Hanging in Boomer's Production Office

by Nook Schoenfeld
in Industry Perspective
Steve Cohen and Brian Ruggles
Steve Cohen and Brian Ruggles

Billy Joel has a pretty consistent schedule, but has long since given up adhering to a normal touring routine. “We prefer to do shows every ten days to two weeks.” explains production manager Bobby Thrasher (known in the industry as Boomer) from his large office.

“Billy plays one show every month at the Garden...as we do. Then we sandwich some stadium shows around them during the summer. Some gigs, such as Fenway, Wrigley and Citizen’s Bank Stadium in Philly we play every year now. Then we add in towns like Green Bay — we played Lambeau last month.” In many instances, they book these stadium shows so that two different acts can share the physical outdoor stage, and the costs, by playing back to back separate shows.

“After we load out tonight, Florida Georgia Line loads in tomorrow. We are leaving our audio hanging, since both tours use Clair Brothers gear. Some of our side video will be utilized by these folks as well. We don’t need to see this gear for another ten days, so it helps everyone out. We usually split the extra stadium production costs with a country artist playing on consecutive nights. Hence the market is not saturated with two performers of the same genre at the same time. Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean have done shows the same weekend as us this summer. Zac Brown has done a few of these as well.” Boomer notes that all the gear stays in the trucks between gigs, so the touring system always stays together.

‡‡         Hanging in the Prodoff

I have the privilege of spending the afternoon in the production office (a.k.a. prodoff) talking with many long-time friends. Unlike most prodoffs where the management would like to keep everyone who’s not working out, Bobby likes his crew to be around and comfortable. One of the stage managers, Ernie Wagner, explains how it all works. “We load in and basically ask, ‘Where’s the biggest room we can use?’ and that becomes the prodoff. Next thing you know there’s desks, chairs, plenty of couches and the touring hot dog machines loading in” — a must-have for this bunch of New Yorkers. “Boomer likes to be surrounded by his people.” I count 17 crew members, a couple wives and kids, and Billy Joel himself just killing time, waiting for the show.

I’m here chatting with some old friends of Boomer’s who have been working with this production legend (and soon-to-be-recipient of a Parnelli Lifetime Achievement award) for many years. “There’s not a single person on this crew that wouldn’t lay down in front of a bus for Boomer,” says Wagner. Adds Boomer’s longtime friend, and Billy Joel’s production designer, Steve Cohen: “Why wouldn’t we? He’d do the same for every one of us.”

The one thing that is easy to see is that this tour is stocked with industry veterans. They go about their gigs quietly and efficiently. There is no yelling, bickering or conflicts of any kind out here, because they simply “don’t roll like that.” according to Wagner. “Everyone out here has respect for everyone else. We know our job roles, and Bobby just lets us do our thing. He is not from the school of yelling production managers who try and micromanage their team on site. He’s smart enough to hire the right people for the gig.” This is evident as I talk to a lot of the touring entourage who have spent 20-30 years working for this artist. I also notice that many stagehands I have worked with at the Garden or Meadowlands over the years are here. They leave the New York area to work these shows. As they should, since Joel has played MSG for more than 40 consecutive sold out shows — one gig a month since Jan. 2014. (Joel has played MSG close to 90 times in all during his career). And these techs know how the production goes together better than anyone.

At FOH, I chat with Cohen and Brian Ruggles, who has been the FOH audio mixer forever for this artist and has been sharing FOH with Steve for many tours, even before Boomer was hired some 35 years ago by this artist. Cohen explains how these two guys decided they needed Boomer to run the ship all those years ago.

“In 1982, Brian and I were out on a Simon and Garfunkel tour. I was the production manager with Mo Morrison for the 15 stadiums we did. Bobby was with Mike Brown, as one of the steel guys. The steel systems leapfrogged gig-to-gig, and we noticed that every gig we did with Bobby was 100 percent together and a lot of fun. It was him and CB (Craig Blazier) at the time. We had gotten rid of the production manager on Billy, and I had been doing both jobs, something I could not continue to do. Brian was out doing sound with Billy as well, so we chatted and agreed that Boomer would be a great acquisition to the team. The next year, he was out doing some shows with Springsteen. As soon as Bruce finished up, we hired him as a stage manager, and eventually production manager.”

Ruggles chimes in. “The thing about Boomer is, nothing rattles him. We’ve been thrown into some really tough positions over the years, yet he just makes it happen with no stress. He’s one of those ‘no problems — only solutions’ guys. But I gotta tell you the one time I saw him get really angry with me. I was doing the Amnesty tour in the eighties with Springsteen, Sting and Gabriel. Long before cell phones,” Ruggles says. “We were globe-trotting and had a gig in Athens, Greece with a couple of days off before the show. There were 12 of us on the sound and light crew, and we rented a big sailboat to go out to one of the islands for a trip before we loaded in. Well, we ended up getting stuck out there, and it took us a long time to get back to shore. We were quite late for the load-in. Boomer was the stage and production manager for the event, and boy, was he pissed, rightfully so. He’s such a gentle, kind man, and in all these years, this was the only time I’ve seen him mad. He’s the best in the business.”

Cohen has a ton of Boomer stories, but one that always resonates with him is a time when Billy was scheduled to go over to do an Australian tour. “We were playing Washington DC when Billy’s agent told us we were going across the Pacific. I didn’t want to deal with using pick up gear down in Australia anymore, I wanted to bring the whole production. Billy wasn’t keen to spend the 400 grand or whatever it cost to fly our gear over there. So, Boomer said, ‘What if I can get the US government to pay for it? Maybe we can throw a USO show in there?’ Billy liked the idea of doing a show for the troops, so Boomer somehow arranged it.

“We ended up playing Japan and shipped the gear there by boat. Then Boomer arranges for the largest cargo plane the Air Force had, a C5 freight plane, to carry four semis worth of gear to the Philippines. We loaded this plane and then flew from Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo with Billy, the band and crew in this cargo plane. We got to Clark Air Force base in Manilla and played. Then we did a show at Subic Bay naval base. Well, the night after that show, the Desert Shield (Gulf War) was activated, and we immediately lost our plane! Somehow Boomer got us two C-130 prop planes to get us and our gear from Manilla to Australia. This was the only way we could get to that continent at this point. Billy flew in one of the planes while the crew all sat in the cargo bay, hanging out for 17 long hours while we flew to Melbourne. We all became lifelong friends after that experience.”

Bobby “Boomer” Thrasher will be hanging with lots of industry well-wishers at another noteworthy gathering — the 2018 Parnelli Awards. Boomer will receive the industry’s highest honor, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award. The gala will be held Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 at the Hilton in Anaheim as part of NAMM LIVE. For more information, and to get your tickets and book your room, go to parnelliawards.com.

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