Ed Wannebo, Winner of the 2011 Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award

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Ed Wannebo, 2011 Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award recipientEd Wannebo stops in mid sentence. He’s halfway through a long interview, and he’s up to working for Hall & Oates. He’s already spoken of his work with Van Halen, Tina Turner, David Bowie, ZZ Top, and Stevie Nicks, among others. He’s not yet gotten to Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, or Kenny Chesney.

Wannebo eventually breaks his pause with this: “It has been some career, hasn’t it?” He says it with equal parts wonder and humility. But the statement is fact, and exemplified by receiving the live event industry’s highest honor, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award, at a gala ceremony to be held Saturday, Oct. 29, in Orlando during LDI.

Director Mark Haney, a long-time member of Chesney’s creative team, has known Wannebo for 13 years. “Working with Ed, to use one of his favorite adjectives, is SPEC-tacular,” he says. “He is very serious about the work, but puts out a great vibe that makes long days on big shows enjoyable. Guys like Ed are what make this industry special!”

“I have worked with Ed for the past 10 years with Kenny Chesney,” says lighting designer Mike Swinford. “His relentless pursuit of making every nut and bolt of a tour production the best it can be continues to amaze me. His involvement in the design and build phase has always produced a well-oiled machine from the first rehearsal to the final show of the tour.”

Tour Manager David Farmer hired Wannebo for Chesney’s first arena tour. He says it was hard because, as they moved to the next level, it meant that he’d have to let go of a lot of things he hadn’t previously trusted with others. “But I’ve watched Ed deal with tough situations, and he always keeps a great balance.” His optimism and outlook on life is such that “you can’t tell if he’s having a good day or a bad one.”

Fishy Beginnings

Born in 1955, Wannebo hails from Portland, OR., son of a Scandinavian commercial fisherman. He spent his first five years of life tethered on a floating home on the beautiful Columbia River. “I think I’ve eaten salmon every possible way!” he laughs.

He spent many a day in his grandfather Ed Newell’s shop, watching him work in steel fabrication and hydraulics. Newell was inventive, holding numerous patents and was one of the earlier pioneers of the trash compactor/masher trucks. At 12, Wannebo’s mother, Rita moved him to Davis, CA, where she studied Animal Science and Physiology at UC Davis. It would be his mom that gave him his first taste of live event production. He explains: “She got involved in producing fundraisers for the school and dances in the gym, and I remember her taking me to Sacramento, where we’d throw a couple amps and some big padded speaker columns in the van and drive them back for the gig,” he recalls.

In 1973, when it was time for him to serve his country, his years around water naturally led him to join the Coast Guard. While stationed in Hawaii, he hooked up with a band that worked the local resorts, and he would go out on weekends and help them with their shows. “I started getting a feeling I wanted to do something in lighting, so when I got out of the Coast Guard and returned to Portland, my grandfather helped me set up a lighting company, RQM Productions.” He started working in the small theaters and clubs around the area, gaining more experience.

He ended up working for the legendary Randy Hansen, a Jimi Hendrix impersonator extraordinaire who built a solid reputation not only as a guitarist, but also as a showman. “I loved it,” Wannebo declares. “I loved the energy.” As lighting director/production manager, he collected quite a few stories during that time: “This was 1978, and way before wireless. But Randy wanted to go out into the audience anyway, so we’d string four or five guitar cords together and hold them above our head as he wandered out there. He’d go out the club door and right onto Sunset Blvd, Marshall [amps] blasting! The chaos of the shows was incredible.”

Other great experiences happened offstage: One Francis Ford Coppola came backstage asking Hansen to record some sound effects for his movie, Apocalypse Now. He also got to meet Hendrix’s dad and sister, which he still considers today a great highlight.

Running with the Devil

One day in 1980 the phone rang, and on the end was an offer to assist in a one-off in Spokane, WA. Wannebo was game. Little did he know he had stepped into the third show of a tour that would not only rock Pollstar’s list, but make rock history. The band was Van Halen, and they were just at the beginnings of their Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame trajectory.

