup, Giants Stadium in New Jersey for a stadium show, and then finished up at Roseland Ballroom for a more intimate, stripped-down show. Keith Richards was quoted in The New York Times as calling it “The Fruit of the Loom tour — it's small, medium, and large.” The tour will cover North America, and for the next year travel to Japan, Europe, and for the first time in the band's history, China.

The three shows are built around a core concept, each with its own flavor. “The lighting outdoors, is up, positive,” notes lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe. “The arena is edgy, with the video it's more theatrical. The theatre is straightforward, smoky and dirty.”

Though Woodroffe, set designer Mark Fisher, video designer Willie Williams, and sound engineer Robbie McGrath all put together a visually and aurally seamless design (see "Classic Rock," below), the real story behind the Licks tour concerns the logistical challenges facing the crew. Because it is essentially three shows in one, the opportunities for disaster grow exponentially, providing three times the chance of logistical nightmares. Luckily, the Stones had Jake Berry on the case.

“F” as in Fun?
Berry, longtime Stones production director, was on the road with U2 when he heard about the concept from the producers; he at first thought it sounded like a good idea. Then he thought about it some more and began to see the logistical challenges. “There are two words to describe this tour — the first begins with ‘F,’ and the second is ‘big,’” he laughs. “It's bigger than Steel Wheels, bigger than Bridges to Babylon. It's huge, their biggest tour to date.” Berry should know: he's served as the band's head of production for years now, a position he's also held for U2. “It requires more moving and we are in a city longer,” he continues. The production is so large that it requires 60 trucks, 10 buses, and a 125-member crew traveling with the show to handle it all. On top of that, local crew is always needed to supplement the touring crew — not that they ever have a problem filling the spots. “It's the Stones,” says Berry. “Whenever I put a crew call out, I get twice the number of volunteers as I request. Everyone wants to say that they had a part in putting on this show.”

The band went to Toronto to rehearse for a month prior to starting out on the road. Berry erected the two major sets in the old Maple Leaf Gardens arena. “We actually got both sets up at the same time at the Gardens,” says Berry “We put up the arena stage at one end, width-wise, and ran the stadium set lengthwise. It was the first time they had ever had a 25-ton hoist in the Gardens. Rehearsals ended in the latter part of August, and in the beginning of September the band kicked off the tour in Boston.

After the equipment lists were drawn up based on the designs of Fisher, Woodroffe, and Williams, Berry and his staff began working on the logistics of playing three different venues in a city. It was decided that all of the equipment would do double and sometimes triple duty. Lighting crew chief Ethan Weber and lighting director Jim Straw started pulling the gear together at VLPS Lighting Services' facility in LA along with members of the veteran lighting crew. It became clear that even though the same fixtures would be used in the three venues, they would have to build two completely different cable systems for the lighting, one for the arenas and one for the stadiums. “We spent so much time building cable bundles,” says Straw. “We were building cables right up until we hopped a flight to Toronto to rehearse. We spent the day building cables, hopped our flight, and that night were celebrating Mick Jagger's 59th birthday in craft services. It was pretty surreal.”

Cream of the Crop
Because of the logistical demands of such a tour, it was imperative that Woodroffe assemble a top-notch team: Weber, Straw, and the rest of the extensive lighting crew are among the cream of the touring crop. “The Stones lighting crew is comprised of some of the best in the industry,” says Susan Tesh, general manager of VLPS Lighting Services, Los Angeles. “Their expertise is key to effectively and safely managing the additive and subtractive processes needed for the three different shows. Well before the final lighting spec was settled, the crew was working as a team on the best way to accomplish the task at hand while remaining flexible to adjustments and changes along the way. It's obvious they love what they do and are hugely successful at it.”

The lighting equipment gets broken down thusly for arena shows: 34 High End Systems x.Spots, 24 HES Studio Beams, 35 VL2416 wash luminaires, 46 VL6C spot luminaires, 10 VL5 wash luminaires, 9 VL2000 wash luminaires, James Thomas Engineering 8-Lites, nine with Wybron large-format Coloram II scrollers, 36 PAR-64s, 16 Diversitronics 3kW strobes, eight MR-16 striplights, four T-Lights, and 11 3kW Syncrolites, all controlled from a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II with a wing and three overdrives. For the arena and stadium shows, lighting director Straw runs the lights off the Wholehog II consoles.

