The Road To Drive-Ins

Posted on July 6, 2020

With indoor concerts prohibited or restricted, drive-in concerts are becoming a more familiar part of the live entertainment landscape. How do lighting designers create engaging looks in this retro setting? Simplifying rigs and blending lights with the surrounding environment are two ways as these two examples show.

Brent Maxon Lighting Keith Urban
Social Distancing… the concept was key to everyone behind Keith Urban’s historic drive-in concert on May 14, not just for the Vanderbilt University Hospital medical heroes, in whose honor the event was held, but also for the team that managed to create an immersive stage setting for the one-hour show on short notice.

“The paramount thing about this gig for Keith and everyone else was being socially distant and as safe as possible,” said Brent Maxon, Urban’s Lighting Director. “Our goal was to involve the fewest people possible in setup, while still putting together a quality show for this very important audience of special guests.”

Maxon and the rest of the team began working on a plan to achieve this goal only five days before the surprise show was scheduled to begin. They had no precedent to draw ideas from, since this was the first drive-in theatre concert by a major artist in the USA.

“I was contacted by Chuck Hull, our tour manager, telling me that Keith wanted to get a ‘guerilla style’ show together to honor the hospital workers,” said Maxon. “We didn’t have much time, so Randy Gardner, our stage manager, and I headed over to Premier Global Productions and talked to Geddy (Anthony Kordyjaka) about securing a flatbed trailer for our stage, a generator, and a few lights to get things going. It was a one stop shop for us, which was super helpful, given that we had so little time.”

With time short, space on the flatbed trailer/stage limited, and crew-size restricted by social distancing, the team needed lighting fixtures that were compact and easy to work with, yet still had the output and color rendering capabilities required to create the kind of engaging atmosphere that Urban’s fans have come to expect from his shows.

“Keith loves the lighting to set a mood for a song, so having downstage color is super important,” explained Maxon. “I’ve been using a temp fader for him to creep in some white just to make him pop a bit more for video purposes, or when he is soloing. Other than that, I just tried to vary the color schemes for the drive-in show. I had some color wipes, plus a few different dimmer effects up my sleeve.”

Matt Collier and Spafford
Just as it does at outdoor festivals, nature can work with or against the LD who lights a drive-in concert. Matt Collier got a little taste of both on Saturday, May 23 when he lit a two-hour-and-ten-minute show by jam band monsters Spafford at the Digital Drive-In outside Phoenix.

The brilliant orange sunset that filtered through the feathered clouds at the start of the show served up one of those breathtaking spectacles that happen on special evenings this time of year in the desert. Along with this gentle touch, however, nature also showed its harsher side with some strong southwest winds.

Drawing on his extensive experience touring the festival circuit with Spafford and other bands, Collier adroitly handled whatever Mother Nature dished out, incorporating the colorful sky into his design for the drive-in show, while also coming up with a substitute for the fog he planned to use before the wind rendered that impossible.

Helping him accomplish this feat was a collection of CHAUVET Professional Maverick MK2 Spot and Rogue R2 Wash fixtures supplied by Hardwired Productions. “Just doing a show outside in Arizona in the early summer is a beautiful experience,” said Collier. “The sunset was stunning that night, so I tried to integrate some more unique colors to match the vibe of the natural setting with some cool tones from the MK2s and R2 Washes.”

Collier flew eight Maverick MK2 Spot and eight Rogue R2 Wash fixtures on the drive-in’s roof truss, while arranging eight additional units of the spots and eight more of the washes on the deck. This configuration allowed him to create a sense of depth on the stage, regardless of which angle it was viewed from.

For Spafford, the drive-in show represented a very welcomed opportunity to perform before a live audience again. Collier describes the show as being “as close as possible to a festival experience,” even down to the unpredictability of nature’s elements.