“It was their first tour with a mega-watt lighting rig, but they didn’t have enough lighting guys,” he tells with a grin on his face, seemingly to still not believe his good fortune. “Patrick Whitley was the production manager, and after the show asked who among the [freelancers] knew the most about lighting, and they pointed to me. He comes over and we talk for a few minutes, and next thing I know I’m on a nine-month tour and going to Europe. It changed my life forever.”

Go ahead. Ask him for a story from that tour.

“All I will say is that everything you heard was true, and I’m lucky to be alive.”

No, really. Off the record. Just one story.

Wannebo shakes his head and repeats, a bit quieter: “Everything you heard was true…”

By the end of the tour, he was working for Showlites in L.A. When owner Eric Pearce wanted to team up with Maryland Sound on the East Coast, Wannebo was one he sent to Baltimore. There Ed got a meeting with Hall & Oates, and “we just hit it off great.” He became the lighting crew chief.

During this time, he also was on the set of movies and music videos, working with the likes of Tina Turner and ZZ Top. He became the lighting designer for ZZ Top’s Eliminator tour when they went to Europe. The mid-1980s had him bouncing around further, including a stint in touring sales at Showlites. But the road would call again when David Bowie’s audacious Glass Spider tour went out in 1987. “I was out managing two lighting systems and calling spots, when Hall & Oates offered me their production manager position,” he says. “It sounded like a good move, and I’ve been a PM ever since.”

So he turned in the proverbial keys to the lighting console and got behind the wheel of a different bus entirely. “There was tons for me to learn,” he admits. “When you get into taking the responsibility of moving an entire show, you have to somehow pull everything off.” And know when to say when. “There’s certainly a point early on [when] I realized that all these people were counting on me, and at any given time I had to make a decision to back off on the party [aspects]…Situations come out from left field at all times day and night, and you have to manage yourself better. Things happen and you go, ‘Man, I wish I was a little more together.” There were times when we want to cut loose and be off the clock, but there were certainly some wake-up calls, and I realized I need to be there for the [Hall & Oates] guys, because I’m representing them.”

In 1988, he took a break from that gig and worked for Stevie Nicks for the next two years. “That was a great experience,” he says. “The music was fabulous, the band killed, and the people were great.” That gig turned into a stint with Michael McDonald, which turned into another couple years with Richard Marx. Then more Hall and Oates and a shift with Jimmy Buffett, where he says he “enjoyed his style — flip flops and Hawaiian shirts totally fit me!”

Keeping the Fun Meter on Red

“In 2000, I get a phone call from [Tim McGraw’s tour manager] Robert Allen, and he says Tim and Faith Hill were putting together a tour called Soul2Soul,” Wannebo says. They flew him to Nashville. Wannebo casually strolled into a conference room, and there’s McGraw, Hill, a multitude of managers, and an assemblage of attorneys. “They were all lined up, and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he laughs. So he sat in the hot seat and they talked philosophies and capabilities, and Wannebo talked about “keeping the fun meter on red.” He got the gig, and it was a complex one, requiring up to 100 crew members.

“At the opening of that tour, I was saying to myself there was no way this show was going up in time — there’s was no way it was even getting out of the building,” recalls Louis Messina of The Messina Group, who was the concert promoter. “But then a calming air blew in, and its name was Ed. Without drama, the show was up and out, and that’s when I became his biggest fan. That tour was huge, and besides Tim and Faith, he was the star.”

That tour went on sell out 60 of the 65 dates. It was the fifth highest-grossing tour that year (2000), and Pollstar named it the “Most Creative Tour Package of the Year.”

After that, he stuck with Tim McGraw for his subsequent tours. Then a kid named Kenny Chesney caught his eye. “He was the opening act, and I saw the charisma, the spark and the talent.”

Farmer, who has been with Chesney since the beginning, was putting together their first arena headlining tour. “I first met him when he was with Tim McGraw, and we were looking for a production manager at the next level,” he says. “I had, in the back of my mind, what we needed, and I watched how he interacted with the crew. That was an important aspect for us — and he had a unique, warm vibe.” A handshake for a five-year deal was all it took.

“I remember when Kenny was going out on his first headlining tour, and I suggested Ed,” Messina says. “Kenny said, ‘We can’t afford Ed,’ and I commented we can’t afford not to have him. I’m shocked he doesn’t get equal billing with Kenny — he’s the best!”

