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Returning to the Road

Debi Moen • Designer WatchMay 2021 • May 6, 2021

LD Eddie “Bones” Connell, pictured here in 2015, is among the many LDs who are happy to board the bus and hit the highway after a detour lasting more than a year.

After the year-long, live event lockdown, the industry is slowly getting back to work. How is the pandemic affecting upcoming productions? Designer Watch asked LDs for their view of the landscape as these early tours and crew prepare to pack up, board the bus and hit the highway.

‡‡         For One Tour, a Larger Production Show

Darkroom Creative’s Seth Jackson and Nathan Alves started rehearsals April 19 for Toby Keith’s “Country Comes to Town” tour, launching May 15 at a new outdoor venue, Coachella Crossroads in Coachella, CA. Dates run into the late fall.

“We are taking a larger production show than we have done in years and playing a host of arenas and outdoor facilities,” Jackson noted. “Nate and I have designed a new production with Eddie ‘Bones’ Connell at the helm. The new show includes a stronger video element and the addition of a functional bar on the arena floor in front of the stage. The schedule is still being developed, but since Toby self-promotes his tours, they have been able to schedule with Covid19 considerations and mitigations in mind.”

“It is so awesome to be back!” Bones chimed in. “We were blessed during the pandemic because Toby paid the main crew and band full pay throughout. More importantly I’m happy for all of our vendors and guys that will be on the road with us. Obviously everybody has been hurting. We are so happy for everyone as well as the fans. Entertainment is back!”

Jackson also notes the “encouraging signs” that Barry Manilow’s “The Hits Come Home” will finally start its third year of residency in June at the Westgate Las Vegas, and in July, The Doobie Brothers’ 50th Anniversary tour will find its way into amphitheaters. Said Alves, “We’re excited to see the entertainment world turning back on, and can’t wait to get back out there with our touring friends and family.”

‡‡         For Most Others, Restricted Budgets and Scaled-Back Productions

Drew Mercadante and the Supervoid team will be traveling all summer and fall with The Disco Biscuits, providing cameras, I-Mag and live streaming services. “It’s all weekend runs, not a proper tour,” Mercadante said, “but we’re so thankful to get out there again either way. The pandemic has absolutely restricted budgets which has forced us to get resourceful, but it’s not so bad that we can’t still put on a great show. With all of the available technology these days, you don’t need a whole broadcast truck to create compelling shots and deliver a cinema quality experience; just the right people with the right tools and a good plan.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd has rehearsals scheduled for the first week of June for its summer dates. Explaining the pared-down production, LD Jonny “Tosar” Tosarello said, “We will not be carrying full production at this time, nor are these dates part of the ‘Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour.’ The plan for now is to carry a basic floor package, core audio and backline as we are mainly playing festivals and/or private dates for the next several months. I think, just like promoters, band management is waiting to see how things pan out over the spring and summer and then program the farewell tour accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Tosar’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Drive-In Theater continues drawing crowds while he’s in and out of town. Along with upcoming craft fairs, farmers markets, car shows and a BBQ competition, they’re starting to book some live entertainment — with John Schneider and Skillet confirmed in May. Any possibility of booking the Southern rockers at his own venue? Perhaps. “I’ve asked Johnny Van Zant about Skynyrd possibly playing a show at the drive-in, and how to make the numbers work,” Tosar said. “It is an active conversation, so I’ll keep you posted!”

At presstime in mid-April, Meagan Metcalf noted that she has “nothing concrete” yet, but she is talking with a band about designing some upcoming shows in May and beyond. Wanting to speculate on what touring will look like in this immediate future, she said, “I am starting to hear from other LDs that they are putting together tentative plans for end-of-summer tours, and the one thing that sticks out is that a lot of people are mentioning playing multiple nights in one city and only doing weekend-type gigs. I haven’t heard of anyone really putting together a multi-week tour yet, though I hope that changes soon!”

“We are not hearing much from our touring clients — a lot of waiting,” lamented Robb Jibson. “We are starting to repackage the work that we have already done to get scaled down versions of [children’s educational shows] Blippi and Baby Shark Live back on the road, but I’m not certain they are broadcasting that just yet.”

Meanwhile, his team has kept busy providing media servers and content rendering for the multiple-city Immersive Van Gogh installs. “We wrapped Chicago in February and just helped get San Francisco open at the end of March. We are heading out to Los Angeles and New York City soon to assist Lighthouse Immersive in their quest to open a bunch of installations.”

Production designer and set fabricator Alec Spear has had talks with almost all of his regular design clients in the last month, either about reworking a past tour or getting something new underway for fall/winter 2021 and early 2022. His fabrication/staging shop has also started picking up, with local projects along with quotes on a couple of tours as well.

Comparing pre-pandemic productions to today’s proposals, he observed, “As far as budgets and other restrictions go, in early talks last year, it felt really dismal — 75% cuts, almost no production possible on a lot of bands that were in four to five trucks two years ago. Of late, though, it’s felt better. Obviously we will still be in a budget-cut world until capacity limits come off, but to me it seems like we are in a place of ‘scale back,’ not ‘abandon production.’ I have also not seen a ton of restrictions on the ‘where’ of shows — maybe the biggest surprise to me. I’m in the works on shows on all six inhabited continents in the next 12 months.”

Addressing the possibility of reduced crews and/or crew pay on upcoming tours, Spear said, “It has been a focus of mine, and I hope it’s a focus across the industry, to keep the crews I have an influence over at their pre-pandemic pay levels. As much as we all want to tour, after a year and a half of not touring, the last thing we need is to also take a five-plus year setback on crew pay. It’s not ideal to use older fixtures, or less of them. But it’s better than cutting the pay of the people who make shows happen after 18 months out in the cold.”

‡‡         U.K. and Europe Also Inching Back

In the U.K., Max Conwell said various sectors of the economy are slowly starting to open up with a plan of opening everything, which includes nightclubs, on June 21. His first scheduled concert is Aug. 5 with English singer-songwriter Richard Hawley in an outdoor show in Glasgow, Scotland. Conwell also has a planned Las Vegas residency with Morrissey at the end of August for two weeks [at the Caesars Palace Colosseum] “which I’m pretty sure will go ahead,” he said, “and, all being well, we will see a general rise in concerts after that.”

For now, he’s been “incredibly busy” with television work lately. “I’m currently lighting a new primetime Saturday night show for ITV called The Void, which has been in the otherwise empty Liverpool Arena for a month. A lot of TV pilots seem to be given the green light as well as the regular shows coming back with social distancing measures in place,” Conwell observed.

In Germany, Rolf Wenzel said he got a few requests from German artists for designing some summer shows in a “Corona style.” He explained: “There was, and is, a nice concept with roofed beach chairs for the audience, each one for two people, and you order and pay for the drinks you want beforehand; get them delivered in a cooling box. But, hey, a small stadium with a normal capacity of about 15,000 is reduced to 1,000 people, so (it’s) not really feasible in the long run. Unfortunately Germany and Europe is too slow in vaccination, and none of us is expecting shows before late 2021. Therefore, most of the bookers moved everything to 2022 already. It’s a pity, but it is the status quo.”

On the road again? Keep Debi posted with your plans. Reach her at dmoen@plsn.com.

 

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