Monday, February 2, 2009

Behind the scenes with the road crew

Here is an article and video about the road crew. (Click on link to watch the video).

Alexis Petridis sets out to meet the roadies, managers, stylists and technicians who really make gigs happen.

As a teenager, Joe "Kentucky" Zaccone used to enjoy videos of Texas heavy-metal band Pantera. What struck him, however, wasn't really the band but the roadies he saw backstage: "I just saw the way the crew interacted with the band and got interested." He had inadvertently alighted on what he has come to regard as "the greatest job in the world". He went on to spend 10 years learning his craft in the world of metal, with Slipknot, Danzig, Hatebreed, Type-O-Negative and Fear Factory. "Travelling technician, roadie, whatever you wanna call it," he says. "It's my life."

As he stands in a corridor at the Manchester Evening News Arena, now a stage manager and a "backline crew chief" responsible for maintaining the instruments on a world tour, you might say that Kentucky is a man living his dream - were it not for the fact that it's hard to believe that any of his teenage dreams involved working with New Kids On the Block. And yet that definitely is New Kids over there in the background, going through a soundcheck in the main hall. The original 1980s boyband, recently reformed to the delight of thirtysomething women around the globe, New Kids frequently interrupt our conversion with the deafening strains of Tonight, the jaunty single that gave them their ninth consecutive US top 10 hit back in 1990.

Journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie once said that one of the defining characteristics of the roadie is his refusal to pass judgment on the musical worth of the bands he works for: "Ask about any of his previous employers and his answer will be the same, 'He's a really nice bloke, actually.' He could have worked Hitler's Sudetenland tour, and his verdict would have been, 'Hard-line politics, yes. But he's a really nice bloke, actually.'"

That certainly seems to be the case with Kentucky, who has been with New Kids since rehearsals for their comeback tour began last summer. "Since June," he says, "it's been New Kids all the way, straight and strong." With his arms and legs covered in tattoos, his hair dreadlocked, and his beard arranged in a plait, Kentucky doesn't look like the sort of man who would ordinarily have much time for I'll Be Loving You (Forever), but he seems confused by the suggestion that he might be happier working for a metal band.

"No," he frowns. "It doesn't matter what music is playing. Actually, working with bands you wouldn't usually be listening to - it kind of broadens your mind." Certainly, his duties on the New Kids tour are slightly different from those he would have had working with Hatebreed. As well as setting up, dismantling and checking the sound of the drumkit, he's responsible for handing out mics, towels, water and hats to "the guys" during the show, every item colour-coded to match each of New Kids' five members. Woe betide the roadie who inadvertently hands Donnie's hat to Jordan.

The one concession Kentucky has made to his own musical leanings involves the drumkit he designed for this New Kids reunion tour. "I'm like, OK, I'm a metal guy, so I'm going to make this huge, overly dramatic drumkit - like something Lars Ulrich from Metallica would play - for this pop tour. Everyone's like, why would you do that? You're just adding to your work, making it three hours [to set up] instead of one. You know what? I love it."

The British leg of the tour has a crew of 35, overseen by production manager Bobby Schneider, a 49-year-old who looks a little like Phil Silvers of Sergeant Bilko fame, had Silvers spent his formative years on the road tending to the needs of Metallica. Like Kentucky, Schneider began working on the New Kids tour in June, choosing the crew and checking seating plans against stage layouts. Schneider arrives at the arenas first thing in the morning, as the carpenters start building the stage and the equipment is unloaded, to put up signs guiding artists and crew around the often labyrinthine backstage areas, and to issue schedules detailing what time New Kids go on, when they come off and what time everyone has to get out of there by. The schedules carry a line from Cicero: "The shifts of fortune test the reliability of friends."

Despite having more than 50 dates under his belt, Schneider has yet to see a New Kids show all the way through: "That's my downtime, when I can catch up on emails. I'm already working on the March dates of the US leg. It's not like I'm sitting there reading the paper." I tell him that his job doesn't sound like much fun and he looks genuinely shocked: "I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Schneider says the crew is less than half what a star of Madonna's stature would have, which seems in keeping with the relatively stripped-down nature of the show: there's no big theme and not much in the way of special effects, beyond an interlude when New Kids gather around a grand piano on a rather precarious-looking secondary stage in the middle of the crowd. "So many pop shows right now have huge concepts," says artistic director and choreographer Kevin Maher, "but I think the idea behind this one is just to see them. It's about the fans enjoying that they're back." You also get the feeling that the lack of concept may have something to do with the kind of concepts New Kids tours used in the past. "We had one called Magic Summer," Joey McIntyre says with a shudder. "We had to do, like, magic tricks on stage. It was kind of embarrassing."

