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Toby Keith’s ‘Country Comes to Town’ Tour

Nook Schoenfeld • June 2021Production Profile • June 10, 2021

Photo by Carter Hopkins

“Country Comes to Town” Leads the Way Back to Live Concert Touring

“We bet strategically against an ever-changing pandemic, and it got us here tonight,” explains tour manager Dave Milam as we chat on opening night about the first tour to hit the road since the pandemic shut down the touring business 15 months ago. After a warm-up date out at the Coachella fairgrounds, the “Country Comes to Town” tour debuted with full touring production on May 20 in Sioux Falls, SD at the Denny Sanford Premier Center. “We watched the numbers, watched the local Covid policies, and watched the general trends in the hopes that our first cities would be opened up by the time we got there.”

Tour Manager David Miram

The premise behind the tour is explained simply to me as I walk into an unmasked production office. “Everyone out here is double vaccinated. We feel safe. The stage crew all wore masks today at load in.” Though they are not traveling with a Covid enforcement officer, Milam adds, “We are extremely careful out here to align with state and local rules, as well as keeping a tight rein on our backstage, with few guests and no meet-and-greets.”

We asked Milam what kind of dates they are playing along the way and how they found someone to book the tour in all these different states they are playing — ranging from coast to coast and including states such as California and New York (where, crowd sizes, while still limited, are growing — some 15,000 filled 20,000-capacity Madison Square Garden to watch a Knicks game on May 23; an estimated 90 percent had received vaccines). “We did a smart thing. We’re booked into festivals, state fairs, casinos and arenas. We are carrying five trucks full of set, lights, video, band gear, merch and some audio elements necessary for good sound. The festivals, and fairs will all have a front and mid truss we can clone into our system. Our rear truss and wall of floor lights that were custom fabricated make up the bulk of the lighting effects. Should we ever embark on a full shed or arena tour in the future, we will carry these trusses as well.”

When asked if they minded not playing the shed circuit this summer, Milam’s answer was simple. “A couple years ago, Toby asked if we couldn’t find alternative venues to play. Sheds are great, but to the artist, it’s kind of like Ground Hog Day. You wake in a parking lot behind a stage. You play to the same set up with the lawn in the back and, well, it gets old. We were already straying from these venues before the pandemic, so we’re just continuing on with that strategy.” They do have a few sheds booked such, as the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion in Gilford, NH.

The tour itself is still running along the lines of a weekend warrior. They may do two or three shows as they start, then go home, only to regroup three days later. Come later in the summer, some of the runs have five-in-a-row show runs, and this bunch have no days off on the road. When I inquired about any artist singing a two hour show for five nights straight, production manager Tommy “TJ” Benton (known as the “new guy,” with only 15 years in with the band) scoffed, “Our guy is a beast. Five days straight is nothing to this camp.” Festivals, fairs and casinos are their own promoters. The indoor arena shows are promoted by local folks such as Pepper Entertainment here in Sioux Falls.

For Toby, last year was surely different, but the relaxing year was actually good as he now spends a lot of time relaxing in Cabo instead of his home in Oklahoma. “It was my first summer off since I was a teenager,” he was quoted as saying. “I’m just gonna hit the reset button and enjoy it.” Of course, the problem was, nobody knew when the year off was going to end.

As far as the crew, every last one of them let me know how much they appreciated their boss taking care of them with their paychecks and benefits intact through the pandemic. But they were all raring to get back to work and “just get out of the house.” Production manager TJ wears many hats. He started on this tour back in 2005 as a Syncrolite tech, and this is the third time this camp has hired him back, as he also worked on many other shows (including a nine year stint with TSO). He walks into the building with the rigging call and leaves when the last truck is loaded, supervising everything, even though he claims to have a good stage manager in Adam Fenn also working the floor.

Red, White & Blue never looked so good. Photo by Carter Hopkins

‡‡         Production Design

Back at the designer’s helm, where he has been since 2003, is Seth Jackson. He and his partner Nathan Alves from Darkroom Creative designed all the visual elements from the set to the lights and video. Eddie “Bones” Connell runs the lighting, as he’s done for every gig since the band members were all riding around in one bus. He’ll celebrate his 25th year with the act on Aug. 1.

