All the spiteful former fans who persecuted the Dixie Chicks (lead vocalist Natalie Maines, fiddler Martie Maguire, and Dobro/banjo/guitarist Emily Robison) after Maines's now infamously “unpatriotic” remark (she said they were ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq) are missing one spectacular show. The women are bringing their powerful harmonies, distinctive instrumental abilities, and a unique blend of good ol' country and polished pop music melodies out on the road with the Top of the World tour.

In keeping with their stance in favor of (gasp!) freedom of speech, the band addresses what they call “the incident” before they even take the stage. The not-so-subtle filler songs played over the PA after the opening act's set include: Elvis Costello's “What's So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, “Our Lips are Sealed,” by the Go Gos, “Band on the Run” by Wings, REM's “It's the End of the World As We know it,” and Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the USA.” Hmm, what's the theme here?

Kicking off the show, the trio and their backup band are unveiled from behind a gorgeous flower-and-vine-embroidered cylinder curtain (fabricated by David Perry Productions) as the strains of “Goodbye Earl” fill the arena, and as frying pans (and later hams and strawberry jams) begin flying across a multitude of video screens-four that hang in the air and the “river” of video that encompasses the stage. The river also surrounds two clusters of lucky fans who stand between it and the center circle where the 12-piece band sits.

Production/lighting designer LeRoy Bennett explains that the three Dixie Chicks came up with idea of staging the tour in the round. “So I felt that the show was a balance of money and entertainment,” he says. “When you buy the expensive seats in a regular proscenium show, you never really see the show. You're more in the show and it's more about seeing the people in your face. As you go further away, you see more of the show, but in this case it's even more extreme. You experience this huge environment-you're half a distance closer than you usually are because you're looking down on a world instead of looking into it. There's a more interesting perspective this way. The idea was to create interaction. The video on the floor is a horizontal world and the screens that are flown bring in a horizon type of feel-so it all kind of interacts.”

The enormous video floor, shaped to suggest a winding river rather than a perfect oval, truly is a marvel to behold. “I just keep pushing myself to what I can do as I learn more about video technology,” Bennett says, “understanding that it's more about the control technology versus physically placing the video where it's supposed to be. Although putting in the floor was quite a big feat. Tait Towers did an amazing job. They managed to keep it as smooth and seamless as possible plus it goes together extremely quickly.

“Getting the air circulation around the video was a big part of it,” he continues. “There has to be a gap between the acrylic flooring and the video panels because the panels generate a lot of heat. If there is too much space the acrylic will distort the image, but it has to be far enough away to allow the heat disperse. So it took some time to work that out.”

“We had a little bit of luck because we were able to prototype the floor surface [for the Dixie Chicks' appearance] on the Grammy Awards,” adds Tait Towers general manager Winky Fairorth. “We played around with some ideas that carried onto the main stage. We built special decks that house the video panels all the time. The video rides in the sections of these decks and the decks are covered in three-quarter inch thick acrylic, which is pretty hard to come by. It was a very ambitious, massive undertaking that was executed amazingly well by production manager Bill Leabody and his crew.”

Despite their years of work constructing the stages for the touring industry's biggest shows, the river was in many ways a learning experience for the Tait crew. “We suffered greatly to get this done-we learned a lot about the video, and how the plastic expands around the video during the show,” says founder Michael Tait. “It was pretty tricky. We made modules for all of the video panels to slide into-up to four and five in some sections-and they are all in custom-fabricated decks. We also spent a lot of time trying to minimize the number of cubes-in some of the areas only one corner of cube was showing, so we tried to cut down on those-because each video panel is really expensive. Then we created a border because the lines are curvy and the cubes are square. We did our best to eliminate the ones where only a corner of the cube is pointing out because that's just a waste of money. It took a little tweaking, but we did all that and kept the flavor of Roy's shape.”