The majority of the lighting rig was provided by VLPS Lighting Services, including Wholehog II control, conventional lighting, truss, and rigging, as well as a variety of Vari*Lite automated lighting equipment, with additional equipment from Fourth Phase and Syncrolite.

For the stadium shows, the arena gear is supplemented with the following additional equipment: four HES x.Spots, 14 VL2416s, 30 VL5s, three VL2000 washlights, 23 James Thomas Engineering 8-Lites, 11 3kW Syncrolites, six 7kW Syncrolites, and 96 ACLs. A ground support rig, used for the B stage with a custom roof system, is located in the center of the field; it contains the stadium B stage lighting grid, is supported by towers containing custom trussing, and is also designed to incorporate cantilevered sections to support speakers.

The dimmer patch stays the same for all of the venues; more floor fixtures are used in the stadium setup, and almost all of the fixtures get dealt with. “There are a lot of Vari*Lite changes and all of the fixtures except the x.Spots get re-addressed,” says Straw. “It is very labor-intensive.”

Flexible Support
Concurrent to the lighting preparations, Brilliant Stages, Tomcat USA, and Tomcat UK provided rigging equipment and support for the Licks tour. “One of the biggest challenges has been that this equipment needs to work in three different configurations: stadium, arena, and club,” says Dave Sowa, project manager for Tomcat USA. “The first test took place in Boston, where there was a performance using each setup.” Tomcat Global provided onsite design, as well as CAD and fabrication services during production rehearsals in Toronto as well as the first stop in Boston. A mobile shop staffed by two fabricators, Elias Padilla from Brilliant Stages and Mike Morris from Tomcat USA, provided fabrication for any tour staff or vendors. Tait Towers provided fabrication of the scenic elements.

For the stadium shows Brilliant Stages provided extensive design and fabrication of equipment including a video screen support and drive system, vertical tracks, back wall panels, lighting pods, and a control system. The system supports and moves the video screen as eight individual video columns; each column is supported by a motor-driven tug and travels on a steel I-beam to track across stage. Each column can be individually controlled to create a combination of screen looks: one large screen, two medium screens, or up to eight separate video columns.

The vertical tracks guide approximately 15 back-wall panels and lighting pods manufactured by Tomcat UK. The panels themselves are digitally printed scenic panels used to cover the high back wall in the stadium setting. They travel and store in an integral cart at the base and are raised to grid height. Once in place, the panels are kept under tension at all times to create a complete wall; they were designed so that outer panels may be used in large venues and left off in small venues. The eight lighting pods each support a pair of VL6C fixtures and travel on vertical tracks on a closed loop belt drive, which was built into a traveling frame attached to the base of the track. Keeping the mechanics at stage level assures a speedy setup; those same motor drives are also used for the arena lighting pods. A control system, incorporating 31 axes of movement operates servomotors on video screens, back-wall panels, and lighting pods. This PC-based system also has a touchscreen control interface.

Tomcat also created a rigging grid, towers, and lighting pods for the arena videowall. This wall incorporated a small gap between various columns to allow a lighting pod to travel up and down. Due to the curve of the screen, each lighting pod required custom design with unique angle and cantilever. The seven 15" spigoted guide towers incorporated custom-designed nylon roller guides to maintain precision while the pod travels the 40' height of the tower.

The videowall is 46' tall by 52' wide and weighs in at approximately 55,000lbs. During the load-in for the Toronto rehearsals, the massive videowall came within 2" of the roof steel. “So we used a shoehorn,” says Berry. “We adjust to fit the varying venues we will play on this tour.”

In the early stages of the tour, Berry says, the crew generally takes a complete day to load in the rig, then comes back in on show day and spends five or six hours “tarting up the place.” Afterwards, the next tour stop dictates how the trucks will be packed; different venue plans constantly tax the logistical planning of Berry and his staff. Rarely are two truck packs ever alike.

Licks may well be one of the most logistically challenging tours ever to hit the road. Still, once in a while even the toughest road warriors catch a break. In Philadelphia, Berry recalls the move from Veterans Stadium to the First Union Arena. “My truckers did an overnight move of 250 yards!” he laughs. “That has to be the shortest overnight haul they have ever done.”


Fisher, Woodroffe, & Williams Work Their Magic Once Again

“Raw luxury. Maximum minimalism. Spectacular simplicity showcasing the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world with naked extravagance and understated overstatement,” quips the wry London-based architect/production designer Mark Fisher, who has been designing for the Stones tours since the seminal Steel Wheels tour, by way of Voodoo Lounge, No Security, and Bridges to Babylon. His all-star design partners include Patrick Woodroffe on lights, Willie Williams handling the video images, and sound engineer Robbie McGrath once again handling the audio duties.

