July 17th, 2006
by Kevin M. Mitchell
Another summer, another anticipated Dave Matthews Band’s tour. For the third year in a row, for reasons only the band knows, they chose St. Louis’ outdoor UMB Pavilion to kick it off on May 30.
“This is my 35th time I’ve seen him,” one fellow blurted before the show. Then, completely unprovoked, he launched into exuberant detail about past DMB experiences.
Little did he know he was in for a very different DMB show, one that might— gasp!—be like a rock concert.
The show kept the 20,000 fans on their feet. It’s noted afterwards that, in addition to the ramped up technical aspects, the normally semi-stoic band, known for their stand-in-oneplace- and-play approach, seem unusually animated and energized.
“I think they are,” agrees Fenton Williams, LD and scenic designer for DMB. “I think they are having a lot of fun. I don’t know if it’s having that much lighting behind them and more visual elements happening, or if they are just excited about this particular tour.”
The Space Between Fenton Williams has been out with DMB on every tour since the first one in 1991. “I went out just to help as tour manager, and the band just exploded,” he recalls from the back of a coach, worn from the day’s work, relaxing as best as one can hours before the maiden show. He lights a cigarette and says that after that first tour he found himself running lights and “I have loved it ever since. And they’ve given me such a platform to work with. I love to have their input because they are all so creative, but it’s also nice to just run with things and do the job.”
DMB is Fenton’s exclusive client, and the band puts an enormous amount of faith and trust in him, as he practically has carte blanche in putting the lighting aspect of the shows together. He is quick to acknowledge the “problem:” “Let’s face it,” he says. “Because of musicianship and songs that inspire rabid devotion, the band could put on an amazing show on the side of barn with a pair of spot lights borrowed from a local high school.” Yet he and the other creatives involved are slowly and subtly kicking up the concert experience a notch with each tour.
“The last tour was really the first time we went out with a full set,” he says. “But it was very organic.” They had turned to Bruce Rogers of Tribe Inc. for that one, and did for this one as well. This time, though, they went in the opposite direction and came up with an asymmetrical industrial looking rig packed with lights and video. Williams stresses that it was very much a collaborative effort, with programmer Aaron Stinebrink and production manager Hank McHugh weighing in as well.
But it starts with Williams, who says he drew up some general set and light ideas in VectorWorks before shooting it over to Rogers. “I had an idea of a wall but I’m not a set designer like Bruce is. He can take an ugly idea and make it pretty,” he laughs. He also credits Omaha-based Theatrical Media Service’s Pete Franks: “They are just brilliant at figuring out problems you run into.”
The video is being controlled via three High End Systems Catalysts, all at work (no spares), and it’s being manipulated like a lighting effect, Williams says. “That’s the biggest change; using video as a tool.” It’s taken them a long time to come around to using a more pronounced video element because he was worried about it being, well, un-DMB-like. “I don’t want it to be overbearing,” he continues emphatically. “Tonight the video might be a little overbearing, but after four shows we’ll hit a groove where we know how to drop it in and out. I think we have enough elements to develop and grow with through the tour.” As it turns out, a few days later he was asked if someone from that first show would notice anything different about show number five in Detroit: “There would be a little less video. It’s just a matter of not overdoing it. It’s finding a chorus where a certain element worked but then pulling it down for the verse and moving everything forward to the front screens. It’s leaving a little more space between, so it becomes more effective overall.”
There’s no carefully scripted set list to work from, no 20-25 songs in play, but in theory, more than 120. Williams and Stinebrink have about 65 songs partially programmed and hope to have another five worked out in the next few days; otherwise, they receive that night’s set list for the show about an hour before the band goes on. It’s different every night and they have to be ready for anything, so the crew meets and “We go through it, and figure out video elements that will fit in and do it differently every night” Williams says. If the band does throw them a big curve and puts in a song they haven’t programmed, they have a couple of generic “cool” and “warm” pages, etc., ready to work with.
