Country star Luke Bryan’s meteoric rise to the top has solidified his tour as one of the must-see shows of the summer. The singer has been selling out every show this year from arenas to sheds, special club gigs to humongous stadiums as evidenced by this weekend’s sold out gig at Nashville’s Vanderbilt stadium. Production designers Justin Kitchenman (touring LD) and Pete Healey (touring production manager) co-designed a large-scale system that can fit into any type venue. Through reconfigurations of where to rig the truss and video elements, these transitions between different sized venues are seamless, due to the design team doing their homework ahead of the tour.
“We have come up with four different system scenarios since we started up this year, in order to best simulate our design concepts for every sized venue,” says Kitchenman, who is one half of the design firm FadeUp Design Group. “Right now we add about 50 extra lighting fixtures for the stadium shows. We just have to reconfigure the rigging for venues where there are no points to hang.” Looking at the massive lighting and video rig supplied by Elite Multimedia, this looks more difficult than it actually is.
Kitchenman is entering his fourth year as the LD for this act. He had toured for years with several acts when his first child was born. He then chose to do local work around his hometown of Nashville, opting for home life over the road. Then one day a friend popped his head into a previz suite that Justin was working in and said, “Call this guy. He needs an LD. You would be perfect.” While not looking for a road gig at the time, he was intrigued enough to call Pete Healey to chat about this act. Justin sensed that this artist was going places quickly, and after conferring with his wife, he took the gig. “When I first went out with this artist, he was opening up for Jason Aldean. Luke had some hit singles at that time, but I was really blown away by his performance. We started headlining my second year with him, and he and the production has just grown larger every tour.”
The design team has nothing but praise for Elite Multimedia, the Nashville-based vendor that supplies every piece of lighting and video gear on this tour. They have been the only vendor Luke Bryan has used since he took out his own production. Since the early days of everyone riding on one bus and jamming one trailer full of gear, Elite has grown with the artist to become a major force in today’s competitive touring market.
I count 24 different spans of Tyler GT truss full of lights hanging in the air. This doesn’t include the amount of truss utilized for tracking fixtures, video walls and other special effects the production has included in their 14 semi trucks of gear they carry daily (23 when they play stadiums). Most of it involves automation during the show, specifically the pieces over the band on the main stage. The meat and potatoes behind Justin’s light rig are the Vari*Lites. Through his use of 36 VL3500 FX for the wash lights and 20 VL 3015’s for his hard edge units, the designer has enough firepower to cut through all the video elements and easily illuminate the talent. Justin is a longtime fan of Vari*Lites and utilizes them for key lights as well as graphic focuses and slow ballyhoos through the audience. But these fixtures are just the tip of the iceberg as the design team chose a lot of the latest technology on the market and, of course, Elite was able to provide the tour with every new gadget Justin wanted in his toy box.
Unlike most LDs who tend to design their light plots around two or three certain types of lights, Kitchenman utilizes 12 different types of fixtures. “I enjoyed employing a variety of different fixtures in this design. I do not feel the need to use them all at once constantly. Instead, I opt for using certain types for certain scenes at various times during the show. Each light is different and has something unique it brings to the overall design.” Mounted between the Vari*Lites in the air trusses, the LD has scattered a bunch of Clay Paky Mythos as well as Philips Showline SL Nitro LED strobes. The Mythos joined the Clay Paky arsenal of fixtures that Kitchenman spec’d including Sharpys, Sharpy Wash and Clay Paky B-Eye fixtures. With 84 Clay Paky lights in total, he had enough fixtures to get the accent punches from the pencil beams as well as the eye candy from the B-Eyes. The Mythos’ gobo-textured beams fill any holes left by the VL3015 fixtures. Justin is quick to point out that he is not fond of ruining a concert attendee’s evening by drilling them in the head with a powerful beam of light. He’d rather fatten the beam up with the frost filter or prism effects before aiming them in the house.
