TPi Magazine, Issue 247, March 2020
(Total Production International, UK)

Digital magazine specialized in live event design and technology, available to read and download on ISSUU:

The singer-songwriter brings ’70s-inspired sensibilities to audiences across the globe. TPi’s Jacob Waite spends Valentine’s weekend chatting to James Blunt’s loyal roadies at Manchester Arena.

Consistently entertaining audiences around the world for the past 15 years, James Blunt tours have not only become a showcase of the singer’s durability – he’s now embarking on his sixth album campaign – but his versatility in presenting tours that are driven not by scale, but by the creative nature of their design.

The first chat on TPi’s backstage tech tour was with mainstay in the camp, Tour Manager, Robert Hayden. “Our very first tour was in April 2005,” he recalled. “Back then, we fit a full crew on one bus.”

Despite expanding over the years, many of the key members have remained unchanged for over a decade – something that Hayden put down to the artist’s military background.

“He’s very regimented,” Hayden explained. “We always sound check on time and travel as a tight unit. This is a four-truck tour with a band bus and a crew bus – it’s the same style of touring that we’ve always done.”

An important part in getting the latest Once Upon A Mind Tour off the ground, Hayden believed, was surrounding himself with familiar suppliers.

The touring roster comprised a selection of longstanding vendors, including Skan PA, Lite Alternative, Phoenix Bussing, Flying Saucers and Fly By Nite, which provided trucks as well as the use of FBN Studios. Along with these usual suspects, Hayden also brought in a new video supplier, Creative Technology.

“Lite Alternative has always supplied the lights for our tours and Paul Normandale has designed every show. He is the best person to interpret James’ creative vision,” Hayden noted. “As technology has evolved, he has been able to create a series of looks with less gear.”

When it came to show design, Blunt adopted a hands-on approach. “He is self-effacing and understands how people perceive him,” Normandale began. “Part of this show is dispelling perceptions. James sees this show as his version of AC/DC.”

He added: “We try to present something that is entertaining, visually interesting and pushes the edge of the demographic of those who come to see it. He didn’t want a back wall of LED this time around, so we had an opportunity to make the show IMAG heavy.”

The result was a ’70s-inspired parcan look, complete with a blue crushed velvet backdrop and a mirror ball, which was harnessed during the bombastic Elton John-inspired, disco-era track, 1973.

Making up the rest of the set were four flown pods of lighting and three centre-hung IMAG screens. “I’ve always liked the idea of not having too much equipment and making a rig as versatile as possible,” he explained, adding that the benefit of automation is the ability to create a series of looks with a relatively small footprint.

Normandale’s goal was to have the audience be completely oblivious to the extravagancies of production. “You have an obligation in an arena to make the show look good from any perspective,” he summarised. “It’s all about intimacy and trying to make those at the back of the room feel as close to the action as possible.”

Dividing equal attention to the packaging and rigging of the show, the designer said: “Having tonnes of gear that doesn’t fit anywhere doesn’t look great in the truck or to the accountants. A huge part of the design process is putting together a feasible end product.”

Automation played a key role within the production for the show’s opening, with three IMAG screens on the floor, which then rose with Kinesys, turning to live footage with a monochrome filter. Midway through the first track, How It Feels to Be Alive, four lighting trusses elevated slowly behind the artist.

Automation Operator and Rigger, Chris Roper utilised 12, 500kg hoists with Elevation 1+ motors, to manoeuvre the upstage IMAG screens controlled by Vector software. “Although there was automation on the last run, this is the first time we’ve introduced Kinesys,” he commented.

Roper introduced LibraCELL to account for weight restrictions. “There are moves in nearly every song, with a range of different looks so health and safety are of paramount importance,” he added.

Tasked with handling the lighting and video content and treatment on the road was Lighting Director, Glenn Johnson. Operating an MA Lighting grandMA2, the LD received video signal from Video Director, Jonathan Shrimpton, importing VideoDust effects into a Catalyst V6 media server, which was then fired across to three central IMAG screens.

With no timecode in sight, and varying speeds of vocal delivery, Johnson’s fingers were firmly on the trigger. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he enthused. “As many operators would agree, the grandMA2 works wonders in that sense – there’s nothing you can’t do.”