B&R Scenery also contributed to the show's staging by constructing the center circle with lifts that allow for the girls and the band to make entrances. The company also built the telescoping Texas-style windmill that rises up from the center for the song “Wide Open Spaces.” David Perry also fabricated an elaborate four-sectioned tree drape that drops down for the song, “Home.” Some of Bennett's other whimsical touches include the 2'-3' flowers and cattails (fabricated by David Mendoza of MagiCraft Design, Inc.) that pop up all around the stage and the walkways for the songs “Landslide” and “Mississippi.”

For the video's content, Bennett worked with Andee Kuroda from Los Angeles-based Kan Pai Pictures. “There was script written and a treatment of each song that we went through with the three girls,” Bennett explains. “They would then say what they did and didn't like and add some of their own ideas. With three artists you get three different ideas, but they would eventually work out a common idea. Then you just have to interpret it and absorb all the information, as well as try to guide all of the ideas into one direction.”

Video director Dave Neugebauer rose to the challenge of helping Bennett ensure the video system would work the way he envisioned it. “We looked at existing high-end technology and got the biggest and brightest LED units that Barco makes right now,” Neugebauer says. “Roy sent the drawings and we did the math and went crazy for weeks and weeks. There were lots of emails back and forth and a lot of number crunching involved. Now we've got it going and it's really pretty cut and dry. We've got some cues where it's actually pretty seamless, like on ‘Mississippi,’ where the video floor is all water. But it doesn't look like the real Mississippi River because brown isn't a good video color!

“We're using an all-digital SDI video system with a Pinnacle ACLE Systems TDS 9000i switcher, which is the heart of the whole thing,” Neugebauer continues. “It's a lot more than just a switcher because it also has DVE capability, which is a manipulator you usually need an external box for. But here it's contained in the switcher. We like that.”

The system's playbacks come off six DoReMi Labs V1X2's-dual-channel, non-linear playbacks that use 36 drives. The imagery is a combination of original content mixed with plenty of IMAG (image magnification). Each unit gives two channels of playback with about two hours per channel. “On this show, we have 10 active playback channels of video, and I've got three live switches-I switch for the hanging screens, I switch for the plasma monitors that surround the stage, and I switch for tape,” Neugebauer explains. “So there are times I'm cutting three different things at the same time and it gets a little nutty. But that just keeps it interesting.”

The video crew's most obvious challenge is handling the size and scope of the river/video walkway. “It's too big to handle with one processor and just call it one big screen. The processors are just Barco's way of getting our video signal into their wall, so they do the math, figuring out that the wall is so many tiles by so many tiles. You see the walkway, but because it works in squares, you have to address each section like it's a square. Even though we're only using parts of some tiles-we're actually using a little curve on some effects-the processors still have to do the math for all the other imagery that's not there.”

Neugebauer split the video river up among eight processors. “We've got eight outputs going to the wall, but how do you take eight signals and make sure they fade up and fade out all at the same time? When they initially conceived it, they said it would be easy-just take a playback channel and wrap it to each processor. But I didn't want to be limited to having the video always pop on and pop off. Also, if things go a little long or a little short, you want to have control of that.”

For that control, Neugebauer is using an Electrosonic Vector box. “It's a video wall processor that is meant to deal with walls where you have stacks of cues-it's a pretty high end piece of equipment, but when you have multi-channels on a wall, you need that. We also have a routing matrix with 32 inputs to 32 outputs and we have good system distribution-analog to digital and digital to analog conversions. All the equipment has been pretty reliable, but most of that credit goes to Dave Panscik, who runs the river-he's our lead LED video technician. Anytime we've had something go down, the crew is right on it and gets it fixed in a matter of minutes.”

The camera operators use Ikegami HL45 SDI cameras. There are two stabilized 86 to 1 long lenses and two 55 to 1 long lenses for cameras that are distributed North, South, East and West around the ring. “There are also two handheld cameras on the north and south sides of the stage-they run all over the place and get images for us. On the floor, the river is made up of 808 Barcolite i10 LED panels. For the four hanging walls, we have 192 panels of Barcolite D7 LED screens.”

