After over a year in oblivion with no in-person audiences, O2 Brixton Academy finally flung open its doors in August to welcome a talented but equally beleaguered troupe of technical production crew and raucous fans during the final stop of Circa Waves’ sold-out UK tour.
Initially devised in support of their fourth album, Sad Happy – which was released in two parts in January and March 2020 – Circa Waves, like all touring acts, found their forthcoming stage offering shelved, postponed and ultimately, cancelled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over a year later, the Liverpudlian indie rockers were given the go-ahead to pick up their tour, with technical support from the likes of Siyan, SSE Audio/Wigwam, Northern Star Touring and Pixeled Video providing expertise, equipment and infrastructure. An Allen & Heath dLive supplied by SSE Audio/Wigwam, situated in monitor world was, by far, the standout piece of kit for Tour Manager/Monitor Engineer, AJ Sutherland, who recalled the vital aspects of the mixing console.
“I was so busy with the tour management side of the job, that it was a necessity to have a console I could programme and operate quickly. The extensive options regarding surface configuration and the number of assignable soft keys meant I could get the monitors done to a high standard with minimal faffing about.”
However, extra admin regarding health and safety paperwork and the rapid scramble to keep the show on the road when crew suddenly had to isolate is something Sutherland, who ended up testing positive along with another member of the technical production team midway through the tour, had to prepare for.
Following his unforeseen exit from the tour, FOH Engineer, Joe Crouch’s workload was expanded to assume the role of the day-to-day tour management as well as his traditional mixing duties. “We were really fortunate to have him there ready to go,” remarked Sutherland, describing Crouch as the ‘right person’ to step up and command both roles.
“Everyone stepped up and helped out as much as possible when two members of the crew tested positive for COVID-19, and it was only due to the efforts from the crew and band that meant we could continue,” Crouch said rather modestly, speaking to TPi having successfully paved a COVID-19 secure pathway to the final, headline date of the tour. “It was fantastic to be able to reach Brixton Academy for the last show of the tour and play a key part in the reopening of such an iconic venue. The atmosphere was incredible.”
COVID-19 also affected the day-to-day aspects of Crouch’s traditional touring workflow. He highlighted “simple things like working out the best route to FOH before doors” to avoid as much contact as possible with audiences, to “making sure we were careful about who was backstage and on the bus at all times” – each posing a significant logistical challenge.
Despite restrictions easing by the time they reached O2 Brixton Academy, the crew protected themselves and continued to respect the boundaries and differing rules from venue to venue. The bus was well stocked with lateral flow tests, and once the positive cases were discovered in the group, a plan was put in place to deal with it.
“The band were separated from the crew and taken directly to a hotel, in case more of the crew were positive. We then organised for both band and crew to have PCR tests to assess how well we could continue the rest of the tour. Luckily, these all came back negative, and after consulting with the promoter and the next venue, the following show was able to take place,” Crouch said, recalling the haste in which the crew had to seek replacements to fill the roles of TM/Monitor Engineer and Guitar Technician at a day’s notice.
“Everything on the bus was sterilised with the help of our driver, and all the equipment that our crew had touched had to be cleaned thoroughly. While it’s always important to stay healthy on tour, it’s never been such an important and complex issue as it is now,” Crouch underlined.
Of equal importance, Crouch believes, is maintaining the connectivity of crew amid the pandemic. “There is still some uncertainty surrounding the future of live events,” he said, referring to the loss of talented individuals to other sectors during the lockdown of live events. “It’s important that crew can support each other, whether it’s by helping out with staff shortages last minute, recommending colleagues for roles to help clients put on the best events possible, or simply discussing and sharing best practices to keep shows safe. This is all done by connecting and communicating as much as possible.”
For all the uncertainties facing the team, excitement, it appears, was the prevailing emotion. “Circa Waves were the first band to play at some of these venues since before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Crouch said, recounting the “buzz” of busy people engaged and excited about putting on a show.
“Everyone from our team and all of the local staff I worked with echoed the same sort of feelings – it’s good to be back doing what we love. We had a really great team on the tour and everyone did an incredible job, from the advance to the implementation of the shows and the work from the local staff and crews.
“It’s obvious from the reactions the band had from the audiences and the atmosphere at the shows that everyone had been looking forward to getting back to live events and to seeing live music in-person. It’s great to be able to help people enjoy something that they have been missing, and that at one point no one was 100% certain we would have back.” Despite the 18-month hiatus, dancing and singing with a crowd quickly felt normal again. “It still feels like there are still some challenges ahead for the live events sector; whether it’s the possibility of new COVID variants and restrictions or difficulties with international travel into Europe and the rest of the world, but I also believe that the events industry is resourceful and adaptable, and people will always want to experience live events,” Crouch shared. “My time away from this job has only made me realise how much I love it, and I’m going to try my best to continue doing it for as long as possible.”
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‘THE FIRST GIG BACK IN MANY VENUES’
“This design was signed off and ready to go last year and then COVID-19 hit, and the tour was cancelled a week-and-a-half prior to it starting,” Show Designer, Liam Tully said, recalling the devastating news of the tour’s cancellation after he had just completed his first full day of programming.
