When all touring plans came to an abrupt halt in 2020, most productions took one of two decisions: either carry on working, going into rehearsal spaces before inevitably mothballing productions until live events were permitted, or hold off until there was no shadow of a doubt that these shows would happen. The latter option meant a tight turnaround, but if there is any touring family that is up to the challenge, it’s the dedicated Stormzy Crew.
As TPi sat in the office of Tour Manager and Tour Music Live Founder, Trevor Williams, he recalled how he and the core team pulled together a full arena show in just a couple of months, before moving into Production Park for rehearsals. With the initial show concept being agreed in late January and opening night on 13 March, this would have been a daunting timeline even with the touring community at full strength, but factor in supply issues and the risk of COVID-19, and the achievement of the #Merky team becomes even more impressive.
“The simple fact is that if we had put this show together in lockdown, I would have risked wasting a lot of money,” stated Williams plainly. “My core responsibility is the budget, so we made the decision to hold off making any serious plans.”
Williams was keen to emphasise the strong relationship the team had built up over the years with suppliers, who were all in a holding pattern until the designs came through in early 2022. For this run, the team called upon several long-time collaborators including Neg Earth, SSE Audio, Video Design, Eat Your Heart Out, Mission Control, Pyrojunkies (now part of ER Productions), Phoenix Bussing, and Stagetruck. Also on board this time round was TAIT, which supplied staging and automation.
This was the second consecutive arena show that Williams and the wider Tour Music Live family oversaw after Dave’s headline arena tour. The likes of designers, Amber Rimell and Bronski of TAWBOX, along with Production Office staff such as Production Coordinator, Izzy Lo Iacono had jumped straight from that headline tour to rehearsals for Stormzy – no mean feat, especially after such a long time away due to the pandemic.
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In the formative stages of this production, Williams brought together TAWBOX’s Rimell and Bronski, Lighting Designer, Tim Routledge as well as newcomer, Ric Lipson from STUFISH Entertainment Architects. “We hit up Ric directly and straight away he was on board,” outlined Williams. What followed was a flurry of activity as the new creative team began to mock up the initial ideas that would eventually become the reinvention of the Heavy Is the Head tour.
Speaking backstage at the O2, Rimell and Bronski outlined those initial conversations. “Stormzy explained to us that he wanted to be an artist that could still be touring in 20 years and that he wanted a show that would start him on this path,” stated Rimell.
The creative duo explained that within the stage design, they wanted to make it clear that despite Stormzy’s success over the past few years, he was very much still a man of the people. “It’s why at the top of the show we have Stormzy on this elevated lift, which then descends to the audience and he can then perform on the thrust that goes right into the crowd,” explained Rimell.
“There was also a theme of balance that we explored throughout the show,” added Bronksi. “It’s something that we discussed with Ric in our early conversations, and you see hints of it throughout the show from the symmetry of the thrust to the automated scales Stormzy performs on.”
Lipson explained how he approached this broad theme of balance on the set design. “The theme was echoed into the show in a few ways with the idea that all parts of the design would somehow be in two parts to balance each other – either physically or conceptually,” he stated. “From the main LED screen that splits in two at the top of the show to the automated crown set piece that was in two parts then during the show splits apart to form an ‘S’.”
Everyone in the design conversation concurred that due to Stormzy’s energy on stage, it was important to give him room to move around, creating what Bronski referred to as a “playground”. Lipson added: “We also wanted to make sure we could establish Stormzy in different proximities to the audience to play with moments where he was more regal balanced against times when he was close to the audience at the end of the long thrust stage as a man of the people.”
Lipson highlighted another of his goals with the design: “It was important to use light, smoke, and pyrotechnics in a way that blurred the boundary between the audience and the stage.” The stage was deliberately created as three islands – with the band on the upstage island, a main stage, and finally the thrust. “They are linked only by thin bridges,” stated Lipson. “The gaps around the stages are filled like moats with lighting and smoke. This makes the balance of the performance shift between the high-level staging and the more intimate thrust stage immersed in the audience.”