Top of the Rig

While the four hanging walls and the video river certainly emit a lot of light, the lighting system, provided by Upstaging and coordinated by crew chief Bill Frostman, is massive in it own right. “The system is right underneath the scoreboard, so it was a rigging challenge at the beginning,” explains lighting director Benny Kirkham. “We have this new heavy-duty truss that Tomcat makes to span underneath the scoreboard. It's a large unsupported X except at the corners of the X. So the bulk of the weight of the system is hanging on a large unsupported X on a corner block. We had to get engineering letters from Tomcat to say this was viable, but we were able to put more overhead light over the stage this way.” In addition to the 24 sections of heavy-duty truss, Tomcat also supplied 12 sections of medium-duty truss, a custom 16' truss circle, and 16 sections of Swing Wing truss, as well as various corner blocks and pickup bars.

Bennett chose 44 LSD Icon automated luminaires and 48 Martin MAC 2000 automated luminaires that are flown above the stage as well as 30 VLPS 2000 automated spot luminaires and 30 VLPS 2000 automated wash luminaires that are dotted around the mainstage area, the center hub, and the main walkway. In production rehearsals, Bennett and Kirkham worked with programmers Troy Eckerman and Drew Findley to produce the lighting looks. “We've got a Wholehog wing and we're triggering the Icon board off the MIDI, although some things on the Icon board are hand run,” Kirkham explains. “Drew really showed me a lot-he trained me on the Icon board. A lot of the looks in the show are symmetrical so that everyone in the arena gets pretty much the same show. Of course, the biggest and flashiest moments of the show come from the video, so everything in the show pretty much complements that. We made an effort to match our color palettes to the video for each number.

“The biggest challenge on this show has actually been finding good angles for spots and making sure that Dave is covered on video, because there are so many cameras and it's 360,” Kirkham continues. “You can't sweep any dust under the rug when you're playing 360-everybody's looking from every angle. If you have one light on a guy and it looks good from here, you have it keep in mind that from another part of the arena you might be making him look like Bela Lugosi.”

The show picks up 12 spotlights in every venue-one for each Chick multiplied by the four points of the compass. “I meet with the spot ops before the show and explain that the job of the operator is to be a sniper-when their girl comes to their side of the stage they have to have their heads up and be on the color and douser cues,” Kirkham says. “I use those spots like moving lights-they could wear their wrists out running this show as fast as I talk on some of these cues. And Natalie specifically requested the ‘audience abuse lights’ that we have. She wasn't convinced that we would get enough audience coverage even though our spot luminaries are really powerful. She insisted that she wanted it to be harsh.”

Whistlin' Dixie

To produce the smoothest sound possible for the audience members no matter where they are sitting, FOH Audio engineer Fernando Alvarez chose to use a ShowCo Prism system with four arrays of 20 each for an 80-box system. “This is probably the best-sounding rig when it comes to working in the round; it covers on a horizontal plane 360 degrees,” he says. “This system has been around for years and years-but why reinvent the wheel? I couldn't be any happier with it. Working in the round is more difficult because you have some weird anomalies coming from the center where your source is-the instruments being played. So if you're able to control that, and the PA of course has a lot to do with that, it helps. Luckily we don't have any speakers on the stage-all the backline guys, bass and guitar amps are all underneath the stage. Also, everyone onstage is wearing in-ear monitors, so that helps us out by cutting down on the reflections and makes for a very clean stage.”

For control, the crew is using the programmable ShowCo Show Console at FOH. “We're using the new Clair I/O system, which is a wireless drive system,” explains crew chief Brad Erwin. “That's how we control the crossovers-we can take our little laptop and go to the worst seat in the building and change the sound to make it better. Those have been out for about a year now-most tours that come out of Clair and ShowCo have them. It is a really big production. We have 103 inputs, which is way more than most shows have-the average is around 30. We're also running over 50 wireless channels, when most shows only need about 12.”