Chesney has gone on to build bigger and better shows every year, and has received six Academy of Country Music awards (including four consecutive Entertainer of the Year Awards from 2005 to 2008). He is one of the most popular touring acts in country music, regularly selling out the venues at which he performs. His 2007 Flip-Flop Summer Tour was the highest-grossing country road trip of the year. And in 2008, Wannebo was voted Parnelli Production Manager of the Year.

“I think the most important thing is to maintain a positive, upbeat outlook,” he says. “I try to be stable and full of optimism. I think constantly about how to do this, how to do it better, how to be more involved with the excitement of the nuts and bolt of productions. These days, I feel more like a coach. I study leadership and I try to focus on maximizing the potential of people involved. My management style is really trying to develop the environment so that the crew, the band, and the artist can excel. I want them to be in a good place and having a good time, and excel. How good can you be? How far can you go? How do we work together?”

The most recent Goin’ Coastal tour had 16 to 18 trucks in and out of sheds and arenas across the country, and voices were never raised, except over the din of music or machinery. “We get it done with absolute passion, because otherwise it’s energy wasted.” But every day, every venue, every show is different. “The other side of the equation is understanding different leadership styles, and when to shift. Sometimes you have to go from a diplomatic style to a little more aggressive style in short order. You get in our environment, and there are such a wide variety of people — different educational backgrounds, different abilities — it’s interesting to keep all the plates spinning at the same time. You need to treat everyone fairly, but not necessarily the same.”

He’s afforded a comfortable schedule with Chesney. Rehearsals usually start in March, and they are on the road by April for up to 25 weeks, wrapping it all up by end of August. But by the end, plans are already in the works for the next year’s tour, so as it ends “we have the concept for the next tour in the bag.”

“I have a unique perspective on the Chesney camp, having had a relationship with the artist and Ed before they all got together,” Haney says. “There could not be a better fit between two principals in a touring situation. It’s a great fit in personality, vibe, approach — everything. I think both parties are fortunate to have the other, and thinking of my days with them always makes me smile.”

“That’s How You Do It”

“I tried to be a sponge, which is good, because in this business, you really learn something new every day,” Wannebo explains. “I can’t honestly say I ‘planned’ my career, it’s just that I got myself into positions where when doors opened, and I stepped through. And I’ve been fortunate enough to step through some great doors.”

Wannebo says he still gets a thrill of putting a show together. “I’ve had an extremely fortunate career, and I don’t take any of it for granted. I thank my lucky stars to have been exposed to the opportunities I’ve had and got to work with this cast of characters doing what we do.”

Looking back, he notes the pace of technology is the most staggering aspect. “The most significant is the introduction of video and LED lights. Now you’ve got all this melding of lighting and video control, and it’s just incredible what happens out there.”

When not on the road, he’s home in Las Vegas with Sue Ullrich and Sofie the chocolate lab. He dials down by hitting the golf course.

“My good buddy Ed is receiving the granddaddy of them all, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award, and I’m so thrilled for him, because it’s so well deserved,” says last year’s honoree, Randy “Baja” Fletcher, who has known Wannebo since the 1990s. “Ed is, and always has been, the most delightful, pleasant, upbeat big-hearted kid you would ever want to meet. This world is a better place with Ed Wannebo in it. He is everything this award represents and more.”

“I have had the pleasure of working with Ed for over 25 years, and am honored to call him a friend,” says Brian Doyle, manager for Hall & Oates. “He is the consummate professional, and treats every band, crew, venue personnel, promoter, manager, and agent with the utmost care and respect. He truly is the best there is in our industry!”

“Ed’s great personality is what makes him deserve this award as well as his professional expertise,” Swinford adds. “He is simply a kind and fun guy to be around and treats the crew with respect. I have heard many industry professionals comment on Ed and they all say the same thing: ‘Now … THAT’S how you do it!’”

As for receiving the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award, “It’s extremely flattering. It’s such a great feeling to be recognized by your peers, and I feel really good about it. I try to treat people right; I try to do things in the right way. So it feels great to have some recognition for the effort. It’s humbling to be recognized for whatever I may have contributed to this industry.”

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