It looks like a rock concert. The lighting has all the hallmarks of a rock concert. And Kenny Chesney certainly is attractive enough to be a rock star. Instead, he's one of the biggest names in country music today. “Kenny isn't the kind of artist to go out there with wagons and bales of hay,” says Chesney's lighting/scenic designer Mike Swinford. “This year's tour is a very big, rock-looking tour, which is exactly what Kenny wanted.”

For the look of Chesney's Margaritas and Senoritas tour, Swinford began with two concepts: angles and hard-edged light. “My initial thought was to have a lot of vertical angles and no soft-edged lights at all,” Swinford explains. “Kenny likes shows that are punchy and hard-hitting — definitely not glitzy — and he doesn't like anything too soft.”

The tour is supplied by Dale Morris Leasing of Nashville, TN; the company gave Swinford the nod to go shopping. He chose to go with Vari*Lites®, specifically the VL2000 Spot, the VL1000 Arc, and, surprisingly, the VL2000 Wash.

Swinford can't say enough about his new gear. “I love the wonderful colors in the Vari*Lites, and Kenny loves them as well,” he says. The VL2000 Spot is the designer's workhorse; however, it did need a bit of customizing to fit into the Chesney show. “The VL2000 Spots came with the standard colors and there were certain colors in there that I couldn't use with Kenny,” Swinford says, “like flesh pink. So I ended up doing four custom dichroic colors per light.”

The choice of the VL2000 Wash light might seem odd in an otherwise hard-edged show; however, Swinford didn't want to limit his options for future tours, and, he adds, it's always good to have a reliable wash light on hand. Also, “With the VL2000 Wash light, you can get such a narrow beam that it gives you a hard-edged look that's slightly fuzzy around the edges. At the same time, you can just fuzz them out to give this incredibly soft glow,” the LD explains.

In addition, the tour also features High End Systems Studio Spots® and Studio Colors®. “I love the Vari*Lites,” says lighting director Mike Shucher, adding, however, “The Studio Colors are, in my opinion, the best true wash lights out there and the staff at High End is great.”

Rounding out Swinford's gear is a not-so-subtle effect called Lightning Strikes!, which uses an astonishing 75,000W. “They're like a strobe — they can do a strobe effect — and their duty cycle is short, a second and a half,” says the designer. “At the top of the show, we have them under the set and they look like huge lightning arcs.” Shucher is also a fan of the strobe. “The first time we used them in a shed, they lit up past the fence at the back of the grass,” he says, “and if you don't use them during the show, there's a big difference.”

Swinford's rig consists of an upstage truss filled with video and vertical trusses, a midstage truss, as well as eight T-shaped pods. “We basically have a wall of video and lighting that is about 16' high and 48' wide,” the designer reports. The vertical trusses, filled with VL2000 Spots, create unique angles, which, along with the predominance of hard-edged lighting, was one of the designer's original concepts. “By hanging the Vari*Lites on their sides, you can easily get some very different pan and tilt looks that you don't normally get,” he adds.

Audience light plays a critical role in the show, but Swinford doesn't rely on that old standby, the Molefay. Instead, he looks to the VL2000 Wash lights. “They're better than a Molefay — they're more controlled — and you can do a specific focus for each venue, so it's not this big, blasting, uncontrolled light,” he says. Also, “I use the Studio Spots from the side T pods for a lot of the crowd lighting,” says Shucher.

Throughout, the show is filled with bold color statements rather than pop-star pastels. “Kenny would be happy if every lighting cue went from one solid color to another,” Swinford says. “He hates three-color mixes, so I use two-color mixes at most.” The show is a mix of warm and cool colors, with cooler colors dominating the ballads.