Lipson gave his thoughts on his first time collaborating with the Stormzy creative team. “We at STUFISH had wanted to collaborate with TAWBOX for a while and we’re big fans of Stormzy. The fact that we managed to pull off such an amazing spectacle in such a short timeline was a real highlight. After the pandemic, it was great to come together to make a show again and it be such a special one to all involved.”
With design concepts signed off, then came the challenge of both fabricating the set and working out the logistics of getting the show on the road. In his production office surrounded by a wall of computer monitors, Production Manager, Joel Stanley walked TPi through the months leading up to the first show.
“When I saw the original concepts, I thought the show looked amazing – it was big and bold,” began the PM. “That said, I knew straight away that to pull this show off, we were going to need a pre-rig in each venue. Not only that, but we needed a lot of back and forth with TAIT to rework some of the designs due to stock issues of various materials.”
STUFISH worked with TAIT and Blackfriars Staging for the sculptural elements to see what was available at such a late stage to achieve the various scenic and kinetic moments of the show. “We worked hard to maintain the key concepts, but had to rework some as the reality of supply chain and equipment availability was such a factor,” Lipson said. “We worked consistently, making tweaks to the design to allow fabrication to be possible, or health and safety to sign off.”
Despite these initial teething issues, TAIT delivered this imposing set, along with the other technical suppliers to load-in to the production’s first day of rehearsals at Production Park. “I had all my core crew pencilled in, but just like supply issues, crew availability has been a challenge on this run,” explained Stanley.
Not only that, but many crew had to withdraw from rehearsals and even the tour after testing positive for COVID-19. “I tested positive during rehearsals,” stated Stanley, who then had to work remotely while the final touches were being made to the show. “We are losing roughly a crew member a day while out on the road. My priority as a PM is to keep my crew and artist safe, so our policy is anyone who tests positive is replaced.”
He went on to explain that the situation became more complicated as different suppliers also have different policies. “It is something to keep in mind when crewing a show to have options, so if you lose someone the show can go on. The issue is that even with my contacts, so many people have left the industry in the past two years. Despite these challenges, we’ve got this show to a place where we can keep going whatever happens. We’re not overstaffed, but we can deal with multiple dropouts and we have crew to fill their shoes.”
SETTING THE STAGE
Giving TAIT’s perspective on the show was Ben Brooks. Providing both the stage set along with the entire automation package, the TAIT team certainly had a lot to contend with in a short time frame. “Due to the state of the world and supply issues, we led the designers down a route of achieving the looks they were looking for while making use of our reconfigurable inventory,” stated Brooks. “It was a fantastic collaboration and everyone from the designers to the other vendors was incredibly flexible.”
Brooks went on to explain that when it comes to creating shows of this scale, the team at TAIT is still learning how to work in this new world. “There are so many items that prior to 2020 you’d be able to get on next-day delivery, which people now don’t have in stock. We are still able to get hold of materials, but you have to search much harder than you used to.” There were also numerous automotive elements that TAIT supplied – from the giant scales, which had Stormzy and his DJ perform on during Wiley Flow, to the lift that allowed the artist to descend to the stage at the top of the show.
“We used our Kinesys Apex system for all the automotive elements,” explained Brooks, giving special mention to Automation Operator, Alex Burrows, who oversaw all the movements.
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Holding down the light show on the road was James Scott. The Lighting Director from Suluko once again joined forces with Lighting Designer, Tim Routledge to create and deliver the high-energy visual spectacular for this tour.
“This tour started with a stripped-back underplay European run in early 2020; after lockdown, the rest of the tour was postponed and we are finally back on the road with this brand new design,” reminisced Scott. In fact, looking down at Scott’s MA Lighting grandMA2 lock screen image showed the long road of this show design, with the years 2020 and 2021 crossed out on the console.
Routledge was not on site at the O2 when TPi paid a visit as he was overseeing the Concert for Ukraine, but we got to catch up after the show. He started by describing the tight deadline for this production. “While shows with longer deadlines give me the ability to focus on something and workshop ideas, the adrenaline and pace of a last-minute show focuses the mind and maintains momentum,” he stated. “Solving issues as they arise as we drew and created the show over Zoom between TAWBOX, STUFISH and myself was fun. I have a shorthand when talking to TAWBOX, and Ric works at such a pace and enthusiasm that it didn’t stop us from creating in the timeframe. The only issues are what is feasible to be built in time.”
