He doesn't sing a note; she doesn't play an instrument. He's been perfecting his smooth saxophone stylings for a dozen years now; just a few years ago she was a complete unknown in the music industry. So how did Kenny G and Toni Braxton end up co-headlining a very successful tour earlier this year? Here's how: They met at a party last year, expressed their mutual admiration for each other's music, and planned to make guest appearances on each other's upcoming albums-which they did. Since that worked out so well, they decided to tour together. The managers agreed it was a fine idea, and after smoothing out a few scheduling conflicts, the duo prepared to hit the road.
On most concert tours, the same lighting rig is often used for more than one performer, because at least one support band or opening act travels with the headliner. The lesser-known artists usually don't carry any production at all. At best, they may have a painted backdrop of their own, but their lighting consists of whatever sections of the rig the main LD permits them to use.
In this case, Valerie Groth, Kenny G's long-time LD, designed the lighting rig on her own, although she consulted with Braxton's production manager Bill Reeves. Though only designing for G, Groth fully intended that the design would provide maximum flexibility for both artists. "I used [LSD] Iconsª and WashLightsª, and [Vari*Lite¨] VL5ª automated luminaires, so it's definitely a multifunction rig," Groth says. "We used almost all moving lights to make it as functional as possible for both acts. Because of the nature and the size of the tour, it was really important to push that. With a conventional system you would eventually get the same looks from using the same color palette."
Groth put the light plot together with Reeves, who later called in LD Justin Collie to take over the design duty for Braxton's show. "I got Valerie's plot and asked for a few adjustments, lamp positions, and such, but it was her design, and we went with it," Collie explains. "We just added more lamps on the floor and tried to get a bit more spread from it."
"Fortunately, Justin and I have different styles, which looked great," Groth says. "It works, and the management likes it because it keeps the crew costs down on a daily basis."
Though the LDs worked with one light plot, each worked with a completely different set, both of which were designed by John McGraw of PlanView. "They are designed specifically for each act, but they are also designed to work in conjunction with each other," Groth says. "But they were built on two different concepts."
The LDs built their different looks on the same lighting desk: Light & Sound Design's Icon Consoleª. Faced with a restricted amount of rehearsal time, the designers and the tour's lighting directors, Seth Jackson and Tom Thompson, maintain that pulling off the show should be credited to the console's unique capabilities. "We watched some run-throughs of rehearsals during the day and then I'd program all night," Collie says. "After we built the looks, Toni requested a couple of changes, but we were given free rein to begin with. Pretty much it was my perception of the songs and then it was touched up afterwards. But when I left programming to go off and do Earth, Wind, and Fire, it was not finished by any means. So Tom did a lot of adjustments on the road, and he did a really good job for me. That board allows you to do that so easily, and it was perfect for this situation."
Collie left Thompson with some outlines of ideas for certain looks. "I went ahead with those, but it ended up-as it does a lot of times-that rehearsal was the first couple of shows," Thompson says. This was further complicated by the fact that dancers were added after rehearsals. "We had four front-of-house spots and two truss spots-that was the original plan, with no dancers. Then choreographer Frank Gadson got involved and suddenly there were four dancers, and still only six spotlights," Thompson explains. "So when they started adding dances, changes were definitely made. But with 110 moving lights, we've certainly got enough light to cover the stage, and the Icon Console will do anything you want it to. It can pick the lights that you actually use in different cues, so instead of focusing every light to a position, you can tell it to find the cue with the lights that are being used in it, and it will select only those, and you just focus those every day. So that cut down on our focus time, which was great because Seth and I were sharing one desk."
The Icon Mini Consoleª also came in handy for Thompson at the beginning of the tour because he could hook it up to his Macintosh computer in any hotel room and program more songs. "I'd program two or three songs, come in the next day, dump it in the desk, and it was all ready to go," Thompson says. "Even if it doesn't look right, at least you have something to work from."
