High-end rock tours reach into bag of tricks

Shows must compete with vidgames, amusement parks

When it comes to spectacle, recent rock tours have had to turn the dial up to 11.

Audiences crave more immersive and intense experiences because they’ve been inundated with other forms of entertainment, believes Willie Williams, designer of the U2 360° Tour.

“People who go to concerts now play videogames, and they’ve seen all sorts of other things, so we have to do something that competes with that,” Williams says.

So Lady Gaga’s Monster’s Ball tour and the U2 360° Tour featured devices ranging from expanding videoscreens to a giant animatronic Fame Monster to a mechanical dress that moves separately from its wearer.

For the dress, used during the song “So Happy I Could Die,” as well as for the Fame Monster, Lady Gaga’s tour designer Matt Williams turned to the Jim Henson Co.

“(Lady Gaga) is always interested in the work of other artists, so when we started putting together this tour, it just made sense for us to get together with the people at Henson, because we grew up loving their work,” Williams says.

Peter Brooke, creative supervisor for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, conquered the task of making the wearable mechanical dress by turning to a particular kind of plastic.

“It had to be something that would stand up and move, but was also light enough for (Lady Gaga) to wear onstage, so we used a plastic that’s about the texture and thickness of a shower curtain,” Brooke says.

The material, which came from a London supplier, was pleated and sewn by hand.

The Fame Monster, meanwhile, is operated like a distant cousin of the large dragons used in traditional Chinese New Year parades.

“You have several lights or bulbs inside the head of the monster, and dancers dressed in black leotards operate him,” Brooke says. “It’s a very old theatrical technique, but the audience’s sense of disbelief is suspended if it’s done right.”

For the U2 360° Tour, according to tour architect Mark Fisher, the look of the large setpiece was inspired by the iconic space-age Theme Building at the center of Los Angeles Intl. Airport.

Fisher and his crew spent a year making three of the steel structures — each affectionately nicknamed the Claw — so while one is in use, the others are on their way to future tour stops.

For every show, speakers, videoscreens and other materials are shipped from place to place and loaded into the structure.

Says Williams, “We were after a sort of intimate experience that could be shared by 50,000 people at once, which was why we did this show in the round.”

Williams thinks this kind of live spectacle is reaching its limits, though, and changes in the live-act landscape seem to support him. Construction costs, touring expenses and the weakend state of the music industry mean very few acts can afford to build such setpieces and ship them around the world.

Says Fisher, “Your band has to have the kind of brand penetration that makes it possible to (have) a 150-city stadium tour and sell 8 million to 10 million tickets.”

That kind of popularity can take decades to nurture and build. At this point, only acts like the Rolling Stones, U2 and Madonna have the sort of appeal to many generations of fans that makes it possible to draw enough people with the money to buy expensive tickets to this kind of stadium event.

For most acts, the proliferation of immersive, effects-laden theme parks, videogames and 3D movies has simply raised the technology bar too high.

“Younger bands probably won’t ever get to this point,” Fisher says. “(A big stadium tour) used to be the only game in town for people who wanted to see these kinds of things. But now there’s no way for bands to build a huge audience because there’s too much cheaper competition.”

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