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Country on the Road

Debi Moen • Designer InsightsJanuary 2022 • January 5, 2022

Eric Church’s Gather Again Tour offered the audience a 360-degree view of the show. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Country artists make up a big portion of the touring acts out there, being among the first to head out in 2021. Identifying a handful of shows that continue on into 2022, PLSN checked in with the creatives to reveal what makes their production designs shine.

Eric Church’s Gather Again Tour

Eric Church’s crew faced some new challenges prior to the September 2021 kick-off of the Gather Again tour, which runs into 2022. The first was a personal one: they had lost longtime Production Manager Marc “Earpy” Earp, who died in April 2020. Malcolm Weldon now handles the PM role, with longtime Tour Manager Todd Bunch also on board. Another challenge was a physical one: the tour’s 360° design.

“We’ve done 360° tours before but they’ve all been end-stage,” said Lighting Director Gavin Lake, who created the lighting design with Production Designer Butch Allen and Programmer Benny Kirkham. “This is the first true in-the-round we’ve done where the stage is in the center of the arena.”

The 360° production design had to take in a lot of considerations, as the position affected every aspect of the show. “Audio is always a huge, and sometimes our first, consideration in the design process. It has to sound good. Video closely tied with lighting. We had to have key light in all four corners of the arena. We knew we wanted floor lights on stage. But throughout rehearsals the floor light package became the smallest we ever had but still functional, and it still adds a lot to the show. The lighting rig is modular so it didn’t have to change drastically for an arena with a scoreboard that wasn’t removable.”

For fixture choices, Lake chose hybrid Martin MAC Axiom fixtures “for their versatility” from tour lighting vendor Christie Lites, he said. The long sticks of lighting trusses also served as cable bridges to serve audio, video and lighting. Kirkham and Lake programmed most of the lighting looks in a previz studio. “What Benny brought to the table was quite amazing because of his experience on Broadway. He has a thorough understanding of key light and layering and so many concepts we wanted to bring to an Eric Church show,” Lake noted. Because of the role that video plays in the production, it is a key light driven show. “We created palettes for some of our intensity levels. We have subtle nuances in key light color temperature because it really is 64 key lights on eight performers.”

Therein lies the challenge with the 360° show. “We always had a benefit of a forced perspective—with key light trusses with most songs facing downstage,” the designer explained. “But even in those scenarios, Eric is all over the stage. In previous designs we had one or two songs where we agreed he would go to the mic stand and we would create this one moment. We couldn’t lock him into that this time.”

As Church freely moves about to entertain the audience—-where fans are referred to as the “Church Choir”—-the team has found a way to capture his spontaneous range of motion with the use of Cast’s BlackTrax, a vision-based system that tracks him for the live cameras. The crowds can see the I-Mag footage from any angle from the rectangle of four overhead center screens, provided by vendor Screenworks. This enabled the team to create an intimate moment anywhere in any song, anywhere on the stage, Lake said.

To accommodate the flying TAIT Navigator Camera System, two 165’ trusses are installed into the overhead rig over the stage. Dual custom winches are mounted to these trusses, with each truss equipped with a Navigator Camera System. “The NavCam has two operators: a pilot responsible for moving the camera in physical space and a camera operator who frames the shots,” Lake explained. “When we decided to implement the BlackTrax, we ended up getting positional information to TAIT, which helps the camera pilots track the performers onstage. Our TAIT programmer Mike Rock developed some cool automated flying movements based on real time flying data. I’ve never seen it before on any other tour.”

The Navigator Camera captures a 360° view of the stage and audience as it flies the length of the arena, while also tracking Church, who is wearing a beacon, using the BlackTrax interface. TAIT also created custom camera control consoles to allow the operators freedom to vary their camera looks with long pans, still frame shots and more looks.

