The tour kicked off in Asheville, North Carolina in February (photo: Jesse Faatz)

USA - Working with lighting designer Roger Gant, Montreal-based visual design company Lüz studio oversaw the lighting design, creative design and video content for Billy Strings’ ongoing US tour and festival dates, which feature Ayrton fixtures, grandMA3 consoles and MDG theONE atmospheric generators provided by Bandit Lites in Nashville.  ACT Entertainment exclusively distributes all three product brands in North America.

The singer, songwriter and bluegrass star’s current tour commenced in Asheville, North Carolina in February. Dates are booked nationwide through April and May, there’s a break in June and July for a trio of festival performances, then the tour resumes for a summer leg that wraps at LA’s Kia Forum. Billy Strings’ 2024 tour is in support of his Grammy-nominated collaborative album with his father, ME/AND/DAD.

“We have worked with the Lüz studio team before, and they always have fresh ideas and designs,” says Jake Tickle, vice president of business and innovation at Bandit Lites, the tour’s full-service lighting and control vendor. “With Roger Gant’s input, this show was a real collaboration, and to be part of that collaboration was a lot of fun.  Being in the background and seeing it all come together was phenomenal.”

Designing the various aspects of a bluegrass show is different from creating a typical rock or pop concert, notes Matthieu Larivée, creative producer and partner at Lüz studio. “Bluegrass artists can jam for 10 or 12 minutes, so you’re almost busking the show every night,” he explains. “Still, you want a consistent look and feel, so we created seven blocks or environments, which allow for improvising within certain parameters every night.”

Roger Gant, who heads Nashville-based Roger That LLC, