Breaking Day with Norah Jones

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Wide Focus
All photos by Kevin M. Mitchell
All photos by Kevin M. Mitchell

A Well-Crafted Backdrop, Perfectly Lit, Creates a Palette of Possibilities

Creating textures. Accenting moods. A woman with a beautiful voice at a Yamaha grand piano with a fantastic band behind her. All in a day’s work for lighting designer Steve Baird as he works with a perfect backdrop and just the right amount of lights (not one too many or one too few).

Norah Jones is riding high on a sell-out tour, and as she has from the beginning of her career, she is eschewing the spotlight and letting her music be the superstar. The focus for this series of concerts is on the music, and every night is different. Baird has 60 songs worked out and programmed, but he gets a different set list every night just 45 minutes before the show.

“She brings out guest players almost every night,” Baird says. Sometimes it’s a pedal steel guitar player, and that will tilt the show more toward her more pop- and country-oriented material. On the night PLSN dropped by, in St. Louis, Jones brought out saxophonist Jacob Duncan, which made for a night of her jazzier material (though Jones also brought out the guitar and did a mini-country set that the audience — and Baird — clearly enjoyed). “While I do have a macro for each song, I often run them manually, because these are all amazing musicians, and when they jam, I like to jam with them.”

LD Steve Baird

‡‡         Learning from the Best

Baird grew up in Toronto and started lighting local bar bands in 1980. He established himself, got a job with a local lighting company and, in 1995, a friend recommended him as a one-off lighting crew member for a Julio Iglesias show. “I guess I ‘passed,’ because I was then part of that crew for years,” he says. “It was great, because I got to work under some great lighting designers — Yves Aucoin, Allen Branton and Bob Peterson.”

Meanwhile, he had been longtime friends with another local lighting guy named James LaBrie, who started singing with a band called Dream Theater. After a few years and a few albums, LaBrie turned to Baird to light them. “He told me they were a pop band, but when he sent me the music, I found it really complicated!” A lot of work ensued on that tour, which must have paid off, because since 1995, he’s been their designer on almost every tour, his schedule permitting.

Another career highlight was getting to work with Yes in 2008. “That was supposed to be with Jon Anderson, but he was replaced by another vocalist, Canadian Benoit David, at the last minute,” Baird says. It was an exciting time because the longtime designer of Yes album covers, Roger Dean, was designing the set. “That was probably my biggest career thrill.”

In 2012, he started lighting Norah Jones, and this is his third album cycle/tour with her. He designed the first one, then there was a management change, and they brought in Paul Normandale for the Little Broken Hearts tour, which he programmed. “Working with Paul was unbelievable, and he and I talked a lot — I learned a lot from him.” Now he’s back as sole designer for this one.

Textures from Martin MAC Vipers illuminate the backdrop

‡‡         The Current Show

While the Jones show includes material from her eclectic career, it’s anchored around her latest album, Day Breaks. The album is a return to the artist’s roots, largely comprised of jazz songs. Jones brought in Mexican graphic designer Marcela Avelar, with artist John Rios doing the final artwork. The result was a variation on her album cover, with rays of a sun breaking from the lower right hand corner upwards. It was sent to a few companies, and Sew What? was chosen to transform the visual component into an actual stage backdrop.

“The vision was to create a backdrop that had a dramatic effect when front- and back-lit, and that the effects would be diverse when shifting the lighting source,” explains Megan Duckett of Sew What? This involved creating a baseline backdrop that was of seamless cotton muslin that took rear lighting with a translucent glow. Then the radiating design (sun rays) were digitally printed onto a blackout fabric, and hand appliquéd (using ornamental needlework) directly on the face of the muslin.

“When backlit, only the areas without appliqué would glow. When front lit, the piece showed off the digitally printed appliqué segments,” says Duckett. The overall effect allowed the front lights to also pick up on the exposed areas of seamless white muslin. “This offered a dramatic two-toned lighting palette for front lighting effects.”

