How does the equipment make it to each show on time?
The desired method is by truck — in this way, we can economically carry everything we need to make a concert’s assembly comfortable. At the moment we have two trucks on the go — during the 2008-10 tour, we had an average of five trucks. In some cases, when the distance to the next gig is too great to be reached in time by road, the gear is flown by a freight company. In these situations, it is helpful to think about what is really needed to make the next show happen, and leave non-vital equipment on the trucks which will meet us in two (or three) gigs’ time. For the gear left behind, suitable replacements will be sought for the next show; it is cheaper to rent risers locally than to ship them by air. In some scenarios it even makes sense to buy a smaller case and fill it with necessities, leaving the ‘parent case’ behind.
Do the drivers ever get to sleep or are they on the road all night?
The life of a truck driver, as best I can tell, is that of a camper; they stay with their trucks everywhere. While the main touring party is billeted in a hotel near conveniences of all kinds, the trucks are usually parked on the outskirts of town at a large petrol station, truck-stop, or coach park. If they’re lucky, they’ll have access to mains power and water. I believe the production team help the drivers find places to park overnight, but experienced truckers have many tricks up their sleeves. The life of a trucker can be isolated and insular.
As for sleep, yes they have, in theory, plenty of time for that. From my understanding, any driver in Europe may drive for a maximum of nine hours within 24; during these nine, a mandatory forty-five minutes must be allocated to rest. So in a nutshell, they can be on the road for around ten hours.
The logistical challenges begin when concert venues are vastly spaced. If faced with, say, a twelve-hour overnight drive, we must fly another driver in, and thus have two drivers share the distance in order to get the equipment in on time. I have seen situations where we have drafted a single ‘double-driver’ to cover two drivers; between the three, they can complete the twelve hour run within legal limits.
It should be said that it is considered poor planning by some, to book venues twelve hours apart and expect trucks to make the distance. As we usually don’t finish loading the trucks until 1 to 2am, it would mean we would miss our ideal load-in time of 8am. So in theory, six to seven hour drives are the ideal.
Do you have every bit of equipment for setting up the whole show or are some things like trusses and lighting local to the venue?
In an ideal world, each department would like to carry all necessary equipment. In 2008-10, we mostly did that, but on this European leg, we are carrying only two trucks as a cost-saving measure. At the moment, as far as the performance itself is concerned, we are carrying backline, risers, carpets, a monitor system, a ‘ghost’ monitor system, some essentials for the front-of-house sound engineers, three digital sound mixing consoles, two digital lighting consoles, and some lighting ‘specials’ (lights which are difficult to procure everywhere).
Behind-the-scenes equipment consists of a multitudinous mass of wardrobe cases filled with clothing, steamers, irons & ironing boards, drapes, fabrics, and an infinite variety of little things which transform the rustiest sea container into a lavish space of tranquility. Often time, comforts such as sofas and chairs are hired in for the day — some tours will carry these too, requiring more truck space.
The production team too have their boxes of stuff required to make shows run more smoothly; walkie-talkies, printers, and large computer monitors (which this writer looks upon with some indignant scrutiny). The usual mundane office equipment such as chairs, laminators, passes, cables, internet routers, staplers, pens, paper clips, and envelopes all need somewhere to live. With a team of five people, each with a different part in this rolling circus to play, these sanctums of logistic expedience must be unpacked, set up, and packed down again at each venue.
We used to carry all our own PA and lights, but on this leg, we are relying on local providers to ensure our needs are met — with varying results of satisfaction. If a reader were to wonder how five trucks can magically become two, it is the aim now to clear that fog.
It must be said that no department wants to have to deal with different equipment every day. It is certainly true where backline is concerned, and I can’t see why it would be different for the front-of-house sound department and lighting. As for the visual component of the show, we are carrying large hampers filled with backdrops and gauze materials which make up the ‘legs’ of grey netting which reflect light of all colours with both boldness and serenity. Lighting those fabrics are long banks of LED lights cased within an adjustable frame, placed on the floor beneath the gauze. As for little ‘pin-spots’ (small incandescent lamps placed on the floor to warmly illuminate musicians during key moments of the show) large moving lights, front-of-house spotlights, dimmer racks, cabling (and there is a great length of thick, heavy cabling) trusses, motors, safeties, chains and burlap, it is all hired locally at the moment.
It is a similar story with the sound department; the speakers that point to the audience, their associated amplifiers, rigging equipment, and cabling are all brought in from local sources. We carry our own mixing desks which are used to communicate with the local system, so Sound Engineer Mark has familiar tactile control of the mix every day, but with different suppliers providing different speakers, the levels of various sound frequencies received by both Leonard and the audience must be carefully scrutinised by Mark, Systems Tech Jon, and Monitor Engineer Russ. The way in which they do this, to me, is amazing. I cannot to profess to understand exactly how it is they control each bank and array of speakers, but using a laptop and a stylus, Jon can alter the output of speakers all around the venue, from anywhere within range of the WiFi-enabled control system.
