For the tour supporting her latest album, The Globe Sessions, Sheryl Crow seemed to be taking advice from one of her own songs on her self-titled second album. The chorus to the song "A Change" repeats: "I think a change would do you good." Last year, Crow recorded an album filled with more personal revelations than ever before. Then she cut off her shoulder-length hair and started investigating the possibility of hitting the road with a huge production design. Judging by the relaxed and confident performance she and her band gave at New York's Beacon Theatre in early May, the changes definitely suit her.
Since they met in 1994 (when a then-unknown Crow was the opening act for his client, Crowded House), Paul Guthrie has served as the performer's production manager and lighting designer. "Even though she was well established by the time of the last tour, we just followed the mantra of keeping it all in check and making money and having a good-size package," he explains. "When I came back, no expense was being spared: I want projection, in-ear monitors, a huge set--I really want to put on a big show. So that was excellent."
Crow did consult with a few different set designers, but ended up designing the stage's look herself. Another production change concerned Guthrie's involvement. Roy Lamb took over as production manager and Guthrie was able to put his cinematography skills to use. "Mark Russo did what we would call the set realization, but the ideas were all Sheryl's," he says. "I was brought in to oversee the whole production when she made the leap to this larger show, and part of it involved coordinating all of these areas: video, film, lighting. At the same time I was filming and producing and editing the production footage. So I went out and filmed bits of it and combined it with some stock footage. Then I sent her the approval of the edited version and we did one slight re-edit."
Guthrie also had to supervise how the front projection from the Barco 9200 units would work on the three screens. "I was overseeing how the physics of the projection would work and how we would hang the projectors, point them at the walls, and not get in anyone's way. Gerry Rodgers, the projectionist from video vendor PSL, helped me out with that. He's a very cool guy."
The two side screens are 24' long by 18' high (7x5m) and the upstage screen is 14' high by 20' wide (4x6m). They are all made out of plywood with a rendered concrete finish. "I had shot all the footage in a 16x9 aspect ratio, which is a widescreen format, and we just allowed the geometry of those side screens to naturally give a keystone distortion," Guthrie explains. "We never corrected for that, so for a lot of the time-lapse sweeping of clouds, you get an illusion that the scale is changing because the projectors are firing at the screens at an angle."
With the exception of the word "Hood" morphing in and out on the screens in block letters for the song "There Goes the Neighborhood," the content of the images hitting the screens tended toward the abstract. "A lot of the effects that I made before with gobos or just simple lighting gags, we do with projection now," Guthrie explains. "In one song, we needed a water effect, and before I would have gotten ripple machines--I love using that fabulous 50s technology. Now I can have a real shot of water rippling in slow motion in a tank. So that added a lot of different dimensions and we didn't actually have to struggle for a lot of looks on the walls for the songs that didn't use video.
"A couple of the songs are significantly brighter and others are much darker, but a lot of the places we were playing were kind of small, so we didn't want something that was super-bright and overpowering," Guthrie continues. "As chance would have it, it fell right on the mark. A lot of the ideas came from Sheryl--she'd decide on something specific or describe a feeling and I'd go out and build that."
Guthrie also worked closely with Rodgers. "One of Gerry's shining points is that he would take different tapes and mix them or come up with his own ideas. Originally we had it very locked in, but throughout the course of the production rehearsals, we tried to loosen it up so Gerry had more control and could live-mix it with what he wanted to do. Pretty much every song had him live-mixing. It wasn't just push play and let it roll. As it went on, he brought in some of his own loops and added them, and that worked out. He did a great job. We worked his bum off--he was alone out there. Four projectors had to be lined up every day and two had to be rigged off motors. Plus we set him up out front so he could see everything."
For the songs that did not feature video, the three walls provided excellent surfaces for lighting. With Light & Sound Design as the tour's main lighting contractor, the lighting system included LSD Icon(R) automated luminaires, High End Systems Studio Color(R) automated luminaires, and VL5(TM) wash luminaires. "The key lighting is all VL5s," Guthrie says. "The VL5 is a good tungsten-based match that didn't require people climbing around in the truss. I was trying to get it back to all the designs I'd done before, which were mainly using moving lights to get the most bang for the buck. Also, I personally like to be able to focus from FOH. No matter how good you are onstage having the light point right at you, there's always something when you get out front that's a little bit off. And if you've got a VL5 in a key light situation, you can just tweak it a little bit. That's a huge advantage."
Yet that front truss originally held 50 PAR cans because of concerns that moving lights would affect the double-hung projector that was also there. "My friend Wayne Boehning at Vari-Lite in Dallas actually hung a laser pointer and six VL5s on a length of truss and wiggled the hell out of them and reported back that it moved only 1" over 30' (9m), so we decided it was definitely the way to go," Guthrie says. The lighting rig also included 9-lights and ETC Source Fours. "Those were mainly for safety--just in case. They were the only units anyone had to go up and focus."
