With the days of spandex and hairspray behind them, Van Halen, once famously flashy, is favoring a more streamlined look. Rather than some cleverly comic moniker, the latest tour's title matches that of the band's latest album: Van Halen III. New lead singer Gary Cherone sports a buzz cut instead of the copious locks of blond hair favored by his two predecessors, and while he incessantly roams around the stage like any good frontman, you won't catch him performing any mid-air splits off the drum riser.
Lack of posturing aside, Van Halen is still a big, loud rock band that has every intention of living up to its legendary live performances. Though not given the license to blow anything up or to lend his expertise with lasers to the tour's design, veteran LD Howard Ungerleider (Rush, Queensryche) has created a striking habitat that allows both the band and the designer to look good and have fun.
The key to its success is actually the reason why Ungerleider initially turned down tour manager Scott Ross when he began soliciting lighting designs last year. "I don't turn in designs before I even know what the tour is about; in fact, I don't really submit designs before speaking with the band," Ungerleider explains. "How can you create a fitting design if you don't know what you're designing for? Sure, I've got thousands of ideas, but they're all for different people, and not every one will be suitable."
By the end of January an LD had yet to be chosen. Ungerleider was in California for the Performance summit (and subsequent Pollstar conference), so he met with Ross again--and then with drummer Alex Van Halen and Cherone. "I went up to their studio, 5150, and Alex's idea for the tour was to have a tent because the album cover has a carnival-type guy with a cannonball," Ungerleider says. "He said, 'I'd like a circus-tent vibe, but I'd like it to look as if you took a bedsheet and threw it up over the rig, and it just landed there--something a little bit different.'
"Alex knows what he wants and he had seen Rush shows in the past, so he knew what I was capable of doing," Ungerleider continues. "He actually said to me, 'Some of the things that you do with them I don't like; this is not Rush.' I'm really good at diversifying, so that was no problem. I do have my favorite colors and certain effects that I love to use, but I promised him they would not look like Rush."
After the meeting Ungerleider proceeded to embellish this directive with his associate Rick Hopkins. "Rick and I do a lot of CAD work together and he came up with using these pieces of fireplace meshing. We agreed that a dark and evil circus vibe would be great."
>From there Ungerleider designed the rig's seven radial trusses, which support the tent. Stemming from a central hub, each of the seven legs is connected to motors. "I then thought it would be great to put this fireplace meshing between them--and thus the rig came to fruition," Ungerleider says. "I wanted to be able to change the rig, and make it move and look different throughout the show."
Ungerleider then loaded up the trusses with a combination of automated and conventional lighting instruments. "Alex said that Van Halen has always been known for its power lighting," says the LD. "They always had these huge 800-to-2,000-light systems, and he loved the wash of the PARs. I agree with that because I'm a big fan of PARs, and you can always blend them with automation. While automation is a great tool, it gives you that stark, very white, 5600K feel, whereas the PARs always give you that velvety texture once you get the atmosphere right. The two work great together."
Ungerleider chose three types of automated luminaires: Vari*Lite(R) VL6s(TM), and High End Systems Cyberlights(R) and Studio Colors(R). The design also includes MR-16 striplights that line the trusses, and ETC Source Fours as specials. "Then I added all the color scrollers on the PARs to get that power wash they know and love, and that Van Halen was famous for," Ungerleider says. "If you want 100,000W of red, the only way you can do it is with scrollers. You can get these really great walls of saturated color and breakups for power. Plus, I can do all my creative and artistic lighting looks with the moving lights, and blending them together gives me more dimension, more depth. I asked them about using pyro or lasers, and they just weren't interested. But the whole system is laced with 56 High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF1000s."
This design got the drummer's stamp of approval. "He loved it," Ungerleider says. "And then he just asked for one extra special effect, which was to uplight his cymbals to make them shine gold."
Putting the rig together was the easy part. Programming was another story. "It was difficult because we didn't know what the set list would be until the very last minute," says the LD. "When I program a show, I always use live DAT tapes, so I really never saw Van Halen perform before I designed the show. I knew Ed was stage left, Al was in the center, Mike was stage right, and Gary was going to be all over the place. Taking that into consideration, I decided to design for three weeks at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, where we set up the rig."
