How One Thing Led to Another in LD Tom Kenny's Career

Watching Tom Kenny run the lighting from the Icon® Console during both Robert Plant's opening set and The Who's two-and-a-half-hour concert at Madison Square Garden in August, any observer could see that he was in his element. His obvious enjoyment at being there nearly surpassed that of the cheering sold-out crowd. For Plant, who was touring with his own band and performing songs from his new album as well as some Led Zeppelin classics, the lighting was rich but spare — just enough to envelop the arena without overwhelming the man or the music.

Although The Who's camp (band and crew members alike) was still reeling from the loss of bass player John Entwistle (who died June 28, the night before this tour was to begin), they chose to go on, celebrating his memory with video clips and dedicating the tour to him — in loud and festive fashion. In true grand rock style, Kenny's lighting system spells W-H-O across the front and is packed with lights. The palette stuck to the basics — including a lot of red, white, and blue — and delivered a thrilling show, striking with just the right amount of bombast for the band's classic hits.

“When Pete wrote these songs, he was thinking of theatre, so he enjoys the big looks,” says Kenny. “You don't really have to make up cues — they are in the music already. When we started out, some shows had to be programmed within an hour. But that's why I like using the Icon desk — you can be very live with it if you know exactly what you want.”

Kenny has been hard at work since he was a teenager and he's ever mindful that there is no shortage of individuals who would be happy to take his place. In discussing his career, the 37-year-old designer continuously reiterates one phrase: “I'm very fortunate.”

Doubtless he is blessed with the luck of the Irish, but it's more likely his inherent talent, boundless enthusiasm, and easygoing sense of humor that have brought him to one of the most productive, and varied, years of his life. Twenty-two years of almost constant touring, with some of rock's most enduring artists such as The Who, David Bowie, and Page and Plant, have not dimmed Kenny's enthusiasm for live music, but he's also been adapting his talents to other fields. This year he's ventured into new realms by doing some architectural lighting for the refurbishment of the Olympia Theatre at the Gusman Center and lighting a soap opera called Ocean Drive, both in Miami.

“In my life one thing always leads to another,” Kenny explains. “We were working in the Olympia Theatre taping Alejandro Sanz's MTV Latino Unplugged and later, the house technical manager, Jerry Kinsey, and historical architect, Richard Heisenbottle, asked me to revamp the interior lighting to draw out the Gothic beauty of the theatre. I came in to consult on relighting the place, which is a completely different world for me. It's great, because my father worked in buildings. He was an engineer and draftsman and my cousin was a famous set designer, Sean Kenny — he designed Oliver!, among other shows. He was truly one of the innovators in theatre in the 1950s and 60s. So it's great being back in the theatre in a way, and there are two more that they want me to do.”

Prior to the taping at the Olympia Theatre, all of the previous Unplugged performances had been taped at the Miami Broadcast Center. “Out of that, I made a connection with Liz Mershon, who ran the building, and she later became involved with the telenovela Ocean Drive and remembered my work on the Unpluggeds. She, along with executive producer Bill Dowd, asked me to light it with the help of a great local Miami LD/gaffer, Allan Warhaftig,” Kenny says. “It was an interesting and very educational experience and opened me up to different kinds of work.”

Still, music remains the constant thread throughout Kenny's career. “I never had the patience to learn a musical instrument myself, but my father and brothers are traditional musicians in Ireland and I used to go their concerts,” he explains. “John Kennedy, who worked sound and lights for them, asked me one night if I wanted to help him out. After that, I was hooked. When I was about 14, he asked if I had any summer plans because he could use my help on a couple of gigs in Dublin — with a then little-known band, U2. I helped him with the stage crew and that led to helping him on other projects. He gave me my first break in the business along with Andrew Leonard and Bernard Griffin, who owned a company in Dublin called Lighting Dimensions.”

Around the same time Kenny was also introduced to theatrical lighting from LD Rupert Murray of Riverdance fame. “I was really fortunate — I did a lot of theatre with Rupert, often as the assistant, so I had the opportunity to begin designing when I was about 21. Ireland is a small country, so you can't afford to specialize in only one area. As a result, you diversify into all types of productions. I lit fashion shows, industrials, videos, concerts, whatever I could get my hands on. I worked on every aspect of them, so I learned a little piece of everything. Even though it's a small country the production values were very high and I was able to build a good foundation and instincts that helped me later on when I moved into bigger, more upscale productions and also in other areas of my career.”