Sure enough, on this night, the band reached long and pulled out one song that the team wasn’t officially prepared for, but “We have the system set up so we can just go with it. But yes, they are bringing back old songs and I love it.”
Steady As We Go Despite that huge variable, the show is broken down into three phases. The first phase is fairly low-key until about the fourth or fifth song when there’s a kabuki drop that reveals three huge video screens and a bank of lights. For phase two the videos display close-ups of the band exclusively from four digital cameras. “The last seven or eight songs we’re using the Catalyst and breaking up the screens, but it’s a bit up in the air now,” Williams says.
“Watch Fenton during the show,” Rogers says. “Only about 40% of any song is programmed; Fenton makes the rest up on the fly. He’s like a jazz musician.” Sure enough, during the show, Williams and Stinebrink are on their feet and fingers are flying nonstop over the two MA Lighting grandMA consoles. One of the challenges is for the two to work together, and not crash into each other, physically or artistically.
As to the complications and pressure of doing a show so on the fly every night, Stinebrink says he follows Williams’ lead in setting a look, and then he tries to see how he can enhance that, layering elements on top of his to complement what he’s doing. “The visual element will keep changing, as we’ll catch a riff and run with it, playing off the band. It’s a lot of fun, and as the tour progresses, we’ll get into a rhythm. It makes it more fun—and it sure keeps you into what is going on up on stage!”
Stinebrink adds that this is his first time working with Catalysts on such a grand scale, and working in additional video elements was a new aspect as well. A great deal of time was spent finding the right video content for a song, even though it’s only used for a third of the show, and even then just moments of small subtle abstract color patterns are used.
“A lot of the footage came from showfootage. com, and Fenton got some additional pieces from his new company Dark Sky Video, which he co-founded,” Stinebrink says. “We had vague ideas of what we wanted, but it was a lot of songs to find video content for.” Careful attention was paid not to use any video clips that would define a song for an audience member. “The video isn’t telling them what to think or how to feel, and that way you’re not compromising what the music means to the individual.”
“For the first time, there are no dimmers being used on this show,” says Franks, who has been the band’s lighting crew chief since 2001. “Everything is LED or moving.” Standing backstage before the show, Franks is asked what the most challenging aspect of the show will be for him. He shrugs. “We don’t know; we haven’t done the show yet!” Despite a month of pre-programming on a soundstage in Connecticut, and three days in St. Louis for set up and rehearsals, the crew seems almost downright clueless as to what exactly is going to go down tonight at this complicated 11-truck show. Yet the laid-back feeling the band exudes is persuasive throughout.
“In the past, in addition to conventional lights we’ve had scrollers which have their own set of challenges and require a lot of maintenance,” Franks says. “We don’t have to worry about that stuff now.” He adds that another new element is the addition of four Syncrolite SX3K’s. Also being used are 25 High End Systems Studio Beams, 15 Studio Commands, 12 Studio Colors, and 28 Vari*Lite VL3000s.
Screenworks (account rep Erik Foster) provides the LED walls and low-res panels, including one 12 by 16-foot and two 9 by 12-foot Daktronics 13mm. Video director Mike Lane calls the cues and AD Jeff Crane handles shading and effects. Mike Rinehart, Bob Chaize, Steve Finley and Zak Vivano supply additional technical support. Norman Gomes is the tour rigger.
Everyday Back at tour bus, Williams is finishing a cigarette as he contemplates a question: What is the most challenging aspect of all this? He taps the butt down and thinks carefully before speaking. “I would say that conceptualizing an idea out of thin air is tough, though it is fun as well. Also, the month-long programming sessions, when you’re working weekends as well in this big dark room and you only see daylight coming from and returning to the hotel.” He thinks a little harder, and comes up with a final, more convincing challenge. “Oh, well really it’s being away from my wife everyday. That’s the hardest.”
He smiles and adds with a laugh, “better put that in case she reads this.”