Although they used the same console, the LDs set up their shows differently by using the Cue File. "The desk has a system file, a focus file, and a key file, so when we flop over, we have to keep the same system file, but we each have our own set of focuses and cues," Thompson explains. "It works out well, because it's like having two entirely separate consoles. You hit one button to go right to the Toni Braxton files, and you hit another button to go back to the Kenny G files. I've got it set up so that when I hit my last cue, it saves all the files, douses the floor lights that the set doesn't use, and it flops the file over to Seth's."
"That has made it really convenient, because we're not stepping on each other's cue space or numbering systems, or different styles," Jackson agrees. "The set recue is all fully reassignable, so that has worked tremendously well."
At each venue the crew first set up Kenny G's set while Jackson dealt with his focuses. "Then we change the system over and Tom comes in and does his focus. It's a smooth, flowing afternoon," Jackson says. "Tom does Toni's show first, and then we hit that magic button and switch the console back over to Kenny's system, and off we go."
Each artist has his or her own back line and carpenters, but the main production team is one-for-all. "It's probably the most co-habitable, peaceful co-headline tour I've ever done," Jackson says. "In the lighting department, it's just one group of people, except that anything Toni-related Tom takes care of, and anything Kenny-related I take care of."
One of the first elements that needed to be taken care of was the accuracy of the motors that control the truss movements. Braxton and G use the same lighting rig above the stage, but it is reconfigured for G's set. "We brought in the Skjonberg computer-controlled motor-control system; we have Chris 'Cheese' Chaussee running it, and he's been terrific," Jackson says. "We came up with six or seven different positions, because with the computer it's so simple. Once you program those moves, it's locked in, and you can guarantee that it's going to go there night after night. All of this really goes back to Valerie's tradition with the show; she's never been one to use straight symmetrical trussing. Kenny's shows have always had very architectural, wacky asymmetrical bends and curves."
Those curves are accentuated by a lot of saturated color. "The music just cries out for it," Jackson says. "It's such warm, happy music; what else can you do? In the tradition of Valerie, the show is really about gobos and beam structure. We spent a great deal of time building the focuses so that the beams of light and smoke link together to create a very architectural element with the show. And again, true to form, nothing is symmetrical. Beams overlap, and angles come from different directions that you wouldn't necessarily think they would. It's not so much about big, huge washes of light; it's more about light and shadow."
All of this creates a striking contrast to Braxton's show. "Toni's show is very big and heavy-hitting and powerhouse, and uses the wash instruments much more; we play more with shadow and light, and use the gobos and the darkness more," Jackson says. "It's amazing that the two systems will offer that, that one system allows for two completely different styles of shows. And you couldn't ask for a better mix of instruments. You've got the advantage of the WashLight and its rotating lens system, which is a nice effect, and you've got the workhorse VL5 and the power of the Icon-the rotating gobos and all the tricks in that."
Jackson has learned a lot of new tricks on this tour, including how to work with video during a live show. Here he worked closely with video director Carol Dodds, who is handling both artists' shows. For G's show, there is a screen incorporated into the back wall of the set as well as two side screens. "We have worked huge amounts of video into the show, so that there are cues that I take that an audience would never see until the camera shot is made," Jackson says. "I watch the screens as much as I watch Kenny. Because there are certain places where Carol cuts away to an overhead shot, and I have gobo patterns that move across the floor, so I hold that cue until the moment when the image is on the screen. It's been a great experience working to balance between what's in the background and what Kenny's like, and yet still keeping it looking like I want it to, live. We've worked hard on making the show work in both realms."
At the beginning of the tour, Thompson had to work on changing a lot of Braxton's looks for her show's two video screens. As the video crew was not a part of production rehearsals, all of these changes occurred as the tour progressed. "There were a lot of color fades that I had to change because they were driving the video people crazy," Thompson says. "So I had to dim down a little bit. In the beginning we had a problem with not all the people being lit, because we had a big white cyc with silver flutes in front of it. So Justin's idea was to treat the entire white set, especially the stairs, as part of the cyc. That totally changed the way it looked. It's really difficult to make people with dark complexions standing in front of an all-white set stand out, so that became part of the video dilemma as well."
