Almost everyone connected to the production side of the concert industry can define the moment that changed the way they looked at rock and roll. Mine occurred 10 years ago, when I was a sophomore journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Genesis performed at the brand-new Dean E. Smith Center. Despite the fact that my roommate had slept out all night in line for tickets, we ended up behind the stage. But we were happy enough to have seats on the lower level, which was something we rarely achieved for Tar Heel basketball games.
I don't remember all the songs the band played, but I do recall that the lights swung out from the rig and the colored beams reached even our lame seats. Then, during the song "Mama," when Phil Collins does that creepy HA-HA-HA laugh, all the lights blacked out except for one uplight located right beneath Collins' mike stand that produced a spooky shadowy effect when he stuck his head into the beam. My friends and I thought it was all pretty cool.
Of course, I didn't know those effects emanated from something called a Vari*Lite(R) automated luminaire, an invention that had set the concert lighting world on its collective ear when it made its debut on Genesis' 1981 Abacab tour but went completely unnoticed by me. Vari-Lite's PR manager, Tom Littrell, who served as that tour's programmer/operator, tells me that it marked the introduction of the company's Series 200(TM) system and the Artisan(R) console. The "Mama" effect was done by the tour's token VL1(TM) luminaire, which had its own little silver box controller and its own operator, Bill Boswell.
Even if I had known all that, I wouldn't have imagined I'd write about it someday. But in 1991 I volunteered to add the concert beat to my copyediting duties at Lighting Dimensions--though my knowledge of lighting was limited to correcting the trademark symbols for the equipment listed in the articles I was proofreading. Still, I thought going to lots of rock shows (with backstage passes, no less!) would be a lot of fun. To my relief, I quickly learned that most of the lighting designers I interviewed found themselves in their careers for the very same reason.
Most concert LDs are or were musicians, or just people who love music--especially live music--and for one reason or another ended up working behind the scenes where they could put their creativity to more productive use. As a result, they're overall a modest bunch, but they're more than willing to share what they know with a little prompting. That I was truly interested in reporting on and promoting their work made even my most simplistic questions forgivable. (Luckily, I was able to direct my really elementary queries like "What does PAR-64 stand for?" and "How does a dimmer work?" to our former technical editor, Karl G. Ruling, who patiently provided me with every last answer and deserves most of the credit for making my first articles intelligible.)
In the scores of interviews I've done since then with concert LDs, a common theme has been both their amazement and gratification at having their work acclaimed at all. Yet such was not the case with Rosemary Kalikow's article on Imero Fiorentino's lighting design for Neil Diamond's tour, which graced the cover of the first Lighting Dimensions in June 1977.
In that interview Fiorentino describes the process of collaborating with set designer George Honchar to create a theatrically inspired touring design that was greatly aided by Diamond's input. The only lighting equipment mentioned is the 10,000W fresnel the LD needed to create a specific effect for the song "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." The article also includes insights from Honchar about the set, providing the first indication that set designers would receive almost as much credit as LDs do in these pages, for they create the surfaces that catch the light.
Diamond's production stood out for its time, but considering that concert touring has only existed for about 25 years, its aesthetic progression has been rapid. Certainly the first British invasion bands who toured the US venues lit only with followspots were eager to add huge lighting rigs to their shows when they became available. Touring rock shows may lack the subtleties of theatre, but their very brashness and sense of urgency are responsible for most of the technological advances that are now industry standards: PAR cans, bars of six, preset focuses, stacking trusses--and, oh yes, moving lights. There is no denying that once they got their hands on any moving-light technology that became available, some LDs flashed the lights up, down, and all around, simply because they could.
That trend has since seen its day, as a fully automated lighting system can now provide more light and more nuance than a conventional system twice its size. Plus, lots of musicians, turned off by what they perceived as a disco look, have requested that moving lights stay put for their shows. And, in the economically minded 90s, where tour accountants have almost as much say as the designers do about a show's look, exploring the "less is more" path has become less an option than a directive.
In the six years that I've been covering concerts, I've seen a couple hundred live and televised concerts here in New York. I've been given the opportunity to travel to shows in other cities (Yanni in Beijing rules as this year's highlight; see page 106), and sometimes sit in on production rehearsals, which has given me unlimited respect for the crews, manufacturers, and vendors who all work to make designers' visions into beautiful realities.
I don't have a favorite show, but there is one shining moment that stands out in my mind. In May 1994, I went to see Pink Floyd's Division Bell tour (LD Marc Brickman, set designer Mark Fisher), featuring an astounding amount of choreographed moving lights, an array of liquid lighting looks, precision projections, and laser effects. All very impressive, but toward the end of the show, an internally illuminated 24' (7m) mirror ball rose up from where I stood at the stadium's center mix position to a height of 70' (21m), and washed the entire stadium crowd in the kind of trippy, spotted disco light that only a mirror ball can provide. I still smile when I think about it.
Also in 1994, I had the privilege to observe production rehearsals and the load-out for the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge tour (LD Patrick Woodroffe, set designer Mark Fisher) in an airplane hangar in Toronto. (As I write this, the band and much of the same crew have returned to that same airplane hangar to put together the Bridges to Babylon tour, which kicked off September 23.) A few weeks later, the 25th anniversary of Woodstock concert (LD Allen Branton, set designer Tom McPhillips) took place August 12-14 in Saugerties, NY. The torrential rain, the ensuing mud and mud people, the crowds, and the general chaos barely made a dent in the production crew's ability to make every band look and sound great. Even when it seemed we might all be fried on the FOH tower/ lightning rod during the first wicked thunderstorm, not one sleep-deprived crew member lost his or her sense of humor or purpose.
All of this isn't to say that I'm not impressed with smaller shows; often it's there that surprisingly clever and subtle lighting effects work best. For instance, using only seven Light & Sound Design Icon(R) automated luminaires, Simon Sidi created lovely, evocative, and varied looks for Tori Amos' 1994 tour. He recently did the same for Sinead O'Connor, using only slightly more equipment and an excellent star backdrop made by David Perry Productions in England to great effect.
A lot of LDs tell me that they don't want the audience to consciously admire their work; I believe most of them actually mean it. They feel their job is simply to accentuate, not overwhelm, the music, so the lighting should have only a subliminal effect. I can no longer attend a concert without checking out the lighting (even when I'm not being paid to); my sense of wonder has been replaced by a strong admiration for all those who build and tear apart shows every day. I still think it's all pretty cool, and I look forward to reporting on what y'all come up with next.