I am employed by someone whose career is solidly entrenched in the history of music. Alan Parsons' contribution to rock 'n' roll is considered historical, from working with the biggest act of all time (The Beatles) to working on the longest-charting record of all time (Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon). His own personal works have been confirmed as some of the most known music of the era — even if you do not know who performed it, you know the songs: “Games People Play,” “Eye In the Sky,” and “Sirius” (the instrumental used by the NBA and NFL for their Championship games) are just a few in the Alan Parsons Project catalog.
We tour massively — Mumbai, Malta, Moscow — just some of the “M”s. Our entire production is contained in four, suitcase-sized Pelican road cases.
The Alan Parsons Live Project (APLP) is constantly in one-off mode, even when we are on tour. It is a very rare occasion when we retain production for more than a day and even more unusual to have more than six hours to go from mics in a road case to house to black. Because the music we are representing means so much to people, many of the shows we perform in some of the more remote locations around the world will have patrons coming up to Gregg Rubin (FOH engineer) and me with tears of happiness on their faces, telling us that they have listened to Alan Parsons all of their lives, yet they never expected to ever see him perform live, and they have just experienced exactly what they imagined a live performance would be like. It's moments like those that make the long flights and less-than-optimal production environment ultimately worthwhile.
Touring lighting equipment comprises two glass gobos, board tape, a good attitude, and a “whatever it takes” game plan that accomplishes the final outcome: performance on time and with continuity that does justice to the quality of music with which we are working.
My pre-tour approach starts with the question, “Did they even get the rider?” followed by as much telephone and email advance work I can do prior to leaving for a show or tour. A clear, well-detailed lighting rider is a must. I want as much information in the hands of the local promoter, venue, and lighting company as possible, and starting an open line of communication is imperative. Letting the powers that be know there is someone who can be contacted when questions arise is a saving grace when used appropriately. Flexibility is also critical when working with someone who may have never attempted a production of this level before. More than once, I have had a promoter approach me with an issue (no MAC 2000s in Uruguay, no 6-bars in Panama, etc.), where being able to offer options instead of conflict is akin to attracting bears with honey instead of vinegar. Substituting a lower-power moving light that is available in the necessary quantity is better than being handed the option on site that none of the units from the rider are available, and because no agreement could be met, all the moving lights have been cut — or all the Lekos or some other aspect of the production that could have been modified and another unit incorporated.
APLP is constantly on a production diet. We, as a crew, help trim the fat of systems that contain gags that, although cool, just don't fit into our show and just don't have enough time to be choreographed precisely into our performance. A typical Alan Parsons Live Project performance does not have video, lasers, or staging special effects, not that the show does not deserve them. On the contrary, given enough pre-production time, all those items would be a spectacular addition to an already great show. But if the choice is to place mirrors and coordinate images or to make sure the rig is focused and working, I'm more inclined to get our regular, consistent show working than to add a bit of spectacle at the expense of the show's continuity.
A key factor in how our show works is the foundation of the show: Alan's selections of music are the production's backbone. Tracks that range from lush and melodic (“Time” or “Day After Day”) to thunderous (“Return to Tunguska”) drive the direction of the show and give us the knowledge of what exactly it will take to bring the music to the eyes and ears of the audience. Very heavily laden with PAR64 units, the one-off design also contains 16 moving head units — eight wash and eight hard edge — that fill locations where the PARs don't travel. Moving lights vary from vendor to vendor, but I try to stay with Martin MAC 2000 Spots and Washes, Vari-Lite VL3000s, or High End Systems Studio Colors and Spots. A Martin Maxxyz console with two Expansion Modules is the console of choice, but I've been on everything from ETC Expression 3s to Celco Golds over the years.
The design gives us the ability to have several creative looks from the same rig while keeping the price reasonable for the promoters that must hire a lighting company. Trying to keep continuity in things such as the fixture types, hang configuration, or even the patch is the most difficult part of working on this tour. It is not budgeted to haul around a small console on a day-to-day basis on commercial, usually international, flights, where the odds of all the luggage and gear arriving at the same time are suspect at best. Trust me; we've had some amazing lost luggage stories from previous runs. I try to stress the importance of keeping the desk consistent, but there are some locations on this great planet where the 21st century is still a good distance away. As an old-school lighting guy, I was lucky enough to be brought up on a steady diet of ETC Expressions and Strand consoles, a few Celcos and Leprecons, so usually after a short refresher course on programming and hotkeys, I will program the show starting usually about 3:30 to 4pm for doors at 6:30 to 7pm — crunch time.
The need to write specialized cues for this show is required, as there are some moments that could run cue-to-cue, with the music and band actions being enhanced by the lighting activity; timing and specific color has to be rapidly written and run through. One-third of the show is built that way, so recreating focuses from a completely differently hung rig — whether because we are in our fifth house system in a row, or the promoter/ lighting vendor just couldn't reproduce the contracted plot, and it is some odd bastardization of various types of moving lights and conventionals — the general outcome must remain the same. With no opportunity for continuity, mental reference of what has worked in the past becomes your best ally. Remembering to record a moving-light cue by channel as opposed to by fixture allows “choreographed busking” — the ability to make several different scenes out of a few base building blocks — and is how the rest of the show gets programmed. It then becomes my responsibility to remember the moment when a sequence of faders thrown at the precise time will generate the desired look, night after night, for the specific song.
Conventional focus creates the initial canvas on most nights, with any intelligent fixtures handling multiple duties as effects, texture, atmospheric architecture, and size. The show, with its wide range of musical styling, will have one moment of subtle intimacy between musicians during one number, followed by a song that would, by all accounts, fill up the room with its sonic scope. To match those moments with lighting is, in my opinion, the best part of my job — timed sweeps and ballyhoos that match what is being heard by the audience make the show seem like an event, especially playing in places that don't have many opportunities to witness a production on a grand scale. Little do they know how much the production relies on the combined efforts of local gear and touring crew to make this show come to life every time.
I strive to bring continuity to the whole performance with the lighting, and using the equipment I have to the utmost of its capabilities is appreciated by audience and band alike. More than once has one of the musicians told me after the show that the accents in a particular song came with amazing accuracy, especially as he was “in the moment” himself and unsure of where the musical freight train that was happening on stage was going to take the band. It's a nice feeling to work with this act; they are attentive to the hard work of the crew and reward us with an excellent performance night after night.
Overall, accomplishing what we do on a per-show basis is not considered impossible. Our dedication to our artist and our craft is the drive that pushes Rubin, Joe Walsh (monitor engineer), and me toward the goals we accomplish. What makes our show stand out is the consistency that is achieved with what many consider to be one of the more complicated “small shows” now touring the planet.
Martin Thomas of Relentless Lighting Design is the lighting designer for The Alan Parsons Live Project.