Stuart Smith, designer of Thunderingjacks’ VideoDust, programmed the effects. Johnson walked TPi through the real-time video looks. “Most of the effects are nuanced, with little bleaches here and there,” he commented. “However, James bursts into flames halfway through the track Bonfire Heart and Smoke Signals aptly sees smoke emitting from him.”

Commenting on his involvement, Smith said: “When it came to creating looks from VideoDust, it was quick and painless. I adjusted some of the built-in presets and it looked great. It’s so easy to use and can save valuable time in rehearsals.”

Lighting-wise, six Prolights ArenaCob 4Halos were chosen as an LED replacement for traditional, parcan glow. Philips Color Kinetics iW Blast TR were used as footlights, nine GLP JDC1s lighting underneath the risers.

Martin by Harman MAC Auras, 24 in total, and 72 Ayrton MagicDot-Rs were housed on flown pods centre of stage. Johnson pointed out six MAC Viper Air FXs and 12 MAC Viper Profiles as the “workhorse” fixtures of the rig – eight chosen for band key light in a “hexagon style shape” and a pair on the floor, either side, for cross lighting. Twelve flown Robe MegaPointes were among the strong looks.

Chief Lighting Technician, Moss Everhard and Lighting Technician, Mark Goodall, made up the lighting crew, both working with Lite Alternative on a “perma-lance” basis. “It’s a very technology-driven rig – we can manipulate every song look differently, with one rack of Catalyst and VideoDust,” Johnson reflected on his brief: no content, other than lyrics. The team introduced video content for the track, Cold – “Miami boulevard-like content and lyric videos”.

Gritty “VHS-style” lyrics were layered over purple content during ukulele ballad, Postcards. The picture-perfect lyrics video on I Told You as well as the lyrical content and pinhole IMAG content of The Greatest, and the monochrome gobos left and right striking the audience on Champions were among the choice video content looks.

Walking into the tour, Shrimpton was surprised to be greeted by a creative setup, which comprised three ROE Visual MC-7HB screens, each 4.8m by 3m, which move up and down via Kinesys to create a composition of interesting shapes housed in ACASS frames. “Creative Technology also supplied Stage Smart Soca PDUs – with the amount of protection and monitoring, they’re perfect for an arena environment.”

Video Techs, Patrick Vansteelant and Jeroen Marain manned the cameras. The system comprised three HXC-100 cameras with custom Creative Technology side mounts (two Canon KJ22 and Canon XJ86 lenses) – two in the pit, as well as a long-lens at FOH. A trio of Q-ball 3s were lined along the edge of the band risers – “I’m not that keen on having handheld cameras on stage because they tend get in the way,” the Video Director recalled.

Due to the varying size of venues and FOH space, Creative Technology engineered a compact and versatile PPU system featuring a Panasonic AV-HS450E video switcher to allow Shrimpton to cut the show and operate from FOH. “The shots change from song to song,” he said, testing the varying colour gradings on offer.

Goodbye My Lover’s staggered IMAG presented heavy audience shots, like the world’s biggest James Blunt karaoke session, with over 19,000 fans singing in harmony. A sepia-toned central IMAG, and a clap-along chorus bathed in purple tones illustrated I Told You. “James’ back catalogue is very diverse – during the particularly personal tracks, a close-up is all you need, as his face tells a story,” Shrimpton acknowledged. “Other upbeat songs feature fast cuts, when it seems appropriate.” Shrimpton also outlined the emotionally charged intensity of the track, Monsters. A video rolls with family photos of band members and their fathers; it then finishes on a shot with James and his terminally ill father. “During the first night at Arena Birmingham, it was an emotional experience. James is an amazing wordsmith, and when he’s singing it, he means every word.”

Reflecting on the four-truck tour, he said: “Although there isn’t tonnes of gear, you would never know. As soon as the house lights hit, the show looks huge.” Shrimpton underlined the pedigree of Normandale’s skill in taking a blank canvas and limited supplies and putting together an arena show. “He gives you scope to push the creative boundaries; it’s an absolute pleasure to play a part in the creative process.”

The artist’s preference of a tight-knit team continued as TPi met some of the key members of the audio department.