“The latest iteration of the design has changed slightly,” he explained, pointing out that everything was initially uploaded to Dropbox and left for the best part of a year, so it was ready to go. “I’d advanced everything during that last week in March 2020.”
Following a series of cyclical on-and-off dates filling up the pages of his touring calendar, Tully had little hope that the show and his designs would ever see the light of day. “I honestly didn’t think it would happen, and I had taken on prior commitments with James Bay, expecting the Circa Waves tour to be cancelled. Even a week prior to the tour, we were waiting for confirmation on Scotland’s easing of restrictions, with two dates of the tour set for Scotland. Our tour began on the 10th, but Scotland didn’t make an announcement until the eighth, so it was very touch and go. Gigs over a certain capacity in Scotland also required a specific event licence, which AJ and the production team handled expertly,” Tully reported.
“In the end, it worked out well because we were the first gig back in many of the venues we visited on the tour,” he said, referencing O2 Academy venues like Leicester, Glasgow and Brixton as a ‘surreal’ experience, having spent the past 18 months creating content for screen consumption. “I’ve never seen audiences react to support bands, as well as the main act, so positively. I had to pinch myself now and again to remind myself that it was real.”
The show was run on a MA Lighting grandMA3 full size console run on MA2 mode. The entire show was visualised in Syncronorm Depence² from Tully’s home. Around half the songs were set to timecode, overseen by Lighting Operator, Zach Burnside, during the dates of Tully’s prior commitments.
The design was based around a big, white cyc backdrop, lit up for most of the show – “humongous backlit looks on a big white cyc with different colours and no frontlight with band silhouetted” was how Tully described it. Equipment-wise, GLP impression X4 Bars adorned the lighting rig, side and wash light was achieved by Martin by Harman MAC Aura XBs, while Philips SL NITRO 510s were tasked with sidelight duties.
“This tour was quite difficult to design because we were going from Glasgow Academy, which houses around 3,000 with a normal-sized stage, to Norwich’s Waterfront with around 600 capacity,” Tully said, describing the project as a “hybrid tour”, which meant cramming as much of the design in as possible each night. “I had a plan B, C and, in some cases, D. This often required cutting down some of the six towers of sidelights as well as a few fixtures from the back of the rig.”
For the headline show, additional fixtures were provided for the side towers, such as Robe MegaPointes, Claypaky Sharpys and Martin By Harman MAC Aura XBs. “There are a lot of budget requirements from bands following the pandemic, so being flexible with the fixture choice is crucial. Siyan were very accommodating to the budget and met it straight away,” Tully said, having shared a long-standing relationship with the lighting vendor for many years, recently collaborating on James Blake’s Shakespeare Globe livestream [TPi #256].
Siyan also ensured a 50/50 gender split of crew for the O2 Brixton Academy date. “It’s great to see the gender divide starting to balance out naturally without it being a conscious decision,” Sutherland stated. “Everyone seemed to be happy to be back at work, which fed through to all facets of the production,” Tully added, summing up his personal experience. “It felt like we were back to normal and it was a relief to complete the tour safely. Although a part of me is slightly worried about being shut down again, which has never happened before in my career. Now there is a pang of doubt in the back of my mind whenever I design a show.”
Pixeled Video supplied four Magic FX stadium shots and two Magic FX stage shots along with 20kg of confetti for the O2 Brixton Academy date. Despite missing the headline show, Sutherland’s tour highlight came during the band’s hometown O2 Liverpool Academy show, where he was able to trigger the confetti cannon himself.
Pixeled Video Director, Lucy Harrison supplied, set up and operated the machines cued by Tully to ensure ‘perfect timing’ of the effects. “We fired three hits during the show. The first was during the band’s first track, Wake Up, for a big impact with white paper and silver metallic confetti; the second hit, during T-Shirt Weather, was made up of orange paper and gold; after the encore, the band stayed on stage for a dance party soundtracked by their walkout music – Sandstorm by Darude – and this is when the third hit of rainbow confetti came,” Harrison explained. “The confetti really helps make it a more memorable experience. It’s great to see everyone take some of it home as a souvenir.”
‘A SURREAL EXPERIENCE’
“When they kick at your front door / How you gonna come?” The Clash’s Paul Simonon snarled in 1979 as a stark depiction of discontent in Brixton at the time. Forty-two years later, while a multitude of societal issues still rumble on, the live events sector – and venues in particular – would be forgiven for adopting a similar battle cry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To be back in such an iconic venue as Brixton again after being away for so long was a surreal experience. Seeing all departments working together again was such an uplifting experience and hearing the crowd cheering and applauding was quite emotional. The mood was definitely electric as everyone was buzzing to be there,” Harrison concluded. “I felt so at home being on a stage again and it really helped me realise how much I love my job. There is something about live events that’s so exciting and enriching, and everyone was so ready to let their hair down and have a good time.”
This article originally appeared in issue #265 of TPi, which you can read here.