As for those rays of light, Duckett says the graphic was crafted to embrace a grayscale gradient. “The design was an asymmetrical design,” Duckett continues. They also played with a variance in textures, with areas of the backdrop being “transluce” in a manner that showed through a lighting glow when backlit. “Other areas were appliquéd with a fully opaque printed cloth that gave off a ‘radiating segment’ effect when the drop was backlit.”

Sew What's Megan Duckett provided the backdrop.

‡‡         A Perfect Fit

Baird does a lot with this backdrop. First, there are the Chroma-Q Color Force 72 RGBA strip lights, which he places behind the cotton muslin and uses as cyc lights. “It backlights the drape and only lights up the white caps in between the painted rays,” he says. What really brings the background and the stage to life, however, is the cluster of six Martin MAC Axioms — hybrid spot and beam fixtures that, at first glance, appear to be randomly piled up at the lower right corner of the drop. But during the show, you realize they are strategically placed to bring the rays/flares of light on the backdrop to life.

“I needed something to taper the beams on the backdrop without going over the lines, and was testing a few others when [Christie Lites’] Ian Gordon called and said he had these new Axioms.” They fit the need perfectly, and Baird carves and colors them, fitting the mood and style of each song. As for his choice of lighting vendors, “I’m
pretty loyal to Christie,” says Baird, noting that he “watched Huntly grow the business from his dad’s basement to where he is today. And Ian [Gordon] was my rep back when I started with Dream Theater.”

Textures from the Martin MAC Axioms fill the backdrop

The Christie Lites-supplied rig is relatively modest. “I wanted to keep it simple, just creating some textures,” Baird says. The creative team decided early on to skip followspot operators so Baird can maintain complete control. And per Jones’ directive, the band is the star, not her. The Martin MAC Vipers in the single truss above the stage are a good replacement for followspots — most of them focused, inevitably, on Jones. “They offer a beautiful light, and I match the colors to her skin tone, and she looks fantastic,” Baird says.  He now controls the lighting fixtures with a grandMA2, and only just recently upgraded from the grandMA1. “I transferred everything over, which took a while,” he laughs. “But I couldn’t keep using the 1 — it’s outdated! I felt like I was driving an old used car.”

The design of the backdrop ended up having a major impact on the design and look of the show. As for the artist’s preferences, Jones “has never given me specifics on what to do,” Baird says. “She tells me what she likes and doesn’t like. Honestly, she’s so focused on the music and her musicians, she usually is only aware [of the lights] when her friends in the audience tell her after how good the show looked, or she’ll see a shot of some part of it on Instagram and go, ‘Wow! That looks really good!’”

When asked if he had a favorite song, Baird laughs and says he really loves them all. When pressed further, however, he says his favorite would have to be Jones’ ragtime-influenced song, “Sinkin’ Soon.” “It has this crazy section, and is offbeat and I really get into lighting it,” Baird says, smiling. “It has a really low moment, and then it builds and gets crazy again — that might be my signature breakdown session!” On this night it turned out to be her second song, and, indeed, Baird clearly enjoyed playing along. 

The band isn't obscured, but the artist is keylit.

Norah Jones 2017 Day Breaks Tour

 

Crew

  • Lighting Designer: Steve Baird
  • Lighting Co: Christie Lites/Ian Gordon
  • Lighting Tech: Paul “Socks” Eaves
  • Tour Manager: Dale Lynch
  • Production Manager: Jamie Landry
  • Stage Manager/Rigger: Dave Heard
  • Production Assistant: Sarah Oda
  • Soft Goods: Sew What?/Megan Duckett

Gear

  • 2               grandMA2 Light consoles
  • 14            Martin MAC Viper Profile Spots
  • 18            Martin MAC Aura LED Washes
  • 6               Martin MAC Axiom Hybrids
  • 14            Chroma-Q Color Force 72 LED battens
  • 2               DF-50 Diffusion hazers with fans