Having worked with Stormzy for several years, Routledge was keen to build on the style he and his lighting team had been cultivating in previous projects. “It’s all about finding the hard moments and counterbalancing them with the subtler more theatrical ones,” he explained. “Stormzy is continuing to evolve as an artist and so is how I approach his show. The opening of the show is a two-minute visual and audio assault with just lights and sound – no video. We were presenting Stormzy on a lift behind a transparent screen and we didn’t want the 15,000 camera lights in the audience to reveal him early being clipped in. The full-on assault of lights was totally visceral and stopped anyone seeing past the wall of lights and smoke burning their retinas.”
One other trick up the visual department’s sleeve was the abundance of strobes on the rig. “We’ve got 130 in total and they’re all necessary,” joked Scott. The strobe doing the main heavy lifting is the SGM Q-8, which is “blinding and rich with colour”, according to Scott. “If you need a non-moving strobe fixture, they’re a great option.”
There were also SGM G-7 Beams fitted on the automated crown, which acted as a halo above centre stage and descended during the song Crown. In the rear of the stage were 80 Martin by Harman MAC Auras behind the ROE Visual Vanish LED Wall, with bold beam looks coming from vertical lines of the Vari-Lite VL6000s. Cross-light was provided by Robe BMFL Blades.
“We also have TMB Solaris Flares underneath the stage for some ‘smokey underlit’ looks,” continued Scott. “For key light, we are using Ayrton Dominos with Robe Forte working in conjunction with the RoboSpot.” The eight RoboSpot controllers travel within a touring cart that is kept within the TAIT rolling stage to save arena floor space. As with set construction, supply issues were also a consideration when creating the design for this show, as Routledge explained. “I embraced the restriction and we used some fixtures that I hadn’t used to create a different look.”
The LD described the new SGM Q-8 strobe as “stunning”. He added: “It’s bright and the opportunities for the various pixel effects and the white chip are phenomenal. They are small enough to mount inside the crown edge to edge as well as portrait mode inside the two moats to flood the stage with volumetric light through smoke on the floor.”
He also explained his choice of the SGM G-7 BeaSt and Vari-Lite VL6000. “I wanted to have a chunky beam look for this show,” he noted. “They look similar, but the SGM has some more tricks and was a strong fat beam I wanted for the crown.”
The one fixture that was non-negotiable was the choice of followspot on the Robospot system. “I wanted to do more colour effects and needed maximum punch, so the new Robe Forte – which, to me, is best in class – is simply the strongest standard throw remote follow spot out there.”
In amongst the standard moving heads on the rig, the visual team also utilised numerous rechargeable fixtures. “We’ve got the new Astera PixleBrick, which is amazingly bright for its small size,” stated Scott, who pointed out the small fixtures, which were placed around the automated scales in the roof. “We only have to charge them every four shows and they ride within the set piece between stops.”
On the “magic carpet” gag at the top of the show when Stormzy descends to the stage, the lighting team used the Astera AX2 PixelBar. “Like the PixleBrick, they only need to be charged at the end of the week. We just have to remember to turn them off before they go in the truck,” he laughed.
“For me, the highlight of the show was when we come out of the beautiful and interstitial video for Don’t Forget To Breathe, which is harshly interrupted by the scales flying in and Wiley Flo taking over,” stated Routledge, “It’s hard, dirty and totally in your face with these objects appearing from nowhere and flying down at speed above the audience – they look terrifying when you look up.”
Routledge was keen to avoid interrupting the look with followspots – “so, both DJ Tiny and Stormzy were lit with pixel bricks integrated into the scales and a menacing top light so the audience were not blinded by spots crossing through the flying section and they got a full 360° look at this stunning start to Act 3.”
