Simply Red: Farewell Tour
January 2011 Issue 137
Mark Cunningham was holding back the years as Simply Red played their final live show at London's O2 Arena...
Emotions ran high at London’s O2 Arena in December as Simply Red played out the final act of a 25-year success story that has seen 55 million albums fly off the shelves.
There was a sense that this was not a half-hearted, Phil Collins-type farewell, but a genuine goodbye that was somehow underpinned by the inclusion of ‘Night Nurse’ and ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ — the Reds’ hit covers of classics by Gregory Isaacs and Teddy Pendergrass, both of whom died during 2010.
“I’d be amazed if I ever play as Simply Red again,” confirmed founder and frontman Mick Hucknall (50) recently. “People might greet that with -cynicism. But, for me, that’s it. It’s over. I won’t be singing those songs live anymore.”
The Farewell Tour was a reminder of the sheer breadth of the Simply Red songbook. Stars, the band’s 1991 release, remains a personal favourite — an album littered with gems including ‘For Your Babies’, ‘Something Got Me Started’, ‘Thrill Me’ and the irresistible title track — and was generously highlighted amongst an expertly executed set list.
TPi arrived backstage at the O2 as production director Nick Levitt and a film crew were finalising plans for a live screening of the very last gig (Sunday 19 December) in cinemas across the UK. Meanwhile, in the production office, I had a five minute catch up with production co-ordinator Debbie Bray before settling down for a chat with PM Kenny Underwood.
“This is a tour that’s been going since 2008 with a few gaps here and there, and it evolved into the Farewell Tour just after the summer,” said Underwood.
“We’ve visited South America and Australasia a couple of times, along with the Middle East, Europe and the UK, with Rock-It Cargo handling our freight throughout, and we’ve done phenomenal business. We [promoter Kilimanjaro] announced the UK dates right off the back of the September TV special [For The Last Time] and the tickets just flew. In fact, 95% of all dates have completely sold out.
“But Mick now wants to put the past to bed and spend time on new projects, and I hope I’ll be a part of his plans just as I have been since 1986 when I joined just after Nick Levitt.”
Underwood’s crew and team of suppliers has grown and developed over many years. He said: “As we’ve identified crew members that fit in well, the entourage has settled and it’s been a pretty stable family unit for a few years now, with Nik Rea maintaining his stage manager role and Alan Morris tour managing.
“It’s been the same with the service companies. Britannia Row, PRG, XL Video, Brilliant Stages, Redburn Transfer, Phoenix Bussing and Eat To The Beat, to name but a few, have been with us a long time, and they’ve always given us great support.”
Other firms involved in the tour included Summit Steel (rigging) and Radio Tek (comms).
A few adventures were shared along the way, including an earthquake in Christchurch and a typhoon near-miss in Djakarta, according to Underwood. “But we’ve come through it all unscathed and in good shape with nothing broken, which is one of the reasons we’ve continued to use Rock-It.”
Rehearsals for the autumn/winter leg ran over the course of a week at the new LH2 Studios in Park Royal, as featured in our last issue. “I instantly loved the place,” said Underwood. “It’s in a good location with excellent load-in space for trucks, and Derek Fudge who runs it couldn’t be more helpful. It set us up very nicely for the final run of shows.”
With PRG supplying all of the lighting kit and crew, as chiefed by Lars Kristiansen, the experienced LD Dave Maxwell (Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Tokio Hotel) designed a new look for the Farewell Tour, covering lighting, video and scenery.
By the time TPi caught up with the Simply Red production, Maxwell was working away in South America with Luis Miguel. So it was left to lighting director Pryderi Baskerville, who joined the Reds crew in 2008, to take me through the design, whose major elements were upper and lower sets of ‘chandeliers’, each acting as lighting pods that incorporated Martin Professional’s MAC 301 LED fixtures.
Along with the supply of a low level curved riser stage set, Brilliant engineered and manufactured these chandeliers, designing them to support MAC 301s at the end of each arm via universal adaptor plates. The wiring for the fixtures was integral to the assembly and the arms were constructed from high grade aluminium tube, which was rolled to create the desired effect.
At the centre of each chandelier the arms noded to a custom profile plate fabrication by the means of double pin clevis connectors. An aesthetic cowling stylised the central connection which also housed the lighting boxes and rigging points.
The lower chandeliers had a ‘lamp post’ style support to the stage deck with additional lamp arms down both sides of its length.
