Excess is a byword in rock’n’roll, but in these eco-conscious times can concert lighting still make an impact without damaging the planet? Bands like Radiohead are taking the lead with hi-tech LEDs to achieve more with less, says Nick Smurthwaite
After years of profligacy, rock concert designers and promoters are finding eco-friendly ways of mounting shows that are visually exciting without giving the National Grid a nervous breakdown.
There was a time when the amount of electricity generated by a two-hour concert could power a small town for an entire evening. But the present stress on energy saving and Green issues has prompted bands like Radiohead and U2 to take the lead in conspicuous reduction of kilowatts, principally by the use of renewable energy and by switching from traditional lasers and strobes to light-emitting diode fixtures for their on-stage light shows.
LED wristwatches became trendy 20 years ago, since when the technology has come a long way. The main advantage of LEDs over the more widely used compact, fluorescent energy-saving fixtures is their longer life and, more importantly, they are five times less energy-consuming, although at present more expensive to buy.
Radiohead’s long-serving production manager Richard Young says it is all about the band practising what they preach. ‘It’s all very well the band preaching to others about energy consumption, but doing live gigs has its own carbon footprint, and the band are committed to improving theirs,’ he says.
‘Traditional stage lighting uses dimmers to turn things on and off,’ he explains. ‘When they are not on they use little to no power. When they are on at 100 per cent they pull their maximum power. A generator therefore has to be sized to provide the maximum power required instantaneously – for instance, the big rock moment at the end of the show. Up until this point, generators are idling inefficiently and producing carbon emissions.
‘Now, we’ve cut out these fluctuating loads and concentrated on a more modern, moving-light system using mechanical shutters to turn them on and off, and enabling us to use the generators more efficiently – a direct power demand system, but one using much less power at 100 per cent,’ explains Young.
Lighting designer Andi Watson, who has been with the band some 15 years, developed a special LED lighting system with i-Pix for the current tour, widely acclaimed for its dazzling light design. ‘I wanted to create a very physical, three-dimensional light, rather than have lights on stage twinkling away,’ he says, ‘so I went for a diffuse outer shell on the LED strips, which creates a kind of object out of the light.’
Young adds, ‘Andi’s lighting design has changed the way the show looks. It is no longer the band being beautifully lit, it is basically the band performing within a constantly changing piece of art.’
This is probably the first time LED technology has been used to light an entire show. By using a defined array of LED fixtures, Watson has been able to create the dynamic and textures he wanted from a video wall, and at the same time free himself from the limitations of having a solid screen behind the band.
‘Normally, on a tour of this scale you’d have a large number of moving lights changing colours and patterns,’ Watson explains. ‘The main difference is that we have no moving lights on this tour. The lighting is the stage set, the stage set is the lighting.’
He deploys the video wall in an artistic, organic manner. Instead of using literal imagery, he makes use of geometric shapes and lines created on his Apple PowerBook.
‘I wanted to create something that would be in visual and dynamic harmony with the band’s performance, but which would still fulfil the desire for image for those further from the stage,’ says Watson.
Last year’s Live Earth concert at Wembley proved something of a Green watershed for promoters and technicians alike. Everything from non-toxic cleaning products to biodegradable plastic cups were the order of the day, and the lighting, designed by Patrick Woodroffe and Mark Kenyon, was mainly LED-based, with the added flourish of custom-built chandeliers made out of energy-efficient lightbulbs.
‘The aim was to have very little incandescent light and to use as many LED sources as possible, to prove it could be effective as a main alternative on this scale,’ says Woodroffe.
‘Watson was one of the first lighting designers to use LED sources for making interesting patterns, with Radiohead. When you use them sensibly you can really make an impact. I can see a time when, for creative and social reasons, LED fixtures take precedence, and I find that idea exciting.’
Radiohead tour Canada and the US in August