Aerosmith Resurrects the Spirit of 80s Rock in Its New Tour

“America's Greatest Rock and Roll Band” is quite a reputation to live up to — and prove. Anyone having witnessed Aerosmith's recent Just Push Play tour can attest to the fact that this band can still show the kids (and their industry peers) a thing or two. As 2001 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Steven Tyler and company knew it would take a first-rate design and production staff to pull it off.

After 28 years together and 13 studio albums, they pulled out all the stops to remind America they still have it. And why not? They waited until now to produce their own studio album for Columbia after having run the gamut of the industry's best producers; why not give their fans the best live production as well to top it off? Having spent the 1980s living life in the fast lane, one glimpse at this show is all it takes to see that Aerosmith is back — in control — in a big way.

The first step in gaining back that control was changing management and record labels. Step two was hiring Steve Lemon, one of the best production managers to ever turn on a laminating machine. A veteran of some of the most challenging productions in show history (Woodstocks 1994 and 1999, Bon Jovi, Cher), Lemon was involved previously with Aerosmith's LD, Jim Chapman.

Lemon and Chapman first worked together pushing the envelope in 1986 on Ozzy Osbourne's Ultimate Sin tour when they were asked to put together the largest indoor tour that would fit into eight trucks. Together they also came up with the first roof sub-grid allowing for massive hanging of lights, drum risers, pop stars, etc.

Later, they worked in tandem in 1989 designing the set, rolling stage, and lighting rig for Bon Jovi's New Jersey tour that included the infamous catwalk over the audience. In exile for the past several years working in the corporate world, Lemon returned to touring after meeting up again with Chapman.

Jim Chapman has established a reputation for over-the-edge design — perfect for Aerosmith. As the principal of Source Point Design in the 1980s, Chapman picked up the Jacksons' Victory tour, preceded by Madonna's Like a Virgin tour, all outlets for the LD's take-no-prisoners approach.

In 1993, Source Point Design was dissolved, and Chapman became an independent designer working with the Sex Pistols, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Peter Frampton, and various corporate clients. At Steven Tyler's request, Chapman was asked to direct the shows on Aerosmith's tour in addition to designing. On his longtime association with the band, Chapman states, “This band is right up my alley — good ol' slash-and-burn rock and roll.”

IT'S A MATTER OF TRUSS

Chapman's original truss design for this tour was erased when the band decided to use video onstage. Now there are nine curved trusses that move to encompass the video screen or break up to achieve major depth. The designer adds, “And, of course, I do my typical lighting-the-truss technique to give it a more architectural look, which adds another little plus to it.”

If this production sounds like a tour accountant's nightmare in overtime, it is far from it. Chapman explains, “Getting this size of show up and ready for sound check in 3½ hours and out in 2½ on a good day is no easy feat. But with logistics expertise from our stage manager, Chris Roberts, we manage the load-ins and -outs without a hitch.” With 13 trucks to deal with, that is smooth operating.

Aerosmith is the first major tour to use the new Vari*Lite® 2402 automated wash luminaires. Chapman's Vari*Lite operator, Benny Kirkham, says, “The 2402s have a killer strobe in them; you just rock out on the strobes in those things. Jim creates a lot of looks that are monochrome strobe effects, and adding those into the mix creates chaos onstage, and really punches that strobe level up a lot.” Chapman adds, “We probably have a 200A three-phase service just for strobes alone.

“Also, I have another 126 ACLs in white light that I use for a lot of punch to work with the VL5s, and the beams give layers of light that are just incredible,” Chapman continues. “The layers start downstage and work their way upstage completely past the set and backdrop then offstage left and right, so at some points of the show you have about seven different layers, with four to five chases running at once, while we are keeping beat with another set of washes. It takes you a while to actually absorb what we are doing on each song. It's visually very, very thick.” In addition, he has 24 Molefays wired two lamps per circuit for chasing within the fixture itself, creating a very unusual audience blast.

Chapman notes, “Dynamically, this band is so intense you can just step on the pedal and let it rock, then turn around and lay in beautiful layers of lighting on softer tunes like ‘Dream On’ or ‘Edge.’ The band dictates that type of light show, so if you don't do it you're missing the whole point.”