“The Clair I/O wireless crossover network really does warm up the system for us,” Alvarez adds. “Brad will turn on the PA and get up in the mezzanine area in the venue and I'll onstage and walk with the wireless, touchscreen pad. I'm looking for all the low-mids and lows that may be a problem because we have all acoustic instruments up here-guitars and bangos and fiddles and so forth. Plus there are microphones involved. So I have to control the bottom end. I do my best to know what's going on and that pad really helps out with that.”

With their West Tone ES2 in-ear monitors in place, the trio spends a lot of the show on the move, walking back and forth across the video walkway, up and down the stairs and over to the middle, but they don't do a lot of chatting with the audience. Maines did pick up her microphone to directly address “the incident” and its ensuing controversy late in the show as a preface to the their cover of Patty Griffin's song, “Truth No. 2,” which is all about censorship. The video enhances it with scenes showing protest marches for civil rights and abortion rights, followed by book and record burnings and the destruction of Dixie Chicks CDs. Its final image was simply the words “Seek the Truth.” “It's a great way to show that our ignorance in this country continues and they're not afraid to speak up about it,” Bennett says. “That was an exciting part about working with them and I really admire them for doing it.”

During one of the show's encores, “Top of the World,” Maines again picked up her microphone to address the audience directly and do some explaining. She imparted that they named the tour that after this song because the new album, “Home” was selling so well and they had enjoyed considerable success at the Grammy Awards. After all the controversy, they considered changing it to “The Bottom of the Barrel” tour-but all the T-shirts had already been printed so they were stuck with it.

“That's a good story-and it's probably got some truth to it-but that made this tour even more enjoyable for me-as hard as it was for them-because I was able to participate in something that was a reality check on our society,” Bennett concludes. “It was surprising. She just expressed an opinion that a lot of Americans had-and we do have freedom of speech. What happened to them was horrendous.”

Judging by its success-it's currently the third highest grossing American tour 2003-and the lack of wide open spaces among the crowds packing in to see these sold-out shows, The Dixie Chicks won't be giving up their “Top of the World” position anytime soon.

Dixie Chicks Top of the World Tour

Production and lighting designer: LeRoy Bennett

Production manager: Bill Leabody

Tour manager: Richard Coble

Road manager: Mindi Pelletier

Production assistant: Marguerite Nguyen

Lighting director: Benny Kirkham

Video director: Dave Neugebauer

Video content: Andee Kuroda/Kan Pai Pictures

FOH audio engineer: Fernando “Fern” Alvarez

Lighting crew chief: Bill “Frosty” Frostman

Audio crew chief: Brad Erwin

Lighting technicians: Mike Green, Steve Schumi

VLPS technician: Andrea Mack

Icon technician: Russ Felton

Assistant video director: Dave Jolley

Video engineer: Stephen Davis

Lead video technician: Dave Panscik

LED technician: Andrew Richter

Video crew chief/camera operator: Mark O'Herlihy

Camera operators: Ryan Ward, George Elizando, Nate Williams, Tom Braislin

Audio monitor engineers: Johnny Branham, Scotty “The Body” Reikowsky

Audio technicians: Richard Schoenadel, Kevin “Kap” Kapler

Head carpenter: Roger Cabot

Carpenters: Joel Wilson, Henry “Mani” Metcalfe, Todd Green, Tom Kelleher, Jason Deleu, Richard Randall

Head rigger: Ken Mitchell

Rigger: Tom “Cooz” Cusimano

Video Supplier: Nocturne Productions

Set Construction and fabrication: Tait Towers, B&R Scenery, Perry Scenic Unlimited, MagiCraft

Lighting supplier: Upstaging, Inc.

Audio supplier: ShowCo