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Nigel Powell: Attack the Blog!

It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights

Thursday 11th July, 2013

As many of you here may know apart from being a drummer I was once a lighting designer, the guy who makes the lights do their thing at a rock show (there's many other kinds of LD of course, but rock was what I did). So with that in my background I have a keen interest in the 'putting on a show' aspect of doing gigs.

Some musicians seem pathologically averse to making any effort that way, which I find extremely odd. It's like they imagine that as soon as you employ someone to do your lights you become Pink Floyd.

But putting on a good show is as wide a remit as what makes a good band. Pink Floyd are a good live act; as are Fugazi, and Idlewild, and Adele, and Ben Folds Five, and Level 42, and Slipknot, and This Ain't Vegas, and PJ Harvey, and Emily Barker And The Red Clay Halo, and Larry's Flask, and on and on. And as diverse as those artists are, so is a show that will complement and amplify what they do onstage.

Which, to me, is the point. I see a strong linkage between drumming and lighting. Both are non-essential to songs existing, but they help if they're there. And if you do them really well and properly, 90% of the time people don't notice them in any specific manner. But they are aware of having been to a better gig. Of course there's the showy-offy 10% where you can try and do things that make people go 'ooooh!' or 'wheeee!', but that's not the meat and potatoes of the job. The middle bit (just after the keyboard solo) of made me giddy when I was 13, which is exactly when I started loving lights.

When I was lighting I was looking for a visual representation of what was happening musically at that moment. Sometimes it's simple, and sometimes it's complicated, but when it seemed to be becoming 'part of' the music then I was happy. And as long as you follow that rule then the lighting for all those bands I mentioned before will be completely different to every other.

I've seen loads of shows I've really enjoyed, from Green Day's cartoony exploits with T-shirt guns and big brash looks, to aggressive asymmetry for Faith No More and oddball twitchy artistry for R.E.M. My two favourite shows ever are very different; The Invisible Touch Tour by Genesis (LD - Alan Owen)

was an incredible bombastic treat, with Los Endos being a masterclass in knowing what to do and when, including the expected and the unexpected (tension and release being just as important to lighting as other artforms); and the In Rainbows Tour by Radiohead (LD - Andi Watson)

was mindblowing, utterly original and technically off the chart - designed as an 'eco-friendly' low power consumption rig that could be run off (large) batteries every other night.

And it's VERY noticeable to me when people don't bother, which sadly two of my favourite bands didn't on a couple of occasions. The Ben Folds Five reunion tour last year was definitely understaffed, which really was taking the piss considering they were selling out Brixton Academy twice over. They're not a band that needs any kind of 'big' light show. Something friendly and theatre-y that emphasises their performance is all that's necessary, adding a little visual flair for the people at the back, with knowledge of the songs and their dynamics being paramount. Same for PJ Harvey who I saw ages ago at Brixton Academy at the end of a very long world tour. Either the touring LD was sleepy and with the slowest reactions in the world, or they didn't bring anyone who knew the songs well enough to change lighting scenes at appropriate musical moments. Again, the Peej is not needing a supercharged Lady Gaga style show, but something simple that can track and complement (that word again) her shifts from swampy blues indie to torch song and back again. Someone to make it looks like the lights give a flying shit what the music is doing.

Sadly there's too many lighting people out there who were lighting technicians who got asked to design because they know how the gear works. Wrong way around, as far as I am concerned - it's much easier to teach how to strip and fix and rig lights than it is to teach sensitivity to music and dynamic and emotion and song structure. And the latter stuff is MUCH more vital to good lighting design.

Analisa, Tue 20th August 2013, 05:39:01 AM
Just beginning to catch up on blogs missed due to travel and my attempts to squeeze as much recreation as possible out of my summer holidays before returning to work... not surprised to see they're all still compelling reads! Thanks for shedding... nah, I'll skip the lame pun and just say that I appreciate the chance to learn more about something I've rarely given much thought to before (but will surely pay more attention to after reading this piece.)
Bea, Thu 11th July 2013, 08:50:33 PM
Really interesting insight on how important the light is to a show.. I go to a lot of shows and from some of my favorite bands whom I've known many years now, I also know the crew members.. and the drummer of one of these bands once asked me after the show if I had noticed something different about the show. because they had a different lighting tech.. but I hadn't and so they were relieved, cause for them that meant, that the lighting was as good as always :)

at another show the "usual" lighting tech of said band let me do the lights for one song.. that was so much fun, but so much harder than I had expected it to be.. I knew the song by heart but still it was difficult to keep up with the tempo and the changes.. but it was a really fun experience for me :) (and of course the band noticed, that something was a bit odd, but they laughed when they noticed it was me)
Victoria, Thu 11th July 2013, 04:56:44 PM
"Both are non-essential to songs existing..." Interesting thought. I've heard it argued the other way about, previously. Drums would be the backbone to a songs existence.

I can't really bring myself to fathom a number of songs existing, without their percussion attributes, drumming in particular. While I was reading about your thoughts on the combination of both drumming and lighting, and then imagined a show without, I couldn't help imagining it from the perspective of someone without the ability to hear... They can certainly still enjoy and appreciate music, but with an emphasis on different sensations- In such a case, I'd find drumming and lighting especially significant.

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