Describing an example of the effects it generates, Lake said, “The cool thing about it is, we will get a visual shot with Eric at a microphone and the camera is moving in physical space, and while Eric is still in the space the background is moving behind him. It makes the hair stand up when you’re watching it. It is no longer the performer trying to meet the needs of the production. The production is now meeting the needs of the performer,” he said. “The lighting, the video, everything is an extension of Eric and he is now more in control than previously.”

The video wall and set led to a ‘V’ truss concept for Dierks Bentley’s Beers on Me Tour. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Dierks Bentley’s Beers On Me Tour

The music continues to flow on Dierks Bentley’s Beers on Me tour, which hops into Canada in early January 2022 and pours into the U.S. starting in February. Production Designer Bruce Rodgers of Tribe, who has previously designed for the country artist, created another immersive environment for the performer, enhanced by Lighting Designer Chris Reade.

“The starting point for the lighting design is always based on the direction that Bruce Rodgers has decided to go with the set and video,” Reade said. “Trying to match the overall motif is of utmost importance to me, as having a cohesive production always surpasses expectations. The video wall from Moo TV and set are both very angular and abrupt, so that led to the ‘V’ truss concept. It’s a continuation and expansion of the design Bruce came up with.”

The visuals are a blend of I-Mag and content by Tantrum, controlled by Video Director Houston Creswell. Along the bottom of the video wall and positioned on every truss are GLP impression X4 Bar 20 fixtures. “I love that light, and it lends itself to this design,” Reade noted.

The LD is using an MA Lighting grandMA3 light console to control those GLP fixtures, along with Chauvet STRIKE 1, Elation Paladin, GLP JDC1, Martin MAC Viper AirFX and Martin MAC Axiom from vendor Christie Lites. Radiance Hazers provide atmospheric effects.

While the ‘V’ truss design lends itself to automation, they are not using it on this tour. “With Covid happening, budgets need to be tightened up, and automation was one of the first things to go,” Reade notes. “We will continue with this design until May 2022, if not through the end of the year.”

Kelsea Ballerini was “incredibly involved” in the design process as opener for the Jonas Brothers tour. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Kelsea Ballerini as Jonas Brothers’ Tour Opener

Kelsea Ballerini opened for the Jonas Brothers’ Remember This tour, running Aug. 20-Oct. 27. Alex Reardon of Silent House designed both shows. Joe Cabrera programmed it, while Lighting Director Chad Peters operated the MA Lighting grandMA2 full console.

Production Manager Chris Diener said, “We were lucky to have the Silent House team on board to integrate her into the Jonas rig so seamlessly. They are great to work with and we were able to create a package that was not only quick to roll on/off, but looked good as well. They were generous with what we could use in the Jonas rig. It made for a really big look.”

From lighting vendor 4Wall Entertainment, Ballerini carried a floor package of GLP impression X4s to line the riser edges, and Martin VDO Sceptrons mounted to the riser fascias. “We mapped a lot of different textures to the Sceptrons, extending the looks of the video content down to the risers. We had a center 12’ x 4’ riser with stairs from Gallagher Staging for Kelsea’s hero riser and two 8’ x 8’ [units] for the bass and drums risers. We also rode out some GLP X4 Bars on 2’ x 8’ skids for easy transport.”

Ballerini is “a great boss” in the show design and build process, Diener said. “She is incredibly involved and detailed when it comes to what she likes,” he explained. “We started off the process with mood boards from our video content wizard Andy Reuter. From there, they would work through each song’s look and pick moments therein. This was all in cooperation with Reardon. Cabrera was then able to share the previz looks with Kelsea and she was active in giving notes.” Jonas Brothers’ video vendor Solotech allowed Ballerini’s team to tack on to their rig for content, and offered their servers and video team for her I-Mag.

One special request by the singer/songwriter was a custom acoustic guitar that lit up. “Vendor-wise, nobody really does that sort of thing, so we designed it and Kelsea’s backline team built it pretty much by themselves,” Diener explained. “Chris Shrom at 4Wall recommended a great wireless DMX solution for the guitar’s LED control, and Chad Peters would even match the LEDs to her outfits each night during the show.” Ballerini returns to the road this summer for festival dates, with a show design that Diener believes will be reminiscent of this recent production.