FOH Engineer, Mike Hornby, Monitor Engineer, Gerry Wilkes and Audio Crew Chief, Scott Essen, have all worked with James Blunt for almost 15 years. Once again, the trio, along with PA Techs, Craig Burns and Maria Head, came together to provide a robust audio package that lent into the artist’s sensibilities.

“We’ve got quite a traditional setup,” asserted Hornby. “It’s all live instruments with no tracks or playback. We could use a lot of modern trickery but, for me, I think it would lose a lot of charm if we went down that road.”

For control, the engineer put his faith in a Midas PRO2. Hornby was an old hand with the Midas brand, having taken out a Heritage during the first few runs with Blunt. “I really like the channel EQ on the PRO2,” he commented. “Personally, I get frustrated using other desks as I don’t seem to have modelled their EQ to work in the live environment, meaning they are not powerful enough to get the job done.”

Along with a good desk, the FOH Engineer asserted that the intelligibly of the mix also relied on ensuring each instrument on stage was of the utmost quality. “It’s the benefit of being part of this camp so long, that I was involved to make sure we had the best sounding piano and equipment on stage. The truth is, if you have a bad keyboard, you can pretend to EQ it to perfection, but there is only so much you can do.”

Although Blunt’s latest tour was a seated affair, the audio crew said that, by the end of the night, the crowd were always on their feet – a consideration that Hornby made sure to consider in his mix.

“The show is slightly ‘rockier’ than you might imagine – similar to some of the bands in the ’70s such as Peter Frampton and Steely Dan. I’m very conscious that I don’t want to overload the sub in the mix or have someone sitting by a ground stack and ruin their evening,” he stated. “The goal is to have the sub just tickle underneath, with most of the work being done by the main PA.”

The PA in question, provided by Skan PA, was a d&b audiotechnik KSL system along with J-SUBs on the ground, with a front fill setup comprising 12 Y10Ps. Discussing the audio setup was System Designer, Scott Essen. “We like to carry slightly more front fill than your standard arena show, as the show is seated and the first few rows are so close,” he explained. “I had to take into account that the audience would be both sitting and standing at different points of the show and design a system that could accommodate both.”

Turning his attention to the speakers in the air, Essen discussed his experience with the newer KSL system. “We used the J-Series for some time and only had these boxes for the last few shows,” he explained. “James in the past has worked off the room, so with the lack of rear rejection of the new KSL system, there have been some adjustments. James hasn’t commented on it much – the fact that it’s clearer on stage is certainly a good problem to have.”

Moving the conversation over to the stage, TPi caught up with Monitor Engineer, Gerry Wilkes. Having been with Blunt since the early days, the Engineer is very much sewn into the fabric of the artist’s stage setup – even holding the title of Stage Manager alongside his monitoring duties.

At the helm of the Yamaha CL5, Wilkes oversaw the mixture of wedges and IEMs. “James has quite a simple mix,” stated the Engineer. “He has a lot of his own vocal and whatever he is playing at the time. It’s not the most taxing job, as long as he can hear himself in the wedges, he takes a lot out of the rest of the room. We’ve all worked with him for so long that we know what works and what he wants. He’s not a practically demanding guy.”

Aiding Wilkes with all his RF requirements during the show was Maria Head. “She makes sure that everything is clean and that we have the correct number of frequencies, which is still a relatively new aspect of the job for us,” Wilkes explained.

The Engineer went onto reveal that the use of wireless guitars and even IEMs came off the back of a TV performance, which had James Blunt play in multiple locations, meaning that a wireless guitar and vocal was the only feasible option.

“After that show, we decided to incorporate the wireless elements into our own touring rig,” stated Essen. “James likes to dart back and forth on stage and the wireless options allow him to have greater movement.”

For Blunt’s vocal microphone, the production opted for a Shure Beta 58a, which was also wireless, making use of the Shure Axient system along with Wireless Workbench.

During Wisemen, Blunt repeatedly posed the question: “Where are you now?” To which the rapturous Mancunian audience replied: “We’re in Manchester Arena”. Here, in a city which James Blunt has not played in years, and on Valentines weekend, love and IMAG screens were very much in the air.