This is the second time around for Kitchenman using the SL Nitro LED strobes from Philips. He likes the mapping capability of dividing the fixture into six quadrants for effects. “With the Martin Atomic, there was no other real alternative for 12 years, and they have become the standard by which every new strobe is judged,” he says. “The Nitros are a bit more time-consuming to program, but we’ve been able to maintain all of the strobe looks in the show. What is tough on me is cloning these fixtures to other strobes. On the country circuit, I spend a lot of time at festivals cloning fixtures into my show depending on where we are on any individual day. Last week [June 26-28] we were in NYC at a festival called FarmBorough with a local light rig. I was able to get my show pretty well together in the two hours I had for programming time, but the strobe cues were a little off.” The ability to clone fixtures easily is one of the things this LD takes into consideration when deciding which lights to choose for a specific tour. Noting that some are easier to transfer the attributes in than others, he cites quick-and-easy cloning as a major advantage for country artists like his boss, who play just about every type of gig there is. Kitchenman is also a big fan of ESP pre-visualization software and carries it with him wherever he goes so he can clone his show in the sanctity of his hotel room before arriving on site at a one-off gig.
Moving on, I notice quite a few Ayrton fixtures in the LD’s arsenal of fixtures. Downstage center is a 180° curved wraparound truss that holds up some PixelFLEX FLEXCurve LED panels. These tiles are referred to as the “Crown” on this tour, and the LD surrounds the top of them with three trusses full of MagicBlades, those thin moving striplites that continuously spin in any direction. There are eight other small sticks of truss that fly in and out at times, with three more MagicBlades attached to each. He uses these mostly as eye candy, another example of how he’ll opt to use different types of lights for distinctly different looks during the show. This show also has a pair of custom pods that feature seven Ayrton MagicPanels hung in a checkerboard array with another eight individual video panels. “There are times when we map the video signal between the tiles and the MagicPanels if we feel the content lends itself. Other times the panels may be playing video content while the MagicBlades are another color, shooting bright beams out of them.”
Kitchenman tried stepping away from conventional incandescent moles this year, opting to utilize the Elation line of blinders called Cuepix WW2 and WW4. They are scattered throughout the truss and work fairly well. “The dimmer curve takes a while to get used to on these fixtures, especially at the low end. But the color temperature I get out of them is so close to an incandescent light source that I just love them. By switching to these fixtures this year, we were able to lose a 400amp service and loads of cables. Using these fixtures is something I will never regret.”
The floor lights are primarily some B-Eyes around the circular thrust as well as 17 of the new Robe CycFX 8 self-tilting LED strip lights. “I just love the look I get out of these fixtures,” says Kitchenman. “We use them in maximum channel mode so I have individual control over each cell in the fixture. Besides being great eye candy when facing the audience, I love having the ability to tilt the ones on stage the other way so they become foot lights for the band. During low light ballads they are just perfect for front lighting the band in parts of the show where I do not wish to use the over-powering spotlights.” Justin also pointed out the fact that his guitar player could straddle the fixture without fear of noise coming out of the musician’s amp. This was a huge concern starting the tour, and he was very pleased to find the band had no issues with Robe gear.
The show was run from a full sized grandMA2 console with tracking backup. Justin programmed the majority of the show, then brought in freelance programmer Craig Caserta to help out with the complex programming of the MagicPanels and MagicBlades. “Craig is an amazingly talented programmer that fit seamlessly into our camp,” Justin says. “He added some great looks to our show.”
This particular show sells tickets in 270 degrees — sometimes close to 300, if you include obstructed view seats. But with the configuration of all the LED walls, there is truly not a bad seat in the house. All of the video elements on this show were manufactured by PixelFLEX, including the company’s FLEXCurve panels, which won a Parnelli Indispensable Technology “IT” award in the Video Products category in late 2014. A half circle of this 8mm product, used for the convex curve high above the stage at a 48-foot trim, is dubbed “The Crown.” The panels are arranged to curve in 10° increments. This seamless curved wall predominantly displays I-Mag to the people facing the front of the stage at all times.
