How I Did That: The Ultra Saloon

The age of the purist is fading. When I think of “country music,” everything from electronica to hip-hop to folk to rock enters into the equation. While creating something fresh, the purist is up against the great artists of the past: Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Frank Lloyd Wright, to name a few. Taking on the greats is a dauntingly insurmountable dream. To achieve notoriety as a purist, the artist must be significantly better, or he will get written off as just a carbon copy. This conundrum can push the creative mind to fuse concepts and styles to create new forms.

The difficulty is, while creating something new, the core elements of the style must remain. Otherwise, the identity of the design is lost. In other words, if you are designing a country bar, the clients must still see a country bar when the design is complete, or they will find another country bar. The Country Club of Augusta is a fusion venue, starting with line dancing early in the evening, continuing with live country rock, and finishing as a full-blown dance club in the early morning.

Rikki T, the resident DJ, approached me at the Night Club and Bar trade show in Vegas wanting an easy-to-use lighting controller to replace the current unit, as well as for suggestions for an improved stage wash. He needed something he could intuitively modify on the fly. I introduced him to Martin Light Jockey and visited the venue to suggest improvements for the stage wash.

The owner of the Country Club has many successful ventures in Augusta. Well respected in the community and among his staff, he has set the standard for marketing and entertainment. Analyzing the space, I loved the feel. Rough-cut wood covers all vertical surfaces. The bar design is in the form of beachfront shacks. The dance floor is the lowest area, with VIP zones at different levels that make great gathering spaces and provide good visibility throughout the space to watch the party. As the owner of Eye Dialogue Lighting and Sound, it was my task to take them to the next evolution of country.

The ultra saloon concept was a natural evolution, as the popularity of the ultra lounge exploded at the turn of the millennium. The light brown of pine and other common construction materials are great reflectors for lighting. In club culture, venues have to constantly reinvent formats via entertainment choices, events, and interior design, or they risk losing their client base to other venues popping up in metropolitan markets.

New lighting can transform a space without costly construction upgrades. Many venues, looking to tap into the new youth of country music, explore technology-centered improvements. More progressive and edgy lighting systems keep younger clients interested, discouraging their migration to electronic dance halls and top 40 clubs. However, critics dislike the dark, seedy drug-culture nature often associated with dance club-style design, preferring the more illuminated style of country venues. Add to that the LED revolution, and we trend toward dynamic visual display through color transitions, satisfying the more demanding technology generation and providing adequate illumination for the conversational style of traditional country.

Removing the neon was the first step in refreshing the Country Club and a scary one. In most bars, much of the ambient light comes from neon. It brings attention to alcohol branding, which is good, but it often directs the client’s attention away from the bar to the wall, which is less desirable. Moving away from equal unintentional lighting, designers can use light to control client focus, increasing visibility of entertainment and sales, and decreasing distractions.

Three elements in every entertainment venue need to be lit. First, and most obvious, is the stage, if there is one. The performers should be the most identifiable people in the room. Second is the bar. Many venues spend a fortune on furniture and details but neglect the only post-cover form of income. The bar should be the most dynamic architectural element in the room. The last space is the dance floor. I often hear that club-goers who dance want this or that, but lighting is for the voyeurs not the dancers. Most dancers want everyone to see how good they are or how well they are dressed. Otherwise, they would dance in the privacy of their own homes or the dark corner of the room. The people watching want to see everyone interesting but don’t want to be seen. This doesn’t mean dark versus light, but it does mean light and more light. Treat the dance floor like a stage.

Price is crucial with the fixtures in the current market. B-Stock and quality substitutions are often the norm. Chauvet has sky-rocketed in popularity with touring-quality LED Colorado fixtures. The company has satisfied LED wash demand, starting with the entry-level LEDsplash™ Jr, up to the higher-end Colorado 2. We chose to use a combination of mid-level units with the LEDrain 64 and the Colorstrip. The 23 narrow beams of the LEDrain provide the dynamic definition we needed for the stage wash. The Colorstrips line the front truss, washing the stage edge. Finishing the stage, four Elation Power Spot 250s line the back, creating dynamic beam effects through the stage and into the crowd. Two Elation Power Wash 250s provide backlights for the band, and two more on the sides cross-wash the musicians.

The hardest task was to raise the truss. Due to HVAC and sprinkler locations, the previous company decided to rig the truss at HVAC/sprinkler height and less than 3' horizontally from the stage edge. This put the fixtures approximately 9' above stage, including the front section of the truss, creating the unfortunate illusion that the band was playing into the lights of an oncoming freight train. By eliminating one section of truss, we were able to get it on the inside of the HVAC. We had to dismantle the truss and reassemble it above the sprinkler system. The job took longer than anticipated but was worth the sacrifice for the extra 2' of height. The stage visibly opened up, and the additional height gave the lighting greater beam presence and stage effect.

The major complaint concerning the dance floor was that no one could see the dancers unless they were on the half closest to the stage. Spaced evenly around the dance floor, we added Chauvet LEDsplash 200Bs for better coverage. To further address future dance floor showcases, four Elation Professional Power Wash 250s were placed near each corner. Every space of the dance floor, except the outer extremes, now has sufficient front-lighting. By leaving the edges dark, wall flowers and reluctant dancers can gradually work their way to the dance floor—a natural way to progress into the party.

To deal with the hard-edge fixtures, I added some beam-crossing so the dance floor becomes a three-dimensional box. The guests no longer need to look for the definitions on the floor. The easier the dance floor is to define, the less guests hesitate. Eight Elation Professional Power Spot 250s that were already present in the middle create a nice centerpiece. While we shifted the truss to get the lights in line with the room, we kept the Power Spots in the center because the beam effects were in a great location to light the stage as well as the dance floor. For the beam-crossing, four Chauvet Double Derby Xs at the corners of the dance floor provide fill and create a dynamic atmosphere and definition.

The big move was the lighting addition to the bars. Of course, budget was a concern. The final decision was to light the vertical surfaces on all the bars. Taking the attention from the neon scattered around the room and redirecting it to the architecture, we emphasized what was already present. The idea is not to apologize for what you lack but complement what you have. The concept is sometimes overlooked by venue owners. By creating impact features, everything else gets ignored. When looking through the room now, the emphasis goes to the core elements: the stage, the dancers, and the alcohol. Now, no matter how drunk you are, the bars are easy to find. Just follow the light. Hey, that’s what the owners want.

For the savvy lighting reader, yes, Light Jockey can only take 100 fixtures, and we only had two universes (one dongle). Getting around the limitations is simple. Use the “10 LED” fixture profile, which only counts as one fixture, increasing your total number of allowable LED fixtures to 1,000 (while not exceeding 2,024 addresses). Next is dealing with the number of addresses required to put every fixture on a different channel. Our total came to 1,056, just over the ceiling. We compromised on the three small bars, and by putting two fixtures on each address, we got the total addresses within two universes.

The Country Bar of Augusta has stayed true to its roots and gained relevance in modern entertainment. Using styles borrowed from the ultra lounge, a contemporary-traditional compromise has achieved a new life without isolating its older clientele.

Jack Kelly, owner of Eye Dialogue, was personally nominated in 2009 for Best Event Design 25-75K (ISES International, won!), Best Lighting Design (Special Events Gala, lost!), and Rising Star (Spotlight Awards, pending!). The company has just been nominated for Best Technical Production Company (Spotlight Awards).

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