Because budgets were usually limited Kenny learned to get the looks he wanted with the minimum of equipment. “In the theatre you learn how to use every unit at least three or four times and achieve several looks with one light. It's brought me to where I am now. Production managers love it that I use so little equipment,” he says. “The younger designers in the business think that you've made it when you have a huge system, but that's not necessarily the case.”

By the time he was 18, Kenny was working for Ireland's biggest bands (including Moving Hearts with Christy Moore and Donal Lunny, Clannad, and Enya) and industry leaders were taking notice. “I was having a great time — and I was cocky as hell,” he says. “I had learned a lot, so it was a good point for me to move on, and I went to England. LD Phay MacMahon and Peter Clarke of Supermick Lights helped me out, as did concert promoters Harvey Goldsmith and Andrew Zweck. Through them, I did TV shows like Top of the Pops and Smash Hits. I also got involved with some British bands and did a lot of one-offs in London. Around 1986-87, one of those was with David Byrne and David Bowie — both of them were impressed with what I did at that time.”

Byrne then asked Kenny to light his first solo tour since the Talking Heads, 1989's Rei Momo tour. “Peter Clarke got me involved in that and it moved me into a different sphere altogether,” Kenny says. “I designed it with Barbara Ling, who is a production designer in L.A. She's a very talented woman, and, coming from very different backgrounds — her, film production/design, and me, live music — we had an interesting time, to say the least. It was great fun.”

Then Goldsmith contacted Kenny when Eric Clapton was about to tour in 1989. “They wanted a whole new production team, including a new sound engineer and lighting designer, and I happened to fit the bill,” Kenny says. “Eric's manager met me and four or five high-powered people recommended me including Harvey and Keith Bradley. I went to Africa and Israel and did shows with them. Although a lot of good people had lit shows for Clapton, up until that point there hadn't been one consistent LD for him. So I was just fortunate to be around when his career was on the up again. The manager wanted a new look and I was it.”

From there, Kenny's career took a serious upswing. Clapton's production manager, Mick Double, introduced him to Bill Curbishley, who is the manager for The Who and Led Zeppelin (and now Page and Plant). “I also did Pete Townshend's Psychoderelict tour in 1993, which was an interesting new adventure to me — combining Broadway and rock personnel,” Kenny continues. “This business is all about connections. If you do a good job for one camp, they'll look after you at the next. That led me to work with LDs like Allen Branton and Bobby Dickinson in TV and I just kept learning all I could from others.”

Another benefit of working with high-profile artists is that many influential people come to see the shows and that leads to many great opportunities down the road. In the seven years he worked with Clapton, there were many collaborations between Eric and other performers and Kenny was able to light these events.

In 1994, Curbishley asked Kenny to light the Page and Plant reunion tour. “This was the first time Jimmy and Robert had worked together in years and both were jaded with the typical concert. There were many articles written about that tour, but none of them could fully capture how brilliant and magical their performances were. Every night the chemistry between the band and that particular city's crowd was unique and unbelievable. My ever-changing live lighting approach really suited the band's emotionally inspired, fiery performances every night. We did another amazing tour in 1998 and I've worked with both Jimmy and Robert on solo projects since. We have another one in the works for later.

“I get the same buzz from working with David Bowie,” Kenny continues. “He and all the people around him understand how important presentation and rehearsals are. Before each tour or performance there is an amazing amount of preparation on David's part so it all culminates in a magical concert experience. Pete Townshend told me soon after I began lighting Bowie that he is the one musician who can really call himself an ‘artist’ and that I will learn an awful lot from him.”

Kenny's television career has picked up steam since he moved to America (he lives in Miami with his wife Laurie) three years ago. This year he did an HDTV video in Japan. “Sony asked me to light Ozzy at the Budokan, and it was fun because they had just launched that TV show [MTV's The Osbournes],” Kenny says. “We got a brilliant DVD out of it mainly because Michael Keller, Ozzy's lighting designer, and Opie [Dale Skjerseth], the production manager, were so helpful and so hospitable. Older LDs who've been around — most of them — realize how important a TV show or a DVD is nowadays. If it's not right, it's going to come back to bite you. Michael does a brilliant show anyway, so we just painted some more pictures on top of that.

“Working in HDTV is a bit different from regular television, but it likes my style of lighting,” Kenny says. “I tend to use only a certain amount of frontlight, and a lot of backlight. I've been very fortunate to have done about 10 of these projects now. David Bowie and The Who are already planning more, so I've got those coming up and we're doing some special projects next year. High-definition is the way things are going to be.

