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Jeff Ravitz On “Riding the Springsteen Roller Coaster”

Posted on March 24, 2014
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Bruce Springsteen And Jeff Ravitz… it’s one of the longest and most successful artist-lighting designer relationships of all time. In this exclusive Lighting Insights interview, the legendary LD discusses his early career, how he hooked up with the Boss, some things he learned along the way and the vision that’s guided his sometimes dramatic and sometimes aesthetic — but always exciting — lighting designs.

You’re relationship with Bruce Springsteen goes back so far, it can be easy to forget you were LD for some other heavyweights like Styx, Steely Dan and Yes earlier. So tell us a little about life before the Boss?

“I had a degree in theater from Northwestern University, but when I saw what was emerging in design for live concerts, I become obsessed with finding opportunities to break into that side of the business.  I toured with club bands as an LD and crewed on large tours to learn the unique aspects of rock and roll technology. I eventually landed the LD job with Styx, a national headliner just on the verge of hitting big.  They loved my theatrical style, and we spent the next eight years touring the world, creating one rock production after another.

“Styx was a huge boost for me because they were so encouraging about me creating highly theatrical elements with moving scenery, elaborate multiple backdrops, film projection, and cuing that interwove with rehearsed choreography.  This was relatively unusual for a live rock show in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and combined with Styx’s flair for theatrical performance, we scored big – and suddenly I was forging a reputation!”

So where did that reputation take you next?

“After Styx, I picked up a job as LD for Yes on their 90125 tour.  Yes was a triumph of mastering some of the most complex and layered music the concert world had experienced.  It was shortly into that situation that the Springsteen break presented itself.  I had been friendly with a few of the people on his touring staff.  When the LD position opened up, I was already a known entity.  They offered the job, and I signed on to design Born In The USA.”

After the structure of a Styx performance, was it challenging to adjust as an LD to the freewheeling style of Springsteen?

“Of course, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took my career to new heights. But I had to get used to his disregard for sticking to his set list because I was accustomed to quite regimented shows.  On the opening night of the (Born In The USA) tour, after two weeks of rehearsing what I thought was ‘The Show,’ Bruce called me into his dressing room to say, in that gravelly voice, ‘Jeff, there are gonna be some songs tonight that you won’t recognize.’

“Great, I thought …how do I deal with that? After the first song, already not the one on the printed set list, the FOH audio engineer wadded up his set list and tossed it at me with a ‘don’t need this thing anymore’ expression.  But I managed to hold on and have a good time with Bruce’s having a good time.  My approach worked well for him, and once I loosened up to the realities of the Springsteen roller coaster, it was a total blast.  He became a mega superstar on that tour, and we were there to see it happen.”

Looking back what are the big changes you’ve seen in concert/touring lighting?

“When it was introduced, I thought the color scroller was taking tour technology through the roof.  But that couldn’t compare to the advent of true automated fixtures.  I was invited to a ZZ Top show to see what the buzz was all about and, needless to say, I was blown away by the look, the surprise, the effects, and the limitless possibilities.

“The timing was perfect, because I was in the process of designing Styx’s Kilroy Was Here tour in 1983, based on an original story line by keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Dennis DeYoung, which took place in the future. There were lots of opportunities to utilize moving lights for special effects, but also for the unique arc-source cutting through the tungsten PAR and leko rig, with moving gobos, color changes, and best of all, being able to refocus to suddenly have a light where we didn’t have one earlier.

“This technology was the gateway to an entirely new way of approaching stage lighting and changed the artform as well as the industry. LEDs, as the next huge advance, have given us a new level of flexibility and creative potential.  All in all, we’ve added texture, brilliant color, versatility and efficiency to our toolbag.”

When designing for an icon like Springsteen, is there a balance you have to strike between adding “eye candy,” yet remaining true to his classic rock roots?

“Bruce and the E Street Band are extremely wary of anything that will distract from the message of Bruce’s lyrics and the musical performance that delivers that message to the audience.  Therefore, I’ve developed a sense of how to utilize the most modern technology in a way that is compatible with their show. When we first used an entirely automated lighting system, I never visibly moved the lights.  They reset in the dark and suddenly there was a new rig, tailored specifically to the next song.  That appealed to Bruce a lot.