Moving our attention backstage to video world, TPi grabbed some time with Video Director, Mark Davies and disguise Programmer and Operator, Luke Collins. With kit coming courtesy of Video Design, the overall LED video package included a large surface that split in the middle made up of ROE Visual Vanish V8 along with an automated video bar – referred to as “the slab” by the video team – that tracked up and down, which was also made of V8. There was also an LED floor featuring ROE Visual Black Marble BM4.
“Backstage, we have a pair of disguise 4X4 Pro Media Servers along with a dedicated Notch Machine, which is used for a specific song where live content is inserted into the rear screen content,” stated Collins. “The rest of the content on the screen is pre-rendered visuals.”
Content for the left and right IMAG screens that flanked the main stage was untreated, with Director Davies making use of the seven cameras, including three manned Sony HXR-MC2500 and four CamBall 3 XM Remote PTZ operated by two techs backstage. Davies was one of the many crew who had also been working on Dave’s tour. Although two of the biggest names in the genre, Davies talked about his different approach to the two artists. “Stormzy has so much energy,” he enthused. “He spends the whole gig running around. That energy rubs off on everyone in the crew.”
He admitted that the constant movement could lead to some tricky directing. “We have our work cut out keeping up with him. The joy of this show is the amazing visuals we have on the rear screen, which I’m able to make use of in my IMAG cut with the content creating a halo effect around Stormzy.”
For two of the three O2 arena shows, the nine-strong video team expanded to 17 to record the show for archiving purposes, with Video Design providing an additional arsenal of cameras including two jibs, a long lens and a wide-angle lens.
Providing Stormzy’s visual department with a range of special effects once again was Pyrojunkies, which now falls under the ER Productions umbrella. SFX Crew Chief, Liam Mace walked TPi through the various effects.
“Dan Mott and the team from Pyrojunkies worked directly with the creatives in the lead up to the rehearsals and then I was brought in just prior to moving into LS-Live to be their man on the ground,” explained Mace. He and the rest of the team – made up of Myles Wynne Pedder and Asher Heigham – had a sizeable rig of over 150 pyrotechnics effects from 21 wireless positions located across the downstage edge and five positions down the thrust. There was also a 40ft pyrotechnic waterfall from the ‘slab’ automated truss. Flooding the thrust and moat with smoke, the team used 12 Look Solutions Viper Deluxes and six MagicFX Stadium Shot Cannons firing confetti to close the show.
“As much as Stormzy moves about the stage, he’s incredibly aware of what is going on around him and we spent a great deal of time during rehearsals making sure we got all the specific gag moments nailed,” stated Mace. With safety being the utmost priority, the SFX team was all spotting throughout the show, with Mace’s hand on a dead man’s switch, so if he removed his hands, nothing would fire. “Even if he’s slightly too close, the effect won’t happen.”
Perhaps one of the most unexpected byproducts of COVID-19 is that multiple venues now implement more stringent airflow protocols into venues, which has a devastating effect on haze and smoke machines. “It’s been a real battle in certain venues,” admitted Mace. “Here at the O2, there is a fair amount of wind coming across the stage, and we’ve often had to reconfigure the position of our machines so we can still achieve the desired look.” The smoke machines were positioned in the moat in the upstage area as well as in the grate at the end of the thrust. “As much as it can be a battle, safety and COVID-19 protocols are always the priority,” he asserted.
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Next stop for TPi was the audio team – specifically Monitor Engineer, Raphael Williams; FOH Engineer, Luigi Buccarello; and Audio Crew Chief, Rich Kemp. With a full L-Acoustics system provided by SSE Audio, the team talked through some of the highlights of the system.
“We were working on the template we had from the Reading and Leeds shows from last year,” began Williams. “We’ve had a few band changes and preferences can change but, on the whole, it was working from that framework.”
For the tour, Williams upgraded from a DiGiCo SD5 to an SD7 Quantum. “It’s a bigger beast, which I was keen to have for this one for the power and speed.” The one unchanged part of Williams’ setup was his UAD-2 Plug-Ins. “Having my UAD setup at the tail end of everyone’s mix allows me to give that extra sprinkle, which is very comforting.”