You certainly can't fault them for the diversity of the staff. At one extreme, there is Vincent Boucher, the urbane former fashion director of US Esquire magazine, brought in to style the group. He talks of presenting "mood boards" to the band, of the necessity to mix "high and low fashion" and uses the phrase "he understands a Raf Simons shirt with an attached scarf". At the other, there is Kentucky, who is erudite, funny and far removed from the troglodytic gear-humper of popular myth - though you suspect he would no more understand a Raf Simons shirt with an attached scarf than he would Old Norse.

Two things unite them all. The first is a certain reticence. You might think that living a life just out of the spotlight would leave you with a burning desire for recognition, but apparently not. Many people working behind the scenes on the tour decline to be interviewed, or will be interviewed but not photographed, or will only supply responses by email. And, despite repeated entreaties, concert promoters SJM refuse to answer any questions about the processes by which a major tour for a reformed boyband is booked in Britain.

It's hard to see why, unless they pick the venues using sacrifice-based necromancy: "Oh mighty Satan, will New Kids On the Block sell out Wembley?" But then again, those who work behind the scenes on a rock tour are conditioned to be imperceptible. If they come to the public's notice at all, something has gone wrong. And a pop show, after all, is about the suspension of disbelief. "I've come to Manchester lookin' for a girl," yells Donnie Wahlberg midway through the show; yet he's no more here lookin' for a girl than he is lookin' for an elephant, but the audience scream as if he means it. It's as if the people behind the show think that if they reveal too much, the pact between artist and audience will be broken. If people know how the tricks are done, no one will believe in the magic any more - and the screaming will stop.

"It would be gratifying if the audience understood the amount of effort that went into putting on the show," says Dave Pinksy, the front-of-house sound engineer, a man not only charged with tuning the PA, overseeing the soundcheck and "standing in the midst of the crowd, wrangling 100 different audio inputs into what you hear", but with providing the pre- and post-show auditorium soundtrack. This he does using tracks from his own iPod, his brief chance to put his personal stamp on proceedings. He knows, however, that all this effort "has to remain as invisible to the fans as possible. That mystique is part of the illusion that we're here to provide."

Pinksy has mixed the sound for everyone from metal bands to Nick Lachey, the boyband star and former husband of Jessica Simpson. He says every genre has a different "fingerprint" that requires a different skill: in metal, it's all about the guitars; in hip-hop, the drums and bass. And with pop, he says, you need to keep the sound light and airy. This sets him apart from everyone else I speak to - since the other thing that seems to unite New Kids' workforce is the belief that working on their live show is no different from working on any other band's, up to and including Aerosmith, the previous employers of wardrobe mistress Johanna Pepitone.

Actually, Pepitone doesn't just look after the clothes; she looks after everything from buttons and zips to Odour-Eaters and tampons. She also sends unwanted gifts from fans to charity: "Whaddaya gonna do with a soft toy when you're a 30-year-old man?" She has a Brooklyn accent and a demeanour that hovers between no-nonsense and terrifying. "These artists," she sighs, "they like to think they're different, but they're all the same. New Kids different from Aerosmith? You kidding me? Five boys, that's all it is."

Nevertheless, there are certain special considerations that come with a reformed 1980s boyband. "It's a weird thing," says choreographer Kevin Maher of New Kids who, being in their 30s, are now neither new nor kids. "You still want them to dance, because that's what they were known for back in the day, but they're grown men now - so you want it to be age-appropriate. You don't want it to look like they're trying too hard. I didn't want them to feel, you know, ridiculous. You have to give certain moves a different feeling."

It seems to work, at least as far as the women of Manchester are concerned. As New Kids On the Block perform, they go crazy in time-honoured shrill style. The show looks effortlessly slick, a blur of costume changes, confetti canons and featherweight pop hits. Watching them, it's somehow hard to imagine that, somewhere to the side of the stage, there is a man with dreadlocks, tattoos and a liking for Pantera, ensuring that the hats and mics are being handed out according to their correct colour-coding. But there is. As the house lights go up, Kentucky appears on stage and begins dismantling that overly dramatic drumkit. Filing out, none of the audience seem to notice him - which is, of course, the point.

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