Counting Crows Embark on 25th Anniversary Tour

by Craig Rutherford • in
  • October 2018
  • Wide Focus
• Created: October 13, 2018

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Footlights uplight the performers at times. All photos by Todd Kaplan.

To paint a singer’s voice and lyrics with adjectives like “wordy introspection” and “expressive” is to color the expectation of the performance — there will be energy, to be sure, but layered through with moments of intense gravitas and feeling. Such a performance requires a deft hand leading the lighting. The mark of a good LD is one that accents not just the band and their solos, but ushers the audience through the emotional landscape that lyricist and lead singer Adam Duritz creates each night as the front man of Counting Crows. And for the past 19 years, that hand has been provided by the talented lighting director and designer Michael Zielinski.

The LD takes the moment down. Photo by Todd Kaplan

For Zielinski, the design process really began with wanting to bring back different iconic touring elements, and echo the history of the band. “I think the design really started from a perspective of this being the 25th anniversary of Counting Crows, and we wanted to bring back the different elements that had been used over the years, like the scenic star element, and the backdrop from the early touring days, and incorporate some creative uses of video into the set,” he said, sitting in the back lounge of a Prevost bus on a sunny day in Minneapolis. “There’s a scenic piece in the shape of a star that Upstaging fabricated for us back in the day, which flies upstage and is pixel-mapped with TMB Digital Floppy Flex LED ‘neon,’ which I control from my console, and of course the backdrop that we got out of storage.”

Mikey Z, Rob Savage and Paul Costa. Photo by Todd Kaplan

‡‡         A Dense, Multi-Functional Rig

The rig is dense with fixtures, as Zielinski wanted to design around a “wall of light” look, with long vertical torms on which are hung an unusually diverse array of fixtures. “There are 60-plus songs that the band draws from on a nightly basis, so my challenge is to be able to produce a really wide variety of looks — I don’t like to strap myself to any one type of fixture and not have enough elements in my pocket to get the look or mood that a particular song calls for.”

A sexy hard edge look. Photo by Todd Kaplan

“The band is really drawn to the floor-to-ceiling ‘wall of light’ look, so I hung my Robe MegaPointes, GLP impression X4S’s and impression X4 Bar 20s along with several TMB Solaris Flares and Chauvet Strike 1’s on the custom vertical torms. There are more GLP impression X4 Bar 20’s hung above the stage on the Tyler GT ‘fingers,’ with more Flares together with the BMFLs, which I use for both band light, projection, and aerial effects,” he says. Upstaging out of Chicago has been providing the lights for the Counting Crows forever, it seems. “All of this production would not, of course, be possible without the support of Upstaging,” Zielinski says. “They built the star set piece 23 years ago for the RECOVERING THE SATELLITES tour, and it still looks great. Our account manager is John Bahnick, who’s been with Upstaging since before I was the LD. He’s taken good care of us for a long time.”

Adam Duritz takes over at piano for a song. Photo by Todd Kaplan

“I really try to use every feature of every light, because the potential set list is so dense with options. There’s no real ‘workhorse’ light in the rig — everything gets used at different times and in different ways to help give each song a new visual identity.” On a further upstage truss are Martin MAC Vipers and Robe Spiiders; several Spiiders are also hung on stage left and right trusses for sidelight. On the deck are several Chroma-Q Color Force II 12s used for uplight on the performers, and additional TMB Flares on the floor for backlight, which occasionally wash the band in dramatic hues and create stunning silhouette looks.

A row of BMFL Blades bathes the stage in yellow. Photo by Todd Kaplan

‡‡         A Consistent-but-Changeable Show

While the band generally plays songs the same way, there’s nothing stopping them from throwing in a bit of a different song in the middle of an old favorite, or mixing it up in other ways from time to time. “I have a punt page, but I don’t really use it very often.” Mike reports. “For the most part, they play songs the same way, but I’m always ready for on the fly changes when they come up. Once the set list comes out, they’re good about sticking to it. When they do change songs, I have the advantage of having seen the show many times — I can tell what song is next by which guitar is coming onto the stage, or what positions the band is moving to.”

