A typical Pearl Jam show is known for two things: intense marathons in which the song list varies wildly from night to night and a visual component that has long been, shall we say, minimal. The veteran rock band has a passionate, loyal following that tours when they tour, knows every song (the more obscure, the better), and doesn’t need your pyro, your revolving stages, or your holograms of dead celebrities to have a good time, thank you very much.
But tastes change, expectations change, and as Pearl Jam geared up to promote its latest album, Lightning Bolt, the band decided the time was right to tweak the look of its live shows. As a result, the Lightning Bolt Tour, which hit the US last fall, spent some time in Australia at the first of the year, and is heading to Europe this June, boasts a subtle yet powerful production design, a uniquely evocative video package, and an entirely new lighting rig, supplied by Upstaging.
Kille Knobel, who has been the band’s lighting designer since 2001, explains how and why this change came about. “Over the years, the band has toured less and less; they want to go out in short amounts of time and not have a lot of production time on the front end. So we tend to keep our rigs for a very, very long time. This time around, I think everyone was ready for a change, including the band. They wanted to step it up a notch this tour and explore some things we haven’t explored in the past.”
Production designer Doug “Spike” Brant of Performance Environment Design Group (PEDG), who has worked with the band in various capacities for several years now, was brought on board to help guide the exploration. “When they approached us this time, they knew they wanted to do something different,” Brant explains. “They wanted a design that was powerful and enveloping to create a sense of enclosure and intimacy in the performance environment.”
The end result, which was very much informed by input from the band, includes large lighting orbs on winches, smaller lighting orbs hanging from the rig, and, perhaps most impressive, a massive, moveable metallic “bird” structure above the stage that was built and engineered by Tait.
“At our first design meeting with the band,” Brant explains, “they voiced that they were interested in creating a central flown sculpture that was reminiscent of the giant chandelier from their tour in the ‘90s. The big question was what it would be, and we got our answer when [bassist] Jeff [Ament] suggested the idea of a giant bird hovering over the stage. The challenge after that was finding the appropriate aesthetic language, form, and function for this ‘bird.’ The final design, nicknamed Material Chaos, was designed by [PEDG partner] Justin [Collie] after we had a discussion about keeping the bird abstract and created out of found objects.”
Video is another fresh component on this tour. Feeling the need to interact more with the entire audience, but not particularly interested in either yet another I-Mag presentation nor an overreliance on canned content, the Pearl Jam team reached out to Blue Leach, a video director known for his work with Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode, and REM. “There’s an enormous amount of energy on that stage, but I think it needs visual amplification sometimes,” Leach explains. “So we brought in a relatively small package of rear projection screens, cameras, color and black-and-white effects, and amazing camera work, all designed to vacuum that energy on the stage and spit it back out onto the screens.”
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