“The initial concept for Licks was to present the band in front of a spectacular but neutral backdrop,” Fisher explains. “Neutral in terms of narrative, not any specific place. It's like a kickback to a design in 1980 when the band performed in front of a huge painted scrim.” This is a very different approach than the giant environments Fisher created for the Stones in the past.

Our Lips Are Sealed
This time around, the backdrop for the stadium segment of the tour is a huge “poster” by pop artist Jeff Koons. Fisher had seen and liked a painting by Koons appropriately called “Lips,” which is hanging in New York's Guggenheim Museum. “We photographed it and had it made into a drop by Landrell Fabric Engineering in the UK,” Fisher says. This was used for the first few weeks of the tour, as the commissioned piece by Koons was not quite ready.

By the New York-area show at Giants Stadium on September 26, the colorful new drop by Koons was in place. Fisher describes it as including images of “a large inflatable dog, women's knickers, a pair of masculine/feminine lips, and several large trash bins. It's about the universe, and the ephemeral nature of life in the 21st century.”

Well, maybe or maybe not, but the drop does add quite a bit of color to the stadium shows. Printed on vinyl-coated polyester fabric, it measures 200' wide by 80' high, and is divided into 13 vertical panels, each 15' wide, with narrow gaps between the panels. Each panel is rigged on tracks between two masts. “The drop is designed to withstand steady winds of up to 40mph and gusts of 60mph,” says Fisher, who was confronted with the problem of taking the drop down and moving it from stadium to stadium. The solution is a special machine that folds the drop without taking it out of the tracks that secure it.

The stadium show opens with the drop seen fully. As it progresses, eight Barco LED video screens stored upstage move into place as several of the drop panels move down. The computer-controlled LED screens can be shifted into various combinations of shapes, from one large screen to two columns to one or two big blocks. The screens were built and hung by Brilliant Stages in the UK, while several scenic elements were built by the Lititz, PA-based Tait Towers.

It's a Gas, Gas, Gas
Later in the show comes what Fisher calls “the Liberace drapes,” a second backdrop made of huge panels of gold and pink pleated cloth strips, which can be seen behind the video screens. “There are three looks during the stadium show,” he says. “First the Koons poster alone, then with video, then the video with the Liberace drapes.” The stadium show explodes with pyrotechnics for the traditional closing number, “Jumpin' Jack Flash.”

While video is mostly for I-Mag (image magnification) on the outdoor shows, it is the backbone of the design for the edgier, more theatrical arena shows, where there are five video cameras for live feeds (two by the front of the stage and three midway back on the ground floor near the lighting desk). The backdrop for the entire show is a 55,000lb Barco LED videowall that remains in place the entire time, which shows a mix of the live images and a bank of images designed by Williams, the veteran LD (U2, REM) who has recently taken a keener interest in the use of video. From a video “billboard” of the band set against video of traffic on a freeway at night to an animated Honky Tonk Woman riding a studded version of the Stones' logo tongue to seductive lips, Williams captures the spirit of the songs without being overly specific.

“I met with Mick Jagger and the band several times before we went into production rehearsals,” says Williams, who arrived with storyboards of ideas for compelling video images. “What was most important for me was to try and create a sense of place and atmosphere using figurative imagery. Rock-and-roll video today is like moving lights in the 80s,” he adds. “Everybody's got it but it's mostly glorified screen saver material.”

Williams wanted something more appropriate for the Stones. “Even the abstract, textural pieces are rooted in figurative materials, and the history of the Stones,” he says. And the animated tongue dominatrix was an actual table dancer shot riding a bucking bronco. “A Japanese ‘anime’ artist drew over the film cels and we were able to make the entire sequence in about six weeks, when animation usually takes a very long time,” Williams notes.

To create images of fire, such as a burning version of the classic tongue logo, Williams used shapes up to 30' wide made of pipes with gas jets. “The shapes were filmed from above so it looks as if the flames are shooting directly at the audience,” he explains. “The tongue was very successful and the audience loves it.”

There are lots of pictures of the band in the video mix, but Williams tried to mix and match them in an interesting fashion. “There are live images used during almost 85% of the show, working in tandem with animation or prerecorded images,” says Williams. The live images are mixed in real time by video director Christine Strand from a backstage control center.