Darkroom Creative’s Nate Alves and Seth Jackson

Set-wise, it’s all changed. “Instead of the T-shaped thrust that ran 40 feet across the arena floor that we have used for years, we have designed a diamond-shaped thrust that terminates in a point. Inside this thrust is the VIP area, complete with a bar, so attendees never have to leave to get a beverage,” explains Milam. “We’re just getting started with the whole VIP bar and festival area on the floor scenario. We have all kinds of ideas brewing, ranging from customized bar stools the patrons can order and take home after the show to having a couple of beer tubs in the floor GA section.”

In the spring of 2020, the tour was slated to go out, but Toby knew it wasn’t going to happen. He also knew whatever they designed could wait until next year and still look good. So while Gallagher Staging was trying to eke out enough work to stay open, Keith asked them to build his set — then let it sit in carts for a full year. “This is just the kind of guy Toby is. He was concerned for all our vendors and went out of his way to keep some money coming into them while they were down,” the tour manager explains.

Photo by Carter Hopkins

‡‡         Video

“The management dictated that before the tour started, they wanted us to incorporate more video elements into the show, in addition to the usual rear wall and side I-Mag projection screens,” explains Jackson. “The big upstage wall and LED panels separating the risers built into the set consist of Triton 5.9 mm LED panels manufactured by Triton Visual Technologies, a very road-worthy product. Behind the band and their risers is a 48-foot-wide runway that musicians work throughout the show. Just upstage of that runway are a series of lighting carts concealed by a meter-high stretch of Hox LED 3.9mm “blow through” panels that allow the lighting fixtures to pop through.” Moo TV is, as usual, looking after all of the video elements.

“The video content we had used for years was great, but deemed tired by all. Due to the pandemic, my partner Nate was able to work on the media content and Notch programming through the disguise media server. Had we been rushed it would have taken us a full month, so if there is anything nice to say about the pandemic, it offered us the luxury of time to work on the media.” The design team also notes the generosity of Toby as they were kept on retainer during the down time as well.

MooTV provided a set full of video elements. Photo by Darkroom Creative

Nathan Alves partnered with Jackson three years ago and is still working on the video elements, this time shooting a new opening during this first show with Toby walking into the venue and up to the stage. In June the whole opening video montage will be reworked. “We have a pretty basic system here. The media clips (made in Cinema 4D) and Notch effects all run through a disguise server that is cued from Bones’ grandMA2,” explains Alves. “The video team sends the disguise the live I-Mag cut, and the programming in the light desk decides what will be shown on each screen.” Nate adds (teasingly to Bones) that “we buried the video cues deep within the cue lists so Bones can’t possibly mess anything up in the show once Seth and I are gone.”

Eddie “Bones” Connell behind the desk

Jon Hurley serves as the video director, switching between cameras on his Ross Video Carbonite. He has a FOH camera on a tripod with a long lens and two guys working handheld cameras from the sides of the stage with nobody in the pit. Down on the floor, center stage, are a couple of PTZ cameras, along with POV cameras fixed to the drums and keys. Paul McNeill serves as the video engineer, shading cameras, focusing the robotic cameras, and looking after playback.

Bandit provided the lighting elements

‡‡         Lighting and Rigging

“Once again Bandit Lites is providing exemplary service on this tour,” explains Milam. “I cannot express how appreciative we are of this bunch. They offered us a week of pre-programming in their studio without us asking.” Jackson takes it a step further. “When we got there, they hung the whole rig for us to program for an additional week as well. By the time we loaded into Belmont University in Nashville for rehearsals, most of the work left to do was just cleanup.”

The tour is out to make some money, and logistics played into a big part of it. Four of the five trucks carry gear, while the last one is reserved for merch. “While we normally have a clever truss configuration, this time we went for the three straight truss configuration. The accountants thought it would be the best scenario,” Jackson quips. “Bones has always carried a programmer (Carter Hopkins this year) on tour to help with cloning since we play so many shows with some in-house production. So the front truss key light and moles can be found anywhere. As can a mid-truss. So why carry an extra guy and truck space when we can get these locally?”

The real firepower to the great lighting is in what they do carry, a rear truss and a series of crank up boxes. “These custom designed boxes are only about four feet tall and sit on the stage, directly upstage of the cross stage runway. They have cranks in them that elevate the lights and metal out of the box, so they lift up to 7’ 9,” explains Jackson. A row of 14 Robe Pointes line the top of these carts. Elation WW4 CuePix moles, GLP JDC1 strobes and some Chauvet Rogue R2X wash lights make up the rest.

Up top in the rear Tyler GT truss, Jackson deployed some Chauvet MK3 spots that could bathe the stage in a fat color wash or gobo splendor while more Pointes provide the beams. He requests the same fixtures locally whenever possible. Additional Rogue wash units and GLP strobes filled the look. Lastly, underneath the diamond shaped, grill-decked thrust sat 14 Chauvet Nexus Panels to uplight the structure and give it a glow.

Atlanta Rigging Systems is once again handling all the points for the tour, ensuring a worry-free rig. “ARS has a long history with The Toby Keith camp,” says Dave Gittens of ARS. “In a different century, it seems, Mark Sissel (a.k.a. the Butcher) called me one day and said, ‘It doesn’t make sense that we don’t have a rigging vendor.’ Of course, I couldn’t agree more. That is how we got started with Toby Keith.

“Over the years, we have done all the rigging and automation for the tour,” Gittens continues. “Dale Gauldin is currently our rigging lead for the show, and we have streamlined our interaction with David and TJ to the point where it’s almost more fun than work. We are proud of our association with the tour and look forward to working with the Toby crew for years to come.”

As the tour trucks pulled out of the Bandit warehouse last month, Bandit VP Michael Golden was there to see it off. “It felt so good to see that show load out of our building. I even went outside and took a picture of the truck. It’s been a long year. Yep, Toby set the mark, and it’s the first one out the door, but now they’re all lining up. Anyone with a guitar is ready to go.”

The tour is heavily booked through October, but Milam warns, “We’re all happy to be out and wouldn’t mind making it last longer.” A look online reveals a few added dates in November and December, and one may expect it to fill up more. During the last year, many in the industry reckoned it would take a country act to break the Covid barrier. Toby Keith grabbed the bull by the horns and the whole world watches with glee, hoping his action opens the floodgates for more artists to hit the road.

A sexy look sets the mood. Photo by Darkroom Creative

Toby Keith’s “Country Comes to Town” Tour

Crew

  • Production Designers: Seth Jackson, Nathan Alves/Darkroom Creative
  • Lighting Co: Bandit Lites
  • Lighting Director: Eddie “Bones” Connell
  • Lighting Crew: Carter Hopkins (Programmer), Jake Riddell, Nikki Dotson
  • Video Director: Jon Hurley
  • Video Co: Moo TV
  • Video Crew: Matt Mays (Crew Chief), Paul McNeill (Video Engineer/Playback), Nathan McGuire, Natalia Pena (Camera Ops)
  • Set Co: Gallagher Staging
  • Tour Manager: David Milam
  • Production Manager: Tommy “TJ” Benton
  • Stage Manager: Adam Fenn
  • Toby’s Personal Assistant: Mitch Deneui
  • Production Assistant: Kirby Middleton
  • Tour Security Director: Jason Harrison
  • Merchandise: Yancy Johnson
  • Rigging Co: Atlanta Rigging Systems/Dave Gittens
  • Tour Rigger: Dale Gauldin
  • Set Carpenter: Doug Page
  • Sound Co: Sound Image
  • FOH Engineer: Dirk Durham
  • Monitor Engineer: Jeremy Overall
  • Guitar/Backline Tech: William Mayes
  • Sound Techs: Joshua Harper, Greg Burns
  • Trucking Co: S.E.T. Trucking
  • Truck Drivers: Joe Silyagi, Chris Olson, Brad Underwood, Tom Cash
  • Bus Cos: Coach Quarters, Musical Coaches
  • Bus Drivers: Alvin Hughes, John Jones, Michael Moore, Lynette Pitts, Terry Pitts, Robbie Robinson, Alvin Hughes, Chuck Spence, Robert Law

Gear

Lighting:

  • 2       grandMA2 Light consoles
  • 26     Robe Pointes
  • 10     Chauvet Maverick MK3 spots
  • 20     Chauvet Rogue R2X washes
  • 9       Vari-Lite VL3000 spots
  • 8       Vari-Lite VL3500 washes
  • 14     Chauvet Nexus panels
  • 10     Elation CuePix WW4’s
  • 19     GLP JDC1 strobes
  • 5       8-light moles
  • 2       Martin ZR 44 smoke machines
  • 2       Reel EFX DF-50 hazers

Video:

  • 2       disguise media servers
  • 1       Ross Video Carbonite switcher
  • 1       Large landscape wall of Triton 5.9 mm tiles
  • 1       Set video ramp setup with Triton 5.9 mm tiles
  • 1       Runway video setup with Hox LED 3.9mm panels
  • 2       Outboard projection screens
  • 2       Projectors

 

More photos:

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