Dodds admits that the lack of rehearsal time coupled with two distinctly different shows and designers was a challenge-but an interesting one. "Tom and Seth work with us for video, and one advantage of the show's setup is that Tom is the first one to use the spotlights each evening, so we get an indication from Toni's show of what we might want to change or adapt for Kenny's show," Dodds explains. "Other than that, it's pretty straightforward. Everybody tries to work together, and if there are problems we talk back and forth and generally work them out as soon as possible-sometimes during a show."
While Dodds tried to prepare before the tour, time constraints made these on-the-road adjustments necessary. "Because of the way that the production came together, there were a lot of last-minute details that came into play," Dodds says. "Kenny had a lot of different production pieces in the beginning of the tour that we gradually took out because he just felt that it was more apropos to his audience to be a bit more straightforward about it. That's actually worked better for his audience, because they can see his personality a little bit more.
"Toni has more production numbers-a big band, backup singers, and dancers. Plus there are backdrop changes, so it's all different from a production standpoint," Dodds continues. "Certainly we try to give each artist as much as possible an equal production situation, or to carry out whatever their particular desires are. We try to enhance the show without overpowering it as you would in a normal situation where it's image magnification-you're trying not to necessarily draw the eye of the people that are close to the stage, but to fill in the people that are far away from the stage."
Dodds appreciates the contrast between the two performers. "Kenny's being out in the audience expands the stage to fill the entire arena or theatre. So he's pushing it in a different direction entirely, where Toni's staying on the stage and they're very structured," Dodds says. "Kenny has a much more relaxed flavor to his show, because he's right out in the middle of the audience for a good portion of the show, and interacting with the audience in the audience rather than pulling the audience up onto the stage, which is what Toni does."
Currently both performers have gone off on their own solo tours in Europe. Collie is now touring with Braxton; at press time, he was hoping to expand on her set's look. "I want to tie it all together with a roof arrangement that continues all the silver up the back-we'll get a canopy to continue that look so it finishes it off," Collie says. "And then we'll place the lamps-obviously the lighting will be around the same theme. I'll still be using Icons, and I might try out [High End Systems] Studio Colorsª." The production will also keep the rolling risers with the stairs and the star drop. "She likes the star drop a lot," Collie says. "And it gets a little gasp from the audience, so that's good." The tour will play arenas in Europe for about six weeks.
Jackson will continue with G on the tour, which he redesigned for Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim, using a Vari-Lite/Concert Production Lighting rig. "It's a theatre-sized rig over there, so it's completely different from this," Jackson says. "We're starting over, basically, and CPL is being very gracious. They're giving me a demo room so I can have two full days with the system to program a new show, because I'm writing it totally from scratch, and they're helping me with Brilliant Stages to put together a scenic package."
When G's tour returns to the US in the summer, Jackson will again have a brand-new lighting rig, similar to the one shared by Braxton, and supplied by LSD and Vari-Lite. "To accommodate a smaller system, it will be a completely different trussing arrangement," Jackson says. "The basic set will still be there, but since it won't be with Toni, we can do more with floor lighting and side positions, because we won't have to worry about moving 10 tons of scenery back and forth in 20 minutes. Those dates will be outdoors in the sheds, so that will dictate some differences, too."
While the transition has not been difficult, Jackson had a tough act to follow in Groth, who began working full-time for LSD's Nashville office in January. "Valerie has been with Kenny since day one. When she started with him, she carried a box full of gel and gobos and that was it," Jackson says. "She was such a key to everything that happened, the whole look and the whole atmosphere of Kenny's shows. But once we started working on the show together, it became very natural, and it was a very simple progression. We worked on it together, she handed it off, and then over the course of the next few months Kenny and I kept working together to keep taking it a little further, until it became a show that everybody was happy with. So it's been a challenge. Plus, he's always changing what he does out there, so I never quite know what's coming next out there. It's fun; it's a new adventure every night."