Many of the main pieces of kit the audio team had used over the years were back for this tour, although some models of microphones have now changed names, with certain lines being discontinued. For microphones, the Sennheiser Digital 6000 Series with the new 435 Head was used for everyone from Stormzy to the backing singers. As for IEMs, Williams’ brand of choice was Ultimate Ears, specifically the UE11s.
“One of the things that we’ve learned through the years is the amount of equipment he goes through on stage,” explained the monitor engineer. “He’s very impactful on equipment and he sweats a lot on stage, so it’s now standard practice to change the microphone during the show. Also, we no longer have anything attached to his body, with wireless packs hovering off him.”
Moving the conversation to FOH, Buccarello talked about his mix. “For this run, I’m on an Avid S6L with a Waves rack. Although I’m using mostly onboard effects, I have a few go-to effects such as the CLA 76 and the C6,” said the FOH Engineer. “I had created the show file from scratch, five days prior to our Reading and Leeds performances last year,” he explained, adding that he then started working on the file when he was given the green light for the tour. Although the L-Acoustics system was already in place prior to Buccarello joining the camp, it would have been his choice. “It’s incredibly reliable and I love it,” he enthused.
Audio Crew Chief, Rich Kemp described the L-Acoustics PA, which comprised a main hang of 14 K1s and four K2s per side, with side hangs of four K1s and 12 K2s. For certain venues, including London and Manchester, a rear hang of KARA was deployed. For subs, there were eight flown K1SBs per side with 12 KS28 per side on the ground. “We have a large thrust that goes out into the audience in front of the PA, so we set up the PA so that it avoids as much of the thrust as possible, specified with the K2s,” he noted. “On the whole, though, I’m finding more and more that these large PA systems are becoming less susceptible to feedback issues as long as your gain structures are correct.”
Williams gave his two cents on having one of the main performance areas out in front of the PA. “We were finding that there was bleed from the PA down the microphones, which would affect Stormzy’s tempo and timing. We ended up turning down the mic in his IEMs so he heard less of himself and he was able to maintain tempo better.”
To close, Williams talked about the two most important faders on his desk during the show – Stormzy’s vocal mic and the ambient audience mics. Speaking about the latter, Williams said: “I have six ambient mics arranged in pairs and the top, middle and bottom on the thrust. The ones closer to the stage get the whispers, the middle gets the detail, and the top end gets the whole room. All this means that Stormzy doesn’t need to take out his IEMs to feel part of the room and engage with the crowd. I ride that mix during the show depending on what’s going on.”
Holding down playback responsibilities was Max Truphet. “I’m looking after all the backing tracks and timecode for the visual team,” he stated. Joining the first European leg of the tour in 2020, the Playback Tech was kept busy with the camp during a number of streamed performances throughout lockdown as well as the artist’s headline performances at Reading and Leeds.
“The first thing I do on a show like this is work on the stems, which in this case come from our Musical Director, Kojo Samuel,” he revealed. “I see playback as the bridge between the band and Stormzy as well as the FOH and visual side. On a show of this size, I’m keeping an eye on timecode and constantly updating any references if there are any changes.
The Playback Technician opted for Ableton, which was run on two MacBooks with a fully redundant system to ensure the show carried on. “Kojo did a great job giving me all the individual stems in their simplest form, which in turn makes it easier for both Raphael and Luigi to treat the playback more as a band they can mix rather than a simple stereo backtrack.”
Two-and-a-half years is a long time in the world of music, but the crowd reaction to Stormzy’s latest tour shows that the artist is still riding the wave from his Glastonbury 2019 performance. Even after such a long time, ticket holders were still as keen to see what he had to offer. “Every night on this tour, I walk out about an hour after doors and the buzz of the audience is incredible,” concluded Williams.
That ‘buzz’ was palpable in London and if the reviews are anything to go by, it was the same case up and down the county. A true flagship production showcase, which proves that even after this lengthy hiatus, the UK live events industry can very much still awe and amaze.
This article originally appeared in issue #269 of TPi, which you can read here.