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The Process of Illumination

by Jefferson Waful on April 02, 2014

Joshua Light show enhances Frank Zappa

It's midway through the second set at New York’s Beacon Theatre and a complete technical disaster seems imminent. While Umphrey’s McGee plays to a sold- out crowd, the lighting console is on the verge of crashing. Its screens flicker ominously, a tell- tale sign that the board is about to freeze, leaving the lighting designer helpless and literally powerless during one of the year’s most high profile gigs. The timing is a bit unfortunate as all week the Umphrey’s lighting team has been converting the show file to a new, state-of- the-art console, but that is a complex process of ones and zeros and it wasn’t completed in time. So here I am, holding my breath, preparing for the worst as the concert continues with the illusion that the massive light show is running smoothly. But it all hinges on an aging hard drive that continues to glitch and is getting progressively worse as the show surges to its grand finale.

The fact that computers control automated moving lights is a feat itself considering how far lighting design has come in a relatively short amount of time. In the mid-‘60s, promoter Bill Graham started booking Bay Area bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East in New York City, and a team of lighting designers (LDs) began experimenting with the idea that color, movement and texture could complement improvisational music. “Prior to that there was nothing,” says Joshua White, who founded the Joshua Light Show, a team of lighting designers who created “liquid” light shows at the Fillmore. “Anything involving performance or bands—especially for pop culture—before that was filtered by the Ed Sullivans and the Dick Clarks, who really had no imagination.”

Due, in part, to the low balcony at the Fillmore, White’s team used a rear-projection screen and “painted” it with an array of mixed media, which included watercolors, dyes, broken mirrors and slide machines. These primitive, yet extremely psychedelic light shows became an integral part of the concerts and the musicians embraced it. “People were experiencing wonderful things with the sound and now there was something to look it, which was only 50 percent of the experience, but nobody considered that prior,” says White. “The Grateful Dead loved the light show as did other bands from that tradition like The Allman Brothers, and some bands like Pink Floyd recognized on their own that light shows were critical.”

Candace Brightman, who served as the Grateful Dead’s lighting designer, says that one of the most significant developments in concert lighting, for her, came when she changed the vantage point of the light board while working with Traffic. At the time, lighting systems were designed for theater and were controlled from behind the stage. “I brought those dimmers and the controller and moved from backstage into the orchestra pit one day,” she says. “Traffic started throwing chicken bones from the stage and I threw them back. This went on even while they were playing. That band had a great sense of humor.” This is an apt metaphor for the interactive style of lighting that Candace would go on to hone with the Grateful Dead. There was a symbiotic relationship between the musicians and the light show, especially once the technology evolved and the lights began to move.

“By the time the ‘80s arrived, I was really sick of fixed lights,” says Brightman. “Moving lights were great for lighting the audience and band as one, which I had always wanted to do. Such a relief—the endless variety of looks that became available.”

The original concept for the moving light was that it could illuminate multiple positions so if the subject moved, you wouldn’t need as many light sources for even coverage. Most designers, particularly in the theater world, would turn the light off as it was moved from one pre-programmed position to the next. It wasn’t long though before designers such as Brightman started to experiment with leaving the light on while it moved, which was originally discovered by accident.

“At first I thought the Grateful Dead audience would be offended by distracting lighting effects, so I sort of eased into it,” recalls Brightman. “Then, there was an ‘aha’ moment. [Crew chief ] Dan English, who ran the audience lighting, went to move the lights from the stage to another position and accidently opened their shutters as they were headed to a full ceiling [position] during ‘Terrapin Station.’ It happened at a perfect moment: the top of the instrumental after the ‘Terrapin’ refrain. The audience seemed to love it. This was a huge eye-opener for us.”

Indeed, this was a pivotal moment that changed improvisational lighting as we know it today. Over time, Candace continued to develop an emotive style through the use of graceful, deliberate movement and vivid color combinations that would become synonymous with the Dead’s live performances. Many contemporary LDs credit Candace as an influence.

“You didn’t see too many sweeping movements back in the early ‘90s when we started using moving lights,” says Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda. “But I had seen a lot of Grateful Dead concerts and Candace had done a lot of big, huge audience sweeps so for me it sort of began there.”

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