The smaller theatre shows, in more intimate venues like Roseland in Manhattan and the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, are a lights-only affair, performed in front of black drapes (there was originally a backdrop with the Stones tongue logo in triplicate, but the creative team realized they didn't need it after the first night, reports Fisher). The look for these shows is smoky, straightforward, and laid back.

Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe, who has worked with the Rolling Stones for the past 20 years, conceived the three different shows as parts of a whole. “Each show stands alone, yet is part of a trilogy,” he says. “We wanted something stylish, exciting, and dramatic for the band's 40th anniversary tour.”

The lighting for the outdoor stadium shows is like a big celebration. “It's all color,” says Woodroffe, “upbeat and bright so people can see the band.” Six 7K Syncrolites are the workhorses for the outdoor rig, with Vari*Lite VL6 and VL5 automated luminaires hung less than 25' in the air, “to add heat,” Woodroffe says. He notes that he also likes the power of the broad Syncrolite beams.

In the arena shows, the overhead rig is over 50' in the air, above the videowall, with Vari*Lite VL6Cs moving up and down in narrow slits between the screens on motorized belts. Additional layers of light come from the floor and the sides, adding visual interest. “There are more lights than I've used inside in the past,” says Woodroffe. “There is a progression throughout the show in the way we worked with the lights, the video, and the focus, to make sure each song looks like something you haven't seen before.” In the stadium show, the lighting segues directly from song to song, while in the arena version Woodroffe has created a beautiful transition moment when the lights all come back to a blue silhouette look from overhead.

For lighting director Ethan Weber, who also serves as lighting crew chief for the tour, the theatre shows are more subtle and relaxed. “There is a mix of hard-edged and soft-edged lights, and each song has its unique character,” he says. “The idea is to create an atmosphere that is fairly static and not overpower the band.”

On paper, three tours might seem to provide some economies of scale, and indeed this plan makes more sense than going out three different times with three different-sized rigs. Still, the sum is greater than its parts; Licks is much more than one production. “It's like being on three tours at the same time,” says Woodroffe. “We didn't realize at first just how complicated it would be. Normally you rehearse a show, fix it, and watch it get better each night. In this case we didn't see the same show again until the next week. But ultimately we all love it.”

Rolling Stones Licks tour credits

Production design: Mark Fisher
Lighting design: Patrick Woodroffe
Video design: Willie Williams
Live video direction: Christine Strand
Production director: Jake Berry
Billboard artwork: Jeff Koons
Project manager: Richard Hartman
Lighting director: Jim Straw
Lighting director/lighting crew chief: Ethan Weber
Assistant lighting designer: Adam Bassett
Lighting programmer: Dave Hill:
Sound engineer: Robbie McGrath
Stage manager: Anthony Giordano
Assistant stage manager: Seth Goldstein
Head rigger: Bart Durbin
Ground rigger: Joe Favor
Rigger: Shawn Moeller
Head carpenter: Alan Doyle
Assistant head carpenter: Flory Turner
Site coordinator: Toby Fleming
Production coordinators: Wendy Overs, Scott Nichols
Monitor engineer: Chris Wade-Evans
Vari*Lite crew: Kenny Ackerman, Nick Barton, Wayne Boehning, Barry Branford, Greg Gore, Craig Hancock
Syncrolite crew: Stanley Kimberlin, Olaf Poettcher
LSD crew: Adam Finer, Russell “Bits” Lyons, Aaron Stephenson
Engineering: MG Mc Laren PC
Sound crew chief: Niall Slevin
FOH assistant engineer: Jim Homan
Monitor assistant engineer: Kevin Glendinning
FOH system tech: Tony Luna
Monitor tech support act: Chris Hoffman
Sound crew: Ken Check, Dustin Johnson, Roy Parrott
Video engineer/crew chief: Zainool Hamid
Video AD: Charlie Harris
Lead LED engineer: Greg “Grit” Frederick
LED engineer: Marty Kell
Camera operators: Simon Cadiz, Gabriel Lopez, Joe Weir
Pyro crew chief: Pyro Pete Cappadocia
Pyro crew: Jason Jones, Dick Richmond
Carpenters: Steve Chambers, Gordon Hyndford, Michele Morin, Heather Rogan, Dewey Shepard, Mike Washer
Rigging equipment & support: Tomcat Global, Brilliant Stages
Scenery construction: Tait Towers
Steelwork: StageCo Belgium
Soft goods: Perry Scenic