“Bruce was reluctant to use IMAG video because he thought the audience would watch the screens instead of the stage.  But when he began playing stadiums, it was an inevitable solution to help people hundreds of feet away to see his expressions close up.  But he has never been simpatico with the idea of using video as a lighting or scenic effect.  He does not want to spoon-feed the audience with literal images that depict his stories.

“As for eye candy, it’s been a slow, gradual process.  Bruce and the E Street Band put on a very long show and I have had to work hard to keep things fresh and exciting to a modern (and younger) audience somewhere into the third or fourth hour of the show.  As Bruce’s music ventures into some contemporary vibes, I’m given more of a green light to experiment. The clear understanding that it must be done within certain constraints keeps me from indulging in the easy way, and I’m always searching for an approach to using effects in a style that advances the show rather than being whipped cream on top.”

Is there an overriding visual theme or look that you try to attain for a Springsteen show?

I’m always trying to match the power, as well as the deep subtleties of his music, with ‘pictorial’ lighting, and never get in Bruce’s way visually.  It’s important to me that I channel some kind of emotion from the words and music, in an effort to subliminally advance his performance, accent the big moments, and in a simple respect, to help the audience know where to look.  We create the wide shot as well as the close-up with our lighting to help tell Bruce’s story.”

What about those “Springsteen bibles” we’ve heard about?  Is it true that you have two huge binders filled with his songs, all cued to lighting?

“Yes, we’re very heavy on notes, music breakdowns and cue sheets. Since the beginning, I’ve used a bit of a personal shorthand style to notate and break down each song that the band plays.  With well over two hundred songs in the repertoire, it’s hard to keep it all straight.  When Bruce pulls out a song that hasn’t been played in a few years, Todd Ricci, our excellent tour LD, rifles through the massive notebooks (all arranged alphabetically) to find the song.  I’m really wanting to computerize it, but we have yet to find the perfect program to make this happen.”

How do you develop lighting for new songs — does Springsteen himself get involved?

“Sometimes, Bruce will give us suggestions or concepts about specific songs, but mostly the process begins with me creating the written breakdown. Then with many repeated listens, I start to see fuzzy graphics in my mind that will eventually evolve to a color palette and an overall focus.  Then each moment of the song is considered for who is playing, who is interacting with whom, anything in the lyrics that implies a certain look, etc.  The dynamics of the song get plugged in to create the rises and dips, and suddenly we have something that can be refined in rehearsal with the band.”

More than ever today, lighting has to serve the dual function of illuminating both a live show and the TV broadcast of that show. What are the differences between lighting for the eye and the camera, and how do you bridge this divide?

“I think a lighting design can be planned and programmed to work as a great live show that also works for the camera.  Balance of intensities is probably the biggest element for success or failure.  The camera can’t balance equally at the same time between something that’s extremely bright and extremely dim in the frame. The video engineer will either adjust the bright object to be exposed properly, resulting in the dim object disappearing – or the opposite.  If overall intensities can be created with balance and control, you’re halfway home.

“After that, it’s much more a matter of taste.  Color on faces might not be a standard, traditional broadcast look, but for a concert, it might be acceptable for certain moments or certain artists. To make things, people, scenery look best on-camera, and for the live show as well, good angles make things look more dimensional, and if used properly, can be dramatic when drama is appropriate, and more neutral when that is what’s called for.  Finally, it’s important to look at the entire frame of reference to create a composition, just like a painting or a photograph.”

You’ve had a great career – what would you most like to be known for as a lighting designer?

“Well, as a lighting designer, I have always strived to be a visual counterpart to the script, the song, and the performance.  I endeavor to extend the emotion, accent it, make it bigger or more poignant by touching different nerves than the music or words can on their own, so it’s more of a complete experience for the viewer.  I’d be happy to be associated with that idea.  But, also, I love to make things look really good, onstage or on camera — dramatic when appropriate, beautiful when that suits the moment; but always pleasing and exciting to look at.”

Jeff Ravitz can be reached at jeff@intensityadvisors.com  or visit www.intensityadvisors.com.