Another section of FLEXCurve tiles, configured in a curved wall measuring 40 by 12.4 feet (WxH) appears directly behind the band risers, wrapping around them in a concave shape. Across the front of these risers are sections of PixelFLEX’s 10mm FLEXGrid product that act as a video fascia. At times it appears that the band in the background is floating in a sea of media content.
To ensure that everyone in the house can see the artist at all times, the production includes flown 24-by-16-foot walls (WxH) of the same FLEXCurve product on both sides of the stage. The FLEXCurve product is also featured as individually mounted tiles utilized in the two moving pods of Ayrton MagicPanel light fixtures.
Upstage of the band, another video wall is made from PixelFLEX’s 8.9mm FLEXLite Plus. Measuring 32 by 18 feet (WxH), it is attached to a tracking system on a straight truss. The walls split in half at times to reveal an upstage low-res video curtain as well as lighting elements that have moved into their place.
Each half of the FLEXLite Plus wall weighs in at roughly 2,500 pounds. This product is all mounted in custom touring frames for quick assembly and protection when traveling. The 50mm FLEXCurtain upstage spans 60 feet in width and 40 feet in height. Made from of 24 seamlessly connected 10-by-10-foot sections, this curtain proved invaluable to Kitchenman. “At times, we lower the trusses in for some distinct lighting looks,” he notes. “As you know, the various cables and chain hoists utilized for such truss moves would be highly noticeable when they appear in front of the high-def video walls. When we split the screens and lower the trusses, they are not really seen in front of the black video curtain, yet we can still have some imagery displayed upstage of the light fixtures.”
When this production hits stadium venues, Elite brings in additional 40-by-40-foot sections of the FLEXLite Plus screens for large I-mag shots so the folks in the back of the bowl can easily see the artist’s every move.
Video director Zach Clevenger cuts the show each night through his Ross Carbonite switcher. Utilizing a single long lens Canon XJ75 at FOH as well as three handheld operators armed with Sony HXC100 cameras his four operators offer him a constant variety of shots to choose from. An additional four Sony Robo-cams and a couple of Hitachi POV lipstick cams round out the camera package. The media content fed to the various screens comes from the use of Catalyst media servers programmed by Anthony Morgan and operated by Chris Lighthall on the Elite video crew. The servers are run from the same time code the lighting guys utilize to run their show.
Staging, Automation and Pyro
Luke Bryan likes to spend as much time as he can being up close and personal with his fans. Hence a thrust leading out to a circular platform in the center of the arena is where this artist spends a good part of the show. SetCo, a Tennessee based set manufacturer, has looked after Bryan for a few years and supplied a cool platform out front that lands smack dab in the middle of an arena floor. This 42-foot-diameter set piece consists of a circle within a circle. Pete Healey is the driving force behind the stage elements and the constant movement of automation that appears during this performance. It was his idea a few years ago to use this platform as a stage for various gags.
Healey is a seasoned 20-year veteran of the road who first hooked up with Bryan in 2006 when they played every venue possible, on every back road of Georgia. Ten years later, Pete is still mixing the FOH audio as well as managing the whole production. While Kitchenman looks after the lighting design, Healey concentrates on the other scenic elements. Wearing several hats on a stadium tour seems like an overwhelming task, but Pete sounds undaunted by this. He and others often come up with video ideas for content creator Molly Gray to manufacture as well as dictating the flow of the show and what automation gags happen at what times during the performance. Healey is quick to point out the fact that “out here, Justin and I are all open to new ideas for the show. If someone on the crew comes up with something cool, we will often brainstorm until we figure out a way to make it happen.”
The show starts with trusses dramatically rising and lowering into place as the video punches accents through the mesh of trussing. A Muse song blaring from the PA sets the tone for the upcoming show. The center of the circular stage is opened as smoke billows out of the sliding trap doors. The artist emerges from the depths to sing “Kick the Dust Up.”
The circular center platform gets plenty of use throughout the show as various set pieces, from pianos to piers, appear at times. But nothing tops the start of the encore. Healey came up with the idea of hiding a replica 1970 Chevy Silverado under the stage a couple years ago, and it has become a huge hit with the fans. Everyone told him it was impossible when he first came up with the idea, but between Healey and SetCo’s wits, they did indeed achieve this.