Brilliant pre-fabricated an upper chandelier to satisfy Dave Maxwell and Bill Martin at PRG that the moving heads within them would not cause a pendulum effect when in full motion.
“We were more than satisfied,” said Baskerville. “Brilliant did a fantastic job as always, and their creations are very much the focus of the set. The chandeliers snap together very quickly and easily each morning.
“Sometimes the lower chandeliers, or ‘trees’ as we call them, have the 301s pointing out either wide or down into the base. We do get a lot of use out of those chandelier-based 301s. They are excellent, bright, punchy and quick fixtures, and we’ve been very happy with what they’ve contributed to the show. And the great thing is that they don’t intrude much and weigh less than 9kg. If we had regular moving heads sitting on those chandeliers, it would look totally wrong.”
Featured at the top of the show was a stage-wide red drape from J&C Joel which dropped to expose a white voile on a curved track halfway through. The latter was lit, top and bottom, by a further 30 MAC 301s.
The other main lighting fixtures included MAC 2000 washes, Vari*Lite VL3000 spots and VL5s, PRG Bad Boys, some Moles, four FOH and three rear spotlights, and 19° ETC Source Fours to keylight the band.
“There are three spots on Mick all the time and all the solos are picked up with the others,” said Baskerville, whose crew also included Philip Sharp, Andrew Brown, Matthew Bull, Luke Pritchard and rigger Richard Wythes.
“I’ve been using Hogs for about four years and we changed from a Hog III to the Road Hog Full Boar around June,” the lighting director commented.
“It’s giving us USB storage, which I believe is coming with the next Hog III upgrade, and you get four physical outputs, plus direct outs for the Ethernet DPs and Art-Net which allows me to run the Catalyst locally [see below]. I think PRG have just bought a number of Full Boars, and certainly the one I have is brand new.
“It’s easy to feel your way through the Full Boar. You switch it on and you’re into patching it in no time. I have it set up in very much the same way that I had it on the Hog III and the Hog II before it, and I can get to things very quickly.”
THE BIG SCREENS
Video director Tom Robinson was celebrating his birthday when TPi rolled into the O2. Trained in Dublin, he began his touring life with Simply Red as a camera operator when Phil Woodhead was directing, and assumed his director status behind a Grass Valley Kayak DD switcher after Woodhead became unavailable.
“I’d ‘learned’ enough about the show to be able to step into Phil’s shoes whenever he took a break, and I’d previously directed for Tom Jones and Bryan Adams. So when Phil went off to work on something else, Kenny asked me to come in full-time and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Although Kenny Underwood explained that video had always played second fiddle to the music on Simply Red tours, there was nothing lacking in this department, from the introductory video that covered 25 years of the band’s highlights — interspersed with UK and world events from each period — to the vibrant encore.
For the performance itself, Robinson directed four manned cameras — one at FOH, one in the pit on a tracking dolly, and two on-stage — and achieved a sum that was larger than its parts.
He said: “There were also some little lipstick cameras that we used occasionally for percussion close-ups, that kind of thing, but I don’t think they added much to the overall cut so we got rid of them.”
The side F-LED 11mm portrait-format screens were purely for I-Mag, although as Robinson pointed out: “They don’t ‘feel’ like conventional I-Mag screens, because although they’re doing the job they’re meant to do, they don’t take the audience’s focus away from the on-stage action like the I-Mag you might see on other shows. It’s not a clean I-Mag — it’s a very ‘designed’ image.”
Meanwhile, the central Barco I-12 screen kicked in for the bigger moments, displaying a range of Catalyst-driven graphic ‘splodge’ and TX feeds.
It was Pryderi Baskerville’s responsibility to cue the centre screen content from FOH. He said: “Towards the end of the set with ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’ and ‘Fairground’, those bits of content have a real part to play. I also take a TX feed from video world so that I have control at those times.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was adding greater pressure on the lighting director, but Baskerville insisted: “No, I’m kind of used to it really. I’ve been using Catalyst for a couple of years and I suppose I deal with it like I would another fixture... albeit one with 32 layers!
“We had a wealth of video footage that Kenny Underwood gave to us and Dave was editing that while I was programming the lights. I think that’s why the lighting and video work so well together because it all happened side by side.”
Robinson and Woodhead wrote and directed ‘I’m Mostly Al’, the touring industry’s video hit of 2009-10, which followed LED tech Al Wright as his character gets it all wrong and then seeks revenge on his colleagues.