Swinford's rig has two unique features — a supergrid and the eight T-shaped pods. “There's eight points total used on the supergrid, and 16 half-ton motors in the grid itself,” explains Shucher. Based on issues that production manager Ed Wannabo wanted solved, Shucher fleshed out the supergrid concept. “We needed a cable management system for our T pods,” he says. “We wanted to consolidate our physical motor points, and we also needed a rip-stop curtain around the set.” Shucher had two solutions: an L-shaped or H-shaped supergrid. These were studied and the H grid was the solution. “If you free-hung the points for the T pods, the focus would be different every day,” Shucher remarks. The points are virtually the same every day, as Swinford expected. “Once you hang this grid, all your other points below it are perfect and your focus touch-up is almost nil,” Swinford comments.

The rig is also adjustable, and fits from arenas into sheds fairly easily. “Ed and I sat down early on, and he gave me parameters for width and depth,” says Swinford. “We can narrow the set and lighting by 4' to 6' to accommodate smaller sheds. It takes about 58' of width to do this, but if we run into something that's 55', we can still get it in there.” In April, the show moved from arenas to sheds, and the lighting crew had to readjust the rig. “We've already had to take 8' off the back of the H grid,” Shucher says. “We also have 2' corner blocks on the side that we can take out to accordion in a little bit, if need be.”

Control for the tour is provided by an MA Lighting grandMA console (distributed in the US by ACT Lighting), networked together with a grandMA light as backup, with two Artistic Licence DMX output nodes providing DMX over Ethernet. Programmer Mark Butts also worked on Chesney's last tour, No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem. This year, “we had over 11 days for programming and five days of band rehearsal,” he says, adding that it was “a huge luxury compared to the 72 hours we had to program last year's tour.” Speaking about the grandMA, he says, “Apart from all the awesome programming things I can do, we have two consoles tracking each other, with two DMX output nodes onstage outputting data to the lights. If anything happens to the main console, the backup console pops up a window asking if we want it to take control of the nodes; one push of a button later, we are seamlessly transferred over to the backup and in the right cue. Having said all that, we've never had to do it — but better safe than sorry.”

In the end, Chesney's show is a party — exactly what he wants it to be. “Kenny wants to entertain the crowd the way he was entertained when he used to go to shows,” Shucher says. Catch the Margaritas and Senoritas tour at a venue near you until the end of July.

Contact the author at


Lighting Designer
Mike Swinford

Mark Butts

Lighting Director
Michael Shucher

Lighting Crew Chief
J.D. White

Tour Manager
Dave Farmer

Production Manager
Ed Wannabo

2nd Electric
Jason Barbour

Ryder Dees, Joel Harrison

Brian “Gummy” Sherman

Head Rigger
Jake Schultz

Artist Management
Dale Morris, Nashville, TN

Lighting Supplier
Dale Morris Leasing, Nashville, TN (most gear purchased from TLS, Huntsville, AL)

Lighting Equipment

16 Vari*Lite VL2000 Wash luminaires
42 Vari*Lite VL2000 Spot luminaires
10 Vari*Lite VL1000 Arc luminaires
34 High End Systems Studio Spot 575 CMYs
12 High End Systems Studio Color 575s
3 Lightning Strikes! 75kW animated lightning bolts
1 MA Lighting grandMA console
1 MA Lighting grandMA light (backup)
2 Artistic Licence Art-Net boxes
2 Lycian short-throw truss spots
2 Reel EFX DF-50 hazers
1 High End Systems F100 fogger
2 Motion Laboratories 16-way motor distros
1 Motion Laboratories 72-way power distro
1 Avolites 48-way dimmer rack with four non-dim modules for power distribution
4 Doug Fleenor Opto Splitters
13 Tomcat 8' sections silver Auto Truss
8 Tomcat 8' sections A-type truss
18 Thomas 8' sections 20"x20" truss
1 Thomas 4' section 20"x20" black truss
21 Tomcat 8' sections silver Mini Beam truss
4 black corner blocks
60' All Access custom-built black truss for video wall
21 Columbus McKinnon 1/2-ton motors
15 Columbus McKinnon 1-ton motors
7 Columbus McKinnon 2-ton motors
Clear Com intercom system