To the LD's surprise, Van Halen had never made a DAT tape for a designer. "I had to have a meeting with them and say, 'Listen, guys, we have a Ferrari sitting in the hangar and there's no fuel in the tank. It would be really great to fuel it up and take it out for a spin.' They said, 'Well, what do you need?' I said, 'I need you guys to play the set straight through and record a DAT for me so I can program to it.' They were getting ready to leave to do a press tour. While they were in rehearsal, they got it together and delivered me a live DAT. They were very cooperative, and really concerned, so it was a pleasure to work with these guys."
Along with assistant lighting director Matt Druzbik and High End Systems programming director Tim Grivas, Ungerleider programmed the show. "The three of us worked really hard to put it together the best we knew, without having the band there and seeing them, and without really knowing the flow of the songs," says the LD. "Westsun put it all together, and we had it engineered for weight load."
To give the show all the right moves, Ungerleider is using Motion Laboratories' Motor Manager. "It's a great system. It measures in feet and inches as opposed to chain links," says the LD. "It has a fail safe, so if one motor is not working, the whole structure stops and freezes. I love the movement together with the song changes. It really creates a dynamism. When we go into a song everything moves and I find that really exciting; it creates new and refreshing ideas. The only problem with all the moves is that the pre-set focuses are brutal; we have to put the rig into different positions in the afternoon to make sure that all of them are correct."
Certainly the largest part of the stage to pull focus is the center-stage Jumbotron. "It really adds a lot to the show," Ungerleider says. "I love the Jumbotron because it has its own personality, and at times you can use it as a backdrop as well as a projection system."
Jeff Claire is the show's video director; he has worked with Van Halen on past tours as well as with Ungerleider on Rush tours. "The integration of the Jumbotron with the lighting worked out really well. I've had a lot of experience doing this over the years, so I sat down with Norm Stangel once again, from Spin Productions in Toronto. I've worked with them for 20 years now and we were able to come up with some clips and color coordination on the video that blends nicely together," Ungerleider explains. "Thinking of all the possibilities and giving each song its own personality was very important, so every song has its own feel, and we're obviously not repeating effects."
Both Alex Van Halen and Cherone offered input as to what they wanted to see. "Gary had some great ideas and was very instrumental in putting us all together and approving the video content," Ungerleider says. "We're still adding to that part of the show."
Although there are only four band members, Ungerleider is using a dozen spotlights on the show. "There are six Lycian 1200s on the truss and I'm also using six Strong Super Troupers in the house, which are provided each day by the venue. It's really important that each member of the band stands out," says the LD. The lighting controls are two HighEnd Systems Status Cue(R) consoles and an Avolites QM500. "We're running two boards because I like to back it up. Matt does a few songs with me, so we've set them up so that the VL6s can be taken away from my board, and Matt can run the VL6s simultaneously with anything else, or Matt can take the whole system at any time.
"Matt really enjoys operating the board as well, so it works out well," Ungerleider concludes. "We created the show to let the band do what they do best, and try to complement them instead of overwhelming them with effects. I'm confident we've accomplished that."
Lighting designer/director Howard Ungerleider
Tour manager Scotty Ross
Road manager Robert Daitz
Lighting programmer/assistant lighting director Matt Druzbik
Lighting crew chief Scott Gross
Lighting technicians Paul Eaves, Mark Olesen, Sammy Raffael, Aaron Stephenson
High End Systems programmer Tim Grivas
Motion Laboratories technician Jay Wallace
Video BCC Video
Video director Jeff Claire
Video engineer Frank Yu
Jumbotron engineer Andy Brown
Camera operators Greg Frederick, Arnold Simmons, Mark Johnson
Staging B&R Scenery
Head rigger Mike Farese
Riggers Danny Machado, Kevin McDonnell
Carpenter Danny Stewart
Main lighting contractor Westsun Lighting
Lighting equipment (36) High End Systems Cyberlights (35) High End Systems Studio Colors (56) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000s (14) Vari*Lite VL6s (38) Altman MR-16 ZipStrips (10) Thomas PAR-64 250W ACL bars of four (12) Thomas PAR-64 1,000W ACL bars of six (4) Thomas PAR-64 1,000W ACL bars of four (12) ETC Source Fours (6) Lycian 1,200W HMI followspots (2) High End Systems Status Cue consoles (1) Avolites QM500 control console (1) ETC Microvision console (2) High End Systems F100 foggers (14) Columbus McKinnon 1-ton chain hoist motors (4) Motion Laboratories 8-way servers (2) Motion Laboratories 24-way motor controllers (4) Motion Laboratories 8-way motor controllers