We won’t give away any more detail if you haven’t seen the video, so check it out online now on our website at http://www.tpimagazine.com/video/274933/im_mostly_al_the_simply_red_crew_video.html.
Robinson did, however, give us some background: “We shot it on the road with the Reds during the spring and early summer of 2009. When you’re out on these jobs, you see the lighting, the stage, and the idea was to use this infrastructure in another capacity.
“Al could really represent any member of the crew; it just happens to be him. In fact, the focus was to have everyone in the entourage featured in some way, including the band and Mick Hucknall.
“Phil and I started by writing a little song that the band played on and that vibe got around. The ‘mostly’ thing came about because we had some German crew working with us at one point and they were quite prolific at using the word ‘mostly’ in conversation!
“Once Mick understood what we wanted to do with this video, management were cool and it started happening. In fact, it ended up being endorsed by Simply Red which was pretty cool. It was just a bit of low-key fun but it kind of grew into something for which we could easily have budgeted £100,000!”
Racks engineer Bjorn Parry and camera ops Oliver Derynck and James Cronley were the additional video crew starring in the ‘Al’ epic.
Strolling back to the mix position, I chanced upon a reflective Chris ‘Privet’ Hedge, FOH sound engineer of distinction and many years standing.
“We’ve reached the end of the line and everyone’s looking forward to going home for Christmas,” he said, “but then you realise it’s unlikely that your next gig will be with such a high quality band in such a happy working environment. So it’s a very mixed feeling for a lot of us.”
Early last year, Privet went on tour with Tokio Hotel and Regina Spektor before returning to the Reds in the spring. “This has been my regular gig for the last two and a half years, and I’ve loved it, but it was also nice to do different stuff in the gaps. Miking up a Bechstein grand piano and cello in the Sydney Opera House for Regina was pretty special.”
Britannia Row Productions had a long-standing relationship with Simply Red and Privet complimented the company and its technicians. “Pawel Zakrzewski [sound crew chief] and Gerry Fradley [system tech] have done an amazing job of putting up the PA together every day,” he said.
“Generally, we have 15 L-Acoustics V-DOSC per side in the main hangs with three dV-DOSC underneath each of those arrays, and outhangs of 12 V-DOSC and three dVs. When we sell right the way around to the back, we add three ARCS in a line array per side. On the floor at the front, there’s a small ground stack of three ARCS, dVs for lipfills and nine SB-218 subs at each side.
“As it’s a seated gig you have to be really fussy about coverage with a band of this musical calibre, because, and as I say, the Brit Row boys have been spot on at each gig.”
Privet distributed his mix to the PA from XTA DP448 processors while the “very reliable” Lake LM 26s controlled the overall system. “They do the job very well,” said Privet. “Lake equipment has been increasingly used with L-Acoustics systems over recent years, to the point where the pairing has become standard. But this is all Pawel’s territory. He’s a natural with anything electronic. In fact, he makes it hard for me to follow, because he’s so fast!”
The survivor of a beheading in the ‘I’m Mostly Al’ video, Privet was mixing on his ever-present DiGiCo D5 Live console, and harnessing the might of its onboard dynamics.
“It’s been a faithful old thing that’s clocked up an incredible amount of Air Miles over the last two years,” he said, patting the chassis. “But I think it’s been thrown down one too many aeroplane chutes and, as a result, one of the screens went down, so we’re doing swapping it for another D5 for the last few dates.
“The D5 fits me like a glove and I’ve really enjoyed mixing on it. It set benchmarks for so many levels of operation and in the digital realm, I’ve not wanted to use anything else. But the market’s changed an awful lot since the D5 was launched so with Simply Red coming to an end, I will be looking to see what else is out there.”
When it comes to the choice of vocal microphone, the singer always has his way. “It’s always a Shure Beta 58 for Mick,” said Privet. “He’s used a 58 since the start of Simply Red and I can’t ever see him changing. There are very few singers who have such a defined style of delivery and the way he handles a mic is amazing. One minute he’ll be singing into the 58 quite closely, the next he’ll have the mic down by his waist and giving it full vocal throttle.
“Of course, in arenas that can create a problem for me with spillage, so I use notch filters on the XTA to get rid of all the frequency areas that might cause feedback. For the rest of the time, I’m just riding it on the faders and watching Mick like a monitor engineer. He is probably the greatest singer I’ve ever seen.”
