Kaotican Alphabet

Roadie #42 – Blog #170

#42 reports back from the Hollywood Bowl and American Idol

I’ve got to admit, there just *are* some venues in the world where you just can’t help thinking “This is fucking cool”. I tend to rebel against the more obvious prestige ones, but sometimes everyone raves about how good something is because – well, because it really is that good.

Of course those of you familiar with the Coldplay story (or more likely, familiar with the Live 2003 DVD) will know that Coldplay have played here before. It’s kind of inevitable then, that I’d sit up at the back during the load-in day and reflect on how nine years has changed things.

My memories of the Rush of Blood tour are of constantly feeling like things were getting bigger. Every few weeks we’d be looking out at an audience the size of which was difficult to comprehend.  The band are now at a point where they could doubtless get bigger, but not really at anything like the exponential rate of growth we experienced back then.

This feeling can’t help but be heightened by re-visiting venues that now feel quite familiar. There’s nothing like flying thousands of miles and walking into a venue thinking “oh yeah, when we were here the time before last, I had to go out and buy shoes at that place two blocks away” to make you wonder if perhaps you’ve been doing this just a little too long…

When we came to do American Idol though (squashed in-between the second and third shows at Hollywood Bowl) it began to dawn on me. It’s all tied to something I mentioned a blog or two ago. When you’re doing TV shows, you can’t see or really even imagine the true magnitude of the audience. We’ve done bigger and bigger TV shows on this campaign each few months – it just hasn’t necessarily felt like it…

The final of X-Factor, in the UK was a massive deal. On the day though, it was an arena that we’d played in before – and one that felt much smaller due to the huge set, at that. American Idol was a moderately sized TV studio and we were barely even there half a day. Personally speaking, I wasn’t even *in* the studio for more than ten minutes total in the whole day.

All of the touring and video gear for Idol (which my rig ended up being a part of) was set up outside, in the parking lot under the glorious California sunshine. I didn’t even see the crowd in the studio, let alone the 22 million watching at home. I remember at Live 8, being told that the crowd in attendance on the day in London was approaching a quarter of a million. I remember standing on the front edge of the stage just before things got underway, looking out and trying to take it in.

I thought to myself if I could imagine the same number of people as were in front of me being to my left, right and behind me too, I could get a mental picture of what being in a crowd of a million would look like. Inevitably, the cliched truth that “once a crowd gets past a certain size, it doesn’t really look that much different” made it a pointless exercise.

What I’m trying to get at, is that imagining an audience of 22 million is pretty much beyond the scope of my imagination – particularly when the day’s filming essentially consisted of standing in a parking lot looking at a tiny screen for half an hour and then going back to the hotel.

Despite this though, the band’s penetration and profile has continued to rise just as it did back when we were at the Hollywood Bowl the first time. Maybe it felt more exciting to me back then because I’d always dreamed of big tours, huge crowds, trucks, lights and all the associated touring-circus that successful bands meant. Perhaps if I’d dreamt of Hollywood studios and broadcast infrastructure, this would all feel different. I’ve a suspicion though that no matter what, it’s pretty much impossible for a crowd of folks in front of you cheering to not make an immediate and tangible impression.

I remember as a crew, we were mostly new to touring at that level when we first visited the Bowl in 2003. We would scoff at what we saw as unnecessary “bigness”. American crews (who *were* used to touring at that level) would often be a particular source of amusement. We’d often point and laugh at massively oversized flight-cases, everyone bustling around with a radio on and “needlessly complicated” gear setups.

Now of course, we roll in with flight-cases the size of which would’ve horrified us back then. We all wear radios (well ok, *I* still rarely do, but only because I know I’ll lose it inside a day). Our setup is now sprawling enough to have had us shaking our heads into a neck-brace ten years ago.

We’ve all finally learnt that the people we laughed at were doing it that way for a reason: because it just makes sense at this level – it lets you do a better job.

To put it another way, you can dig over a field with a shovel, but after your first one, you’ll probably start thinking about a tractor.

Which brings me back to being at the Hollywood Bowl just shy of ten years later. The band in 2003 were stripped down and very reluctant to indulge in “gimmicks”. There was a feeling that purity and authenticity were very important, that big production and “showbiz” were to be disapproved of – a bit like having a workbox the size of a freezer, or always having a radio on…

But we’ve all dug a good few acres since then.

Putting on a show, of course, is still about getting the songs across – communicating an emotion, being true to the music. All of that though, is served well by using every tool at your disposal to enhance the impact. The emotions transmitted from the stage aren’t masked by a production that makes people gasp. If it’s done the right way, the emotions are heightened and the gasps made deeper – the memories taken home made stronger.

I forget who it was that was standing looking across the stage with me on the first afternoon shaking their heads. “We’ve really got a lot of stuff now, compared to back then” was the thrust of the conversation.

“Yes, but imagine if we’d come along ten years later with exactly the same setup, the band in the same clothes, playing exactly the same kind of songs. What kind of progress would that be? We’d have been better giving up in 2003 and leaving it at that”.

I’m glad I’m still here. And I’m glad that things are evolving. What they’ve become and what they’re now capable of I couldn’t have even imagined back then. I can’t tell you which is better between then and now. Possibly because both are very special indeed…