The following is a fictitious situation, proffered with the intention to portray some level of the efficiency at which a venue’s sound sculpturing takes place.
As Mark, with the aid of Pro-Tools (digital recording software) replays key songs from the previous night’s performance through the PA, Russ stand on stage at LC’s mic position, listening intently for frequencies that will clash with the stage sound.
‘Yeah, those 302s are givin’ a bit of slap in the 600 range,’ says Russ, speaking into his walkie-talkie.
Jon silently commands a computer, adjusting the volume of the offending speakers some fifty yards away, effortlessly.
‘That’ll probably do it,’ finishes Russ.
There are times when we tour with caterers; consequently, truck-space is required for a stove, fridge, trunks of dry goods, cases of bottled this and that, serving equipment such as plates, cups, cutlery, heated serving lines, and even stacks of tablecloths. On this leg of the tour, we are not carrying catering, thus the two-truck solution is further understood.
What are the local crews responsible for?
It depends on what their assignments are. The local production team have their own pyramid of power and it begins with the local promoter’s rep, who is pretty much responsible for everything that happens locally. Local riggers ensure that the gear is ‘flown’ properly, while our own rigger, Johnny Hotpants (that never gets old) makes doubly sure of its safety and positioning. Truck loaders, we like to be experienced, strong, and smart enough to know that it’s uncool to smoke cigarettes in the truck. There are moments where it is tempting to smack a lit cigarette from a skinny student’s mouth as he lifts a case with the agility of a tap-dancing zebra.
As for stagehands, we hope they are responsible for not much more than aiding us, carrying out some simple tasks and lifting stuff. By the time The Winning Team hits the stage, there isn’t a whole lot of thinking required and we tend to require no more than four people to help build risers, lay carpets and ferry some empty cases off the stage.
Fact of the day: many of us actually prefer female stagehands — I’ll allow you to enjoy the thought of we few, we lecherous few, enjoying a gawk at the fairer sex before I shed some further light. Lady stagehands are rarely full of the bravado and presumptions we see in the men. When you ask a lady stagehand to do something, she does it, and comes back for some more instruction. It is more like a dude to carry out a task, disappear, clown around with his mates, or presume he knows best and being unlatching cases no one has asked him to unlatch.
In fact, when it comes to the finer details, the little cables, the capos and plectrums, the rotary fan placed just so, the guitar stands, the valve amps, the personal instruments which the musicians treasure so dearly, we prefer to have the stagehands as far away as possible. It is unnerving to have a quartet of young men ooing and ahhing in reverence to a Telecaster as it is born from its case. To quote Pete Townshend, it’s a guitar and you just ‘play the fucking thing.’ Even still, I don’t like it when strangers mill around and appear interested in getting their dirty paws on the guitars; this has happened before — it’s rude and downright unprofessional.
How long does it take to set up a show start to finish?
A typical day sees a load-in of 7 or 8 am, with a stage time around 8pm, the show finishing between 11.30pm and midnight, followed by a load-out, whose timely length can be determined by the venue’s geography and the proficiency of the local crew — between ninety minutes and two hours. Let’s say the long-case scenario is sixteen hours and thirty minutes; a short day might be fifteen hours. Some larger shows, such as stadium gigs, will see days and days of pre-production before we arrive; stages need to be assembled, portable toilets placed, while converted sea containers and portables are fashioned to various purposes. That incalculable time aside, our production team may arrive the day before the show and spend four to six hours getting some of our own equipment in place. As Production Manager Dave regularly states, ‘Every day is a pay day.’
Are some venues easier than others?
Hell yes. The ideal is a ‘flat push’: down (or straight off) the truck’s ramp, along a smooth surface, and onto a wide, deep stage with plenty of room to spread around. The evil opposite is a shitty theatre of some magical, cultural significance which has never been altered to allow anyone who works there the simple conveniences of modern touring; cobbled pathways, stairs, tiny elevators, ‘quaint’ stages with insufferable rakes, narrow corridors and dingy backstage rooms make for a long, sometimes gloomy day. However, even if faced with a logistic and geographical ideal of a venue, the day can spiral into bad moods and ‘feelings of helplessness’ when the local crew are a bunch of inexperienced, uninterested, wannabe rock-stars whose only wish for the day is to get a free plectrum (none of ours are special, they are all store-bought) or even more cheekily, a pack of guitar strings; you must be having a laugh sunshine, lift that case over there and get off your fucking cellphone.
Phew, I hope than answers your questions, Anonymous. It got a little warm towards the end, but we arrived.
Many thanks for reading,