Band input has a lot to do with the design. “The guys have their own input in their own way. Joey [Kramer, the drummer] and I sit and talk about certain things, since he's laying the beat down. Steven [Tyler] has an overall big picture of things, like he can tell you if the low end is rumbling, if one spotlight is brighter than the other: Steven has a great eye for what he wants and feels,” Chapman says.

CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE

Chapman gives his crew a large amount of credit for the show's success. “I have probably one of the hottest crews I've had in years out here. My crew is just incredible,” he enthuses. “I can say, ‘I need this done and it needs to be done like this from day one,’ and it gets done. If I change my mind about something, there has been no pulling of teeth. It leaves my head open to tend to the business I've been hired to do.”

In particular, he attributes much of the creative edge to his programmer of four years, Benny Kirkham. Chapman states, “He's got free rein — he can just do what he wants. He understands how the ship was built and now he can sail it. His creativity and his eye for the business are natural. He is almost a direct extension of me. On the first tour we worked on, I went, ‘Geez! this guy is incredible.’ He can walk out to his board and change a look any time he wants. Sometimes he tells me; sometimes he doesn't, to see if I catch it. Nine out of ten times I catch it but don't say anything because it looks so cool, so I just leave him wondering if I noticed it or not.”

Chapman usually has to leave only 25% of the equipment in the truck for the amphitheatres or sheds, which he attributes to the “seven Ps” of production: Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. When the band plays an arena show, the entire rig goes up. In the upcoming fall leg, the indoor show will take on a whole new look, but secrecy was sworn after seeing the design layout. Rest assured it promises to pioneer a whole new stage design.

What sells this band to its audience of decades is the fact that they know where the longtime album buyers sit at a venue, and it is not up close in the corporate sponsor seats. Behold, the “B” stage, a 14'×14' mini-stage set up in the lawn. Concerned with security, the band finally decided to just walk out to the stage surrounded by house personnel and do three songs right there with no forewarning to the audience, which causes instant hysteria since they have spent the first half of the show watching the concert on the video screen. This close proximity of the band to the audience is unlike previous situations that the band has ever experienced. Our industry will be seeing a lot more of this gag in the future, based on the reaction to it here. Hopefully, more venues will be installing 100A service out in this area.

Always the mentor, Chapman has a suggestion for furthering one's career. “Find a support band to work with. Today's support band is tomorrow's headliner. You get in good with them and before you know it, they're headlining a tour,” Chapman says.

Sharing a stage during the last Super Bowl halftime show with 'NSync, Britney Spears, and Nelly had to take a lot of courage for any rock band worth its salt, which in the opinion of many, makes Aerosmith America's ambassadors of rock. Hand out the medals. Steven Tyler in a recent quote says it as honestly as any could: “We're the band that refuses to go away. We will always be here, in your face, good or bad.”

Randy Wade is an independent writer who can be contacted at RadPress@aol.com.

AEROSMITH JUST PUSH PLAY

Lighting Designer
Jim Chapman

Production Manager
Steve Lemon

Programmer/Vari*Lite Operator
Benny Kirkham

Lighting Crew Chief
Matt Wyman

Head Electrician
Doug Eder

Stage Manager
Chris Roberts

Lighting Crew
Andy Garanyi, Kerry Kaiser, Kevin Parsley, John Ramsy

Motor Controller
Tom Cusimano

Vari*Lite Tech
Andrea Mack

Lighting Vendor
LSD/Fourth Phase

Main Stage Equipment

28 Vari*Lite VL6Cs
26 Vari*Lite VL5Arcs
16 Vari*Lite VL2416s
14 Vari*Lite VL2402s
6 Lycian 1.2kW followspots
126 PAR cans with Wybron color changers
9 9' sections curved truss
24 8-light Molefays
34 Diversitronics 3kW strobes
2 Lightning Strikes 40kW strobes
4 High End Systems F-100 foggers
2 Reel EFX DF-50 hazers
1 Vari*Lite Virtuoso console
1 Avolites Diamond III console
ETC dimmers
Skjonberg motor control

"B" Stage Equipment

32 PAR cans
16 Wybron color changers
16 Molefays
4 red police beacons
16 ETC Source Four PARs