Even with all the added elements on this tour, Guthrie's design leaned toward strong and simple statements. "With the screens on three sides, and the band, and the fact that we lose some intensity with the roof, every light is committed. It's not like you can do a lot of painting and a lot of background chases like that--and we've never really gone for those types of cues anyway. So most of it was just clean, simple looks that would hang in there. On paper it looks like a lot of lights, and it was quite big. But the walls take up all the Studio Colors to light them. This tour she was very into the performance, really comfortable with the band, and really enjoyed playing every night. The band was really tight--socially as well. So we were just trying to echo that and keep the focus on her. A lot of the new songs have a lot of emotion, so they lend themselves well to the moodier looks we got for them."
Another reason for sticking to simple washes or gobo slashes came in the form of the stage's roof grid. "We created some interesting looks with it," Guthrie says. "Having those roof pieces in between the lights and the walls was both frustrating and enjoyable. The down side was that just an inch change every day would put a big old chrome bar in between that light and the back of the person's head that you normally wanted to hit. But it gave us the ability to cast these really dynamic shadows on the wall from that depth.
"In a couple of venues where we had to leave the roof pieces out, it was significantly brighter onstage. But it's still part of the look and it all ties in. I enjoyed the shadows, but it was a trade-off because you couldn't shoot that Icon all the way through and get that great backlight position. When we go out again I will change it so we have lights in between the grid, just so we have the continuity of always being able to use them."
Throughout the tour, Crow would constantly change the set list, so lighting director Kathy Beer would program the new songs. "I really enjoyed coming back as just the designer this time, and much of that is due to how well and quickly Kathy fit in," Guthrie says. "I ran the Icon Console(TM) for about the first 10 days. Then she came out and watched me and every day we changed five or six songs and eventually she just took over. It's all set up now the way she wants to operate it, but with my cues, so that's been working really well. I didn't even stay around."
Indeed, Guthrie was so confident in Beer's abilities that he left her to run her first show in the high-profile City of Angels. "All of the people on the tour were great to work with, so it wasn't difficult for me to feel comfortable there. When Sheryl would add new songs we'd hear them in sound check, and then Gerry and I would decide if we thought it should be a video song or not," Beer explains. "We both worked together on the 1995 David Bowie tour, so we know each other well. I wasn't as familiar with her earlier music, so I spent a lot of time listening to the CDs on the bus."
As the tour progressed Beer did change other cues. "I did a lot of cleaning up with the cues on the Icon Console, but Paul was a lot of fun to work with," Beer says. "He'd come out and visit us and pretty much liked everything we did. He'd give us his suggestions, but he never had the attitude that it had to be exactly how he had left it."
Guthrie likes the design to be flexible, and notes that the main point is to make sure Crow is the focus. "We start by making sure that she looks good and then we go from there. We only use two FOH spots, we don't light everyone up and there are usually only three spot cues per song--some where they don't get used at all. I just use them for fill to get under the eyes. I like to have control over everything else from the console. The modeling and mood setting comes from there.
"There are a lot of highlights on band members, but this tour is different because she isn't moving around much onstage like she did before," the LD continues. "She still plays a multitude of instruments, but she stays in her spot, downstage center. We're also a little bit cleaner this time because instead of four people downstage, now there are only three. And she also went to in-ear monitors so there were no more wedges cluttering up the stage."
Crow has now taken the stage for this summer's Lilith Fair--she is appearing on almost all of its dates--and Guthrie has reprised his role as production manager/LD. He will be using the system designed for the festival by Sarah McLachlan's LD, Graeme Nicol. "We're bringing our whole projection package with the same setup, but we're using real screens, so it will be a lot brighter," Guthrie says. "Instead of rock solid hard walls they'll be screens with keystoning masked off on them. Having the video will let us provide Sheryl with a very different scenario from the rest of the acts. So that should be good."
Lighting designer Paul Guthrie
Lighting director Kathy Beer
Lighting crew chief Russell "Bits" Lyons
Icon technician Jason Gangi
Lighting technician Dan Jankowski
Production Manager Roy Lamb
Projectionist Gerry Rodgers
Video supplier PSL, Inc./Bob Higgins
Set carpenter Richard Davis
Set Design Sheryl Crow
Set Realization Marc Russo/Visual Impact
Set Construction Don Maxwell/Service Development
Main lighting contractor Light & Sound Design/Barry Klaxton
Additional lighting Vari-Lite Production Services/Curry Grant
Lighting equipment (12) Light & Sound Design Icons (18) High End Systems Studio Colors (12) Vari*Lite VL5s (42) PAR cans (8) ETC Source Fours (2) Mole-Richardson Mini Molefays (9) Mole-Richardson 9-light Molefays (5) Lighting & Electronics 6' Mini-Strips (5) Wybron Mini-Mole Colorams (2) Reel EFX DF-50 hazers (12) Columbus McKinnon 1-ton chain hoist motors (1) LSD Colormag console (1) LSD Icon Console (4) Barco 9200 projectors