I’ll add my own thoughts here. In October 2009, I was at the PRS benefit gig, Helping The Heart Of Music, at the Royal Albert Hall and saw the brief reunion set by the Faces, with Hucknall taking Rod Stewart’s frontman role. As much as I’d considered this very idea a crime against nature, as soon as Hucknall opened his mouth on ‘Stay With Me’, there were smiles of sweet relief all around. He nailed that sucker to the wall.
I might not go as far as Privet with my appreciation (no one will ever eclipse Steve Marriott in my book) but Hucknall is certainly one of Britain’s greatest-ever vocal talents.
The remainder of Privet’s mic choices included AKG C 414s on drum overheads, Shure SM98s (toms), 52 and 91 (kick drum), Beta 57s (snare, top & bottom, and guitar amps), 525 (hi-hat) and Royer R-121s (trumpets). There were also two Shure radio mics on the saxophones and Sennheiser hand-helds for the female BVs.
“The package was designed to be robust because you don’t want anything to go wrong if you’re in the arse-end of Chile!” said Privet. “So it’s reasonably basic but the fidelity we get every night is wonderful.”
MIXING STAGE LEFT
Simply Red’s monitor engineer for this and countless other tours of the past was Graham Blake, whom we last interviewed during rehearsals for Yusuf’s (Cat Stevens) tour in 2009.
Until the Farewell Tour, Blake had been using a Yamaha PM1D console on Simply Red, as he did with Yusuf... but then came a suggestion from Britannia Row’s Bryan Grant.
“Bryan asked me if I fancied taking out the Midas XL8 [digital live performance system] for a spin, which was an interesting prospect as I’d always been a Midas fan especially since the Heritage 3000,” said Blake.
“It was Kenny who didn’t see any need for change though. He knew the PM1D had done a good job on five tours for us and basically told me that as the XL8 was a new board, it was my decision and he’d come down on me like a ton of bricks if anything went wrong! But it hasn’t.
“It’s been to some weird and wonderful places, and survived a lot of humidity, but it hasn’t given us any trouble. If anything, it’s not too keen on cold weather, and it’s the same with Privet’s D5. If you leave it on a truck for a few days in a cold temperature, you notice that the screens take longer to wake up but it’s not really an issue.
“If ever we do need some manufacturer assistance, it’s good to know that we can call on Midas 24/7 wherever we are in the world.”
Blake had already completed some training on the board with Midas’ brand development manager Richard Ferriday during 2009, and when it came to real world use, it wasn’t only the engineer who was pleasantly surprised by its performance. “The band all commented on the warmth and richness of the sound, which is very ‘analogue’ despite it being a digital board. They really noticed the difference.
“As soon as we tried the XL8 in rehearsals, Pete Lewinson [drummer] noticed how much warmer it sounded. That followed on with the other band members and even Mick who commented on the clarity. It was just really nice to get that kind of response from a band because it’s so rare. I’ve never had a band respond to new equipment like that before, and it’s actually made soundchecks more pleasureable.”
The XL8’s POP(ulation) groups turned out to be the most impressive practical feature for Blake. “They make it so quick and easy to access a group of inputs for mixes,” he said, while also enthusing about the onboard FX and dynamics.
“The onboard graphics are great and the onboard compression is really handy. There’s so much choice of compression, each has its own applications and it’s all right in front of you. I’m also using all the onboard gates and comps, which are good enough for me not to need any outboard, and the reverbs perform really well for the in-ears.”
Simply Red played on a wedge-free stage with every member using the Sennheiser ew300 G2 in-ear systems purchased by the band around six years ago. Hucknall is a long-time user of Future Sonics ear moulds while the band were on a mixture of Ultimate Ears UE-10s and UE-11s.
Sharing space in the wings with backline techs Vince Barker, Howard Barrett and Morton Thobro, ‘Blakey’ gave the band nine stereo in-ear mixes plus one mix for Pete Lewinson’s Turbosound TFM-425 powered sub bass cabinet, the only concession to traditional monitoring.
And so it was, on the night of Sunday 19 December, that the 25-year career of the band Mick Hucknall founded and named after his hair colour came to an end. According to several crew members, the singer is not known for changing his mind, so we can be confident that there will be no 30th anniversary comeback in 2015.
It was fitting that the final number was an acoustic ‘Holding Back The Years’, the 1985 hit that Hucknall wrote at age 17. Twenty-five years later, was still able to deliver the tortured angst of the original.
“Adiós, Simply Red are no more,” he declared, before walking off-stage with daughter Romy in his arms. Time to move on.
Mark Cunningham, Dave Maxwell,
Brilliant Stages & Simply Red Ltd