“I love working in TV,” he continues. “I like it as much as concert work, but there is nothing like a live concert — especially because the bands that I work for are among the best in the world. It's just such an electric feeling. Sometimes the magic that's there can be captured on television. I recently lit David Bowie's performance on Live by Request for the A&E network. It was an extremely ‘live’ situation. The show looked fantastic and sounded great and there was magic there. As with all the artists I've been with for a while now, I'm involved with all aspects of the tour and its promotion — including television appearances, press conferences, and even in-store autograph signings, which are great fun and all need to be lit properly!”

Bands also tend to show up at award shows, an environment Kenny is also very familiar with. “I've done loads of them, like the Japanese and Brazilian VMAs [MTV Video Music Awards] and Top of the Pops in London,” he says. “I also light the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in the Waldorf every year, and I love doing that. It's in a very intimate room, with lots of production difficulties, but fortunately there's a great production team so we're still able to enjoy the great music and speeches!”

Kenny also describes his colleagues in the same glowing terms. “I'm really fortunate to have great teams to work with wherever I go,” he says. “I've got Michael Callahan, Eugene Meissenhoffer, and Laura Frank, and Mike Grimes in New York, Kathy Beer and the fabulous LSD crews, Jorge Valdez and Gary Mass at Paradigm [lighting rental company], and a guy in Japan called Riki Akura, who's an amazing Icon programmer. Then there's Kille Knobel, Andre Lear, and Drew Findley in the Icon department at Fourth Phase/LSD in L.A. I've worked with LSD for most of my career — in L.A., John Lobel always looks after me, and in London it's Mickey Curbishley and Yvonne Donnelly and programmer Mark Cuniffe.

“It helps enormously to have people around looking out for you because the hardest thing about leaving a show you've designed is making sure that not only is it in capable hands, but the people you've entrusted it to are loyal and have the same attitude that you do,” Kenny continues. “I recently designed Santana's new world tour and left it in the very capable hands of Kathy Beer who has done a wonderful job with my design.

“Laura Frank helped me immensely when touring schedules with The Who and Bowie clashed,” Kenny continues. “She had programmed and run some Bowie shows for me before and the Bowie camp was more than happy to have her along to run my design every night. Both Kathy and Laura are very capable designers in their own right, so they added their personal touches to the shows I designed.”

While Kenny runs the lighting board himself, he always works with a programmer to design. “I like having a programmer around because I'm not very technically-oriented. It's good to have someone around who understands everything that's going on. People have tried to get me to use WYSIWYG, but I'd rather have the lighting system around me. I think the adrenalin goes out of the process if it's too pre-planned. No matter how many times you do a show, one night you'll see something you want to enhance or fix. I love the energy of a live show and I'll always keep doing some touring and mix it up a bit with television work. I hope I won't lose any of these programmers because they're all brilliant. Once we've worked together a couple of times, they know what I like and it's an easy process for me. I think they like working with me because I'm very calm about things. And I'm told I have a good sense of humor! We have a laugh.

“In everything I do, I'm always fortunate to have great collaborators. One of the best working relationships I've developed is with set designer Tom McPhillips, owner of Atomic Design, who's introduced me to many interesting projects.” The “Tom Tom Club,” as Kenny and McPhillips are affectionately known, have worked together on many award-winning programs around the globe including several MTV Latino Unpluggeds, Net Aid in London, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, and the first annual MTV Japan awards show, to name a few. “His sets really suit my lighting and vice versa,” Kenny says, “and we share a similar attitude in our approach in handling projects. And, possibly most importantly, he knows how to make a proper cup of tea!

“Having a sense of loyalty and looking after everyone is really the key to the success I've had,” Kenny concludes. “It seems that anything I've ever chased has turned out to be something I haven't enjoyed, so I've learned the most satisfying projects are the ones that just seem to come to me. People just call me on the phone and maybe that's how it's supposed to be — karmically or whatever you want to call it. I have a lot of fun. I'm also very lucky to have a very loyal and beautiful wife, and a fantastic daughter, Aisling. She's 11 and lives in Ireland, so I get back there as much as I can. Working fairly regularly for the BBC and Hummingbird Productions in Ireland helps me to get back there. I've got some amazing projects in the pipeline for this year and the following year, so I'm not doing too badly for a Paddy — I'm very fortunate.”

Contact the author at cmbmc@earthlink.net.