Virtual sets play a big role in Jason Aldean’s Back in the Saddle tour. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Jason Aldean’s Back in the Saddle Tour

Jason Aldean’s Back in the Saddle amphitheater tour galloped across the country starting in August 2021, dismounting in February 2022. Fireplay’s Brian Vaughan designed the production and lighting, with Lighting Director Keith Hoagland taking it on the road with vendor Bandit Lites.

The show was designed as an immersive experience, with virtual sets and virtual lighting interacting with a physical lighting rig, blurring the lines between what was real and what was art. Matthieu Larivée described this creative interplay. “The concept of virtual set extension and lights is an art form that we developed at Luz Studio. We take an empty video screen and we create a CGI set piece. All the set pieces (of video content) are lit by virtual light sources. Then we take control of those lights onsite with the lighting desk and it adds the appearance of more ‘lights’ to our rig.”

This concept came to life in the show using the disguise DX2 server and 5mm Triton screens from video vendor, Moo TV. “The creative intention was to create a bold and impressive environment that was impactful for the entire audience. No matter the position of a given spectator, whether seated far back or front row, we wanted the audience to experience an epic concert by avoiding a limitative ‘screen backdrop’ feeling or disturbing visuals,” Larivée explained. “Treated as a decor piece, the massive screen and its content act as a complement to the performance. By creating set extensions with virtual decor and virtual lighting, the screen allows for not only various visual moods, but also completely different ‘locations’ for the artist’s performance.”

This process didn’t just add scenic elements, it also added a virtual performer to sing along with Aldean. For his recent hit, “If I Didn’t Love You,” which features vocals from Carrie Underwood, the virtual artist sang her sections of the song in a previously recorded clip, harmonizing with Aldean for the audience in the full screen backdrop.

Larivée said a close collaboration was needed with the Fireplay team to integrate the virtual lighting into the traditional stage lighting, provided by Bandit Lites. “Brian Vaughan created an impactful lighting design, creating layers of light from the screen to the crowd,” he noted.

The rig included Chauvet STRIKE 4, GLP impression X4 Bar 20, GLP JDC LED Strobe, Claypaky Mythos 2, Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash and VL3000 Spot on Tyler Truss, controlled with an MA Lighting grandMA2 full-size console. A Follow-Me performer tracking system was also deployed. Pyrotecnico provided some special effects as well, with a hazebase Base Touring haze machine pumping out atmosphere.

Larivée said the physical design of the screen is scalable, allowing it to fit from smaller to larger venues such as the recent residency at the Park MGM in December, where the full width design accommodated the 120’ stage.

The design focus on Thomas Rhett’s Center Point Road tour centered on lighting rather than video. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Thomas Rhett’s Center Point Road Tour

Thomas Rhett’s Center Point Road tour steers into 2022, with lighting and video gear from Upstaging and staging by TAIT. Alec Takahashi of Butter Knife Productions designed and directs the show, with Luke Elrod as assistant lighting programmer.

Pods of Elation Dartz 360 LED moving heads make up the centerpiece of the show. Elation SixBar 1000 IP linear battens line the band risers for matching color and effect. More of the rig is highlighted with ACME Dotline 360 and ACME Solar Impulse, with some Chauvet STRIKE 4 and TMB Solaris Flare A+. Portman P1 and P2 Hexaline fixtures divided the set vertically into four sections, adding visual texture.

“Thomas was excited to engage with his fans again,” said the designer, who has worked with Rhett since 2018. “He really wanted to push for a show that was all lighting and leave video elements behind in order to put more focus on the music. We wanted to be strategic with how the show is dynamic with lighting. The final design has a lot of layers to it and it came together really nicely.”