With cannons firing and pryo blazing, AC/DC has returned to the road after a three-year hiatus, delivering their seemingly ageless style of chest-thumping hard rock to arenas packed with throngs of adoring fans. The Stiff Upper Lip tour began in late July in Grand Rapids, MI, and is headed around the world with a production that harks back to the days when rock ruled the concert scene. Stiff Upper Lip features set design by Mark Fisher, lighting design by Patrick Woodroffe, and is headed up by production manager Dale "Opie" Skjerseth.
The set is enormous. Two towers-cum-fire escapes, which stand upstage right and left, are 36' tall and practically kiss the lighting rig. Then there is the 28'-tall statue of Angus Young, AC/DC's schoolboy-clad guitarist. "The band wanted to do something with a version of the statue, which was featured on the CD cover," Fisher says. "It's a statue of Angus in a characteristic Angus pose, and that's where we started."
The statue, fabricated by UK-based Brilliant Stages, is as tall as it can be, with venue specifications taken into consideration. "It's not as big as you can get in an American arena, but they'll take this tour all around the world, so we have to work the pieces for venues outside of the United States," Fisher reports. "In fact, they'll have to remove the right fist in order to get it into some of the arenas in Europe."
The statue just doesn't stand there looking massive and Angus-like, either. "It's a bit of a moveable feast," Fisher notes. "It has an eye that winks, the eyes light up, horns come out of the head and light up, smoke comes out of the nose, and the whole upper body slues around to allow pyro, smoke, or confetti to ejaculate out of the head of the guitar into the audience," he notes. The statue appears early in the show, when the video screens part for its entrance. "The video screen is in two halves, and, when the screens track apart, the statue, which is completely ground-supported, rolls downstage on a motorized base," the set designer says.
"The major piece of work is not the statue - although the statue looks big and important - but the towers on the side, which are a much larger construction," Fisher continues. While the statue was taken from the CD cover, the towers were inspired by the band's current video, which takes place in a Manhattan alley filled with fire escapes. "I didn't want to try and produce a theatrical facsimile of that kind of street frontage, because in a rock show that doesn't really work," Fisher says. "You don't want to be that literal, really - you want to be able to create a whole range of different worlds - you don't want to be stuck in New York for the entire show." The towers are huge without being overwhelming. "Even though they're massive, they're very transparent; they're also quite carefully placed on the stage, so that they can sell practically every seat in the arena up to the curtain line," Fisher adds.
The towers, which were fabricated by the ubiquitous Tait Towers in Lititz, PA, represent the next level of development of a construction system that Fisher and Michael Tait of Tait Towers developed for the Tina Turner 24/7 tour. "We developed a system that doesn't use any bolts or pins," says Fisher. "We came up with a system of joining the prefabricated pieces with latches, which are closed very quickly by the stagehands. The whole thing goes together very fast and it's stable as you put it together." All four floors of each tower are constructed at once, and then chain motors are used to lift each level into the air, while the level underneath it is attached. "What this means is that they build everything on ground level, so people can work very quickly and safely," Fisher adds.
The stage-left tower also features an open elevator that is practically invisible until Angus takes it up to the second story of the tower. "The elevator is powered by a Tait Towers `Zip Lift,' which lives under the stage," Fisher says. There is also a lift invented by Fisher and Tait at the end of the runway that jets out of the front of the stage. "We got three scissor lifts and rebuilt them into a triangular plan, so it makes a very nice lift that goes up about 24' and is very, very stable," Fisher adds. The giant bell featured in "Hells Bells" and the six cannons that go off during "For Those About to Rock" add even more visual punch to the show. "It's not a pretentious or complicated show, it's a straightforward show, and I think that we delivered a set that allows the lighting to work and be very powerful," Fisher concludes.
To complete the visual look onstage, Woodroffe and longtime colleague and lighting director Charlie "Cosmo" Wilson came onboard. "In these days of moving lights, you can have a show that looks incredibly strong with 100 or 150 moving lights, but it doesn't have much heat or strength to it, which was a problem we had on the last tour," Woodroffe explains.
To combat this lack of visual power, Woodroffe brought back an old standard - the PAR can. "This year, we put in a set of 300 or 400 PAR cans, which we then covered with Megamag scrollers, the color changers that we originally made for the Stones Steel Wheels tour years ago," he says. "We put a great sort of arch of these right over the main part of the stage, which meant that immediately we were able to illuminate that part brightly, and put a lot of power and heat on the stage." The Megamags were then grouped in large pods, in clusters of four units. "Charlie came up with this rather interesting arrangement of the color changers so when the colors scrolled, they all seemed to scroll away from each other," Woodroffe says, adding a shout-out to his programmer, Dave Hill: "Dave programmed the show in rehearsals and was an integral part of the design team."
Woodroffe's moving light package consists of 46 High End Studio Beams[TM], 32 LSD Icons[TM], 36 LSD Icon Washlights[TM], and nine 3K Syncrolites. "Charlie saw the Syncrolites in Dallas," Woodroffe explains. "It's a fantastic light, it's absolutely beautiful, and one of the most exciting things I've seen in years." The addition of the Syncrolites also gave Woodroffe another layer of light to add to the already powerful show. "It gives you a third string to your bow," he says. "We've always used washlights of some sort, we always have some sort of profile instrument, and now there's a third choice - a big, fat, coherent beam of light, which is stronger and brighter than the rest of the lighting. And, if you use it with some discretion, it gives you another layer of light to work with."
Woodroffe's color palette is also appropriate for what is a large, hard rock production. "You don't always use such pretty colors," he admits. "We used quite a bit of white light, but generally, I only use shades of about a half-dozen colors. In the end, they're a rock band, and having a big red song, or a big white song, is actually what gives the show a lot of strength and power." The LD also shuns complex color mixing for this production, saying, "It's a relatively monochromatic show, in that each song has an identity, based around a color or a presentation."
Woodroffe's favorite moments come during the numbers that are done sans color. "I've always really liked white light, and I think that the show looks incredibly real when we're using it," he notes. Woodroffe had four color temperatures of open white available, due to his choice of fixtures. "Those four options of white light immediately made the show look very different," he says. Overall, Woodroffe's occasional lack of color changes the emotional feel of the show. "The white light transforms it into a very honest, straightforward stage, and that's where they look their best."
The Stiff Upper Lip tour concluded in the US in late September and moved on to Europe in October, with, undoubtedly, more dates to come. "In the end, these things always start with what's onstage and the rest of what you put around it is there to support that," Woodroffe says. "If you have something strong onstage that you like and enjoy, and that the audience enjoys, then you're halfway there."