Robe BMFL Blades shine into the audience. Photo by Todd Kaplan

For Zielinski, having been around for so long along with the massive pool of songs meant that he was keen to collaborate with a programmer this time around, and reached out to veteran Taylor Price. “Taylor’s a great programmer, and him being there during programming was why we were able to get through sixty songs. One of the great advantages of being around as long as I have is having a really good feel for the music already, so we were really able to make the best use of our limited pre-production time.” Programming-wise, Zielinski says that pages are varied. “There’s no standard template. Some songs are very cue-intensive, and others are just a main look, with flyouts, lighting adds, hits, and so forth. On almost every page I have at least a few bump buttons for hits and snaps, though sometimes that numbers grows depending on the complexity.”

GLP X4 Bar 20’s line the video walls. Photo by Todd Kaplan

‡‡         Transparent Video

For video, the tour turned to the ROE Vanish 25mm video product for its transparency and ease of use. “We don’t use video on every song with this band, and so the ROE product was a natural choice for us — it’s very transparent and vanishes nearly invisibly into the background when we’re not using it. That really opens up the possibility of pointing the lights upstage and projecting looks onto the backdrop we have, which is a great way to add depth and dimensionality to the stage.” Upstaging maintains a great relationship with ROE Visual and offers several models of their LED product for touring.

Photo by Todd Kaplan

Content is generally stock clips, with a few pieces of custom content throughout the show. “The band doesn’t get very artistically specific when it comes to content, and with such a large pool of songs to draw from, we really had to be conscious about where we spent finite financial resources, so we only wanted to put budget toward custom content when we were sure the song was going to be played almost nightly.” As for cueing the video content during the show, it all falls to Zielinski; his hands are constantly moving throughout the show.

The band thanks the fans for ‘Hanging Around.’ Photo by Todd Kaplan

On “Mrs. Potters Lullaby,” for instance, there’s a single fader for a short piece of content that gets played during almost every line in the chorus, manually fired. “Sometimes the video content is fully integrated into the set list, but other times it’s on bump faders if it’s a song that the band might solo or vamp in different places. The band has really given me the freedom to shape the song visuals and video content in much the way I see fit. For me, programming is probably the most fun part of the process for me. When it’s just you sitting by yourself in a studio or rehearsals alone, watching all the threads of your creativity come together to create something truly unique — that’s a really wonderful experience.”

The audience gets bathed in red light. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Ultimately, Zielinski credits his own design heroes with helping him become the designer he is today. “I’ve done a lot of stuff for Paul Normandale, who I met on Tom Waits, and I’ve probably learned more from Paul than just about anybody else in this business. And one of the best things I learned from him” he says, “is to design with no limits, and try to truly push yourself outside the box.”

Dark front light sets a moody look. Photo by Todd Kaplan

The tour is carrying three trucks of lighting gear, and the tour wraps up later this month at Bluesfest in London at the O2 Arena.

Robe MegaPointes spread gobos from the torms. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Counting Crows 25th Anniversary Tour

LD/Lighting Director: Mike “Z” Zielinski
Lighting Programmer: Taylor Price
Lighting Co: Upstaging
Lighting Crew Chief: Paul Costa
Lighting Techs: Rob Corman-Savage, Yoshi Shinohara, Adam Cooper
Tour Manager: Tom Mullally
Production Manager: Kory Carter
Production Assistant: Angela Halloran
Accountant: Julie Duffy
Stage Manager: Sam Osland
Head Rigger/Carpenter: Chris Sabosky
Carpenter: Chris Hazelton

The Counting Crows hit, ‘Mr. Jones,’ came out 25 years ago. Photo by Todd Kaplan

2 grandMA2 Light consoles
33 Robe MegaPointes
20 Robe BMFL Blades
13 Robe Spiiders
13 Martin MAC Viper AirFX
25 GLP impression X4 Bar 20’s
24 GLP impression X4S’s
12 TMB Solaris Flare Q+
10 TMB Solaris Flare jr
13 Chauvet Strike 1’s
10 SGM SixPacks
10 Chroma-Q Color Force II 12’s
100’ TMB Digital Floppy Flex
18 ROE Vanish 25mm video tiles
2 PRG Mbox Studio media servers
2 MDG HO Hazer
1 LSG low smoke generator
3 ROE MC-5H video walls (8’ x 12’, WxH)

ROE Visual Vanish tiles fill space between the torms. Photo by Todd Kaplan

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