As the encore starts, a video wall reveals content of Bryan striking a match to light a flaming arrow. He aims the arrow at the crowd, and as he releases it, the circular thrust bursts into flames. A large faux pickup truck rises out of billowing smoke and flames with the artist on top of the cab as he whips into “That’s my Kind of Night.” The center 20-foot-diameter portion of the circular stage rises through the use of hydraulics. Underneath the circle, the carpentry crew works like a pit crew at a race. Once the truck gag is complete, the center lowers to the ground where the unseen crew disassemble the truck into various parts stored under the staging.
SGPS/Showrig (Show Group Production Services) was called on to deliver all the automation being utilized on this tour and that is quite a handful. The L.A./Las Vegas-based company supplied plenty of gags to augment the show. Using their own proprietary control system the team lifts, separates and moves so many pieces that there is constantly a new look to the stage. The moving motors for the trusses are all digital CM hoists run from the same control system.
SGPS also provides motorized tracks on their own trussing for this tour. This includes the upstage video wall, which splits in half at times. Upstage of the video wall there are four more trollies that hold trusses containing Ayrton MagicBlade light fixtures. These trollies track left to right and lower the lights down into predetermined heights for each use. SGPS also supplied the tour with two of their unique inventions, the Whirly Gig. These pieces are metal fabrications that enable set pieces to move along a curved track on a truss. The Whirly Gigs themselves have three different winches: one that drives them along the track, one that elevates and lowers the set piece and one that can swivel the attached items in a preferred direction. As the upstage video wall cleanly separates, the Whirly Gigs will glide in from their off stage positions to occupy the center stage area while they lower and pivot to face the audience. The MagicBlade trusses fly in simultaneously to form a cool new lighting and video configuration.
SetCo provides the four band risers on stage as well as a separate scissor lift device in the center of them that the artist utilizes at times to lift him in the air. “The logistics of bringing our arena production into an amphitheater can be tough,” explains Kitchenman. “We can’t kill sightlines and remove seats easily to put our thrust in the audience. But the artist still wants the spectacle of being able to rise up in a lift at any time during the show. So we carry what looks like a normal band riser center stage and he can rise up at any time.”
Strictly FX, the 2014 Parnelli award winner for Pyro Company of the Year, was brought in for the show’s special effects. Based out of the Chicago area, they provided flame bars under the circular stage for the truck reveal. They’re also responsible for a gerb waterfall effect and the low laying fog generators. Plenty of smoke and haze was evident throughout the show as Elite equipped the tour with an assortment of MDG products including theONE hazers, Atmosphere HO hazers and Ice Fog Q foggers.
The Stadium Game Plan
Playing the stadium shows amounted to some special considerations. One of which was to employ Brown United as the staging contractor for all their stadium venues. Through the use of a special cantilevered roof section downstage, the production was able to fly their Crown of Video in place up high. The two trusses normally flown in the house to light the center circular stage were moved offstage and flown above the extra video screens brought in. Lastly, Brown was able to provide a sideways thrust that ventured left and right of the circular platform, allowing the artist to roam sideways and get back to the stage at either end as well. This worked great as the people caught between the front row and the side thrusts were truly in a VIP section, surrounded by action.
Healey leads a crew of 52 people on his daily arena setup as this act averages three to four shows per week. The yearly schedule has the team touring from February to October every year, usually leaving home from Wednesday through Sunday. Of course, with this artist’s increased popularity, there are constant television appearances and awards shows that demand the PM/FOH mixer be on site. Thus his workload expands far past the typical weekend warrior schedule most country acts adhere to.
“Elite Multimedia and its staff have been an instrumental part of Luke’s productions since day one,” Kitchenman adds. “They’re tireless in their efforts to make sure no stone is left unturned or problem left un-resolved. In this crazy business where so much can go wrong so quickly, it is a great comfort to have Elite Multimedia at our side. Our crew is an amazing group of individuals. They are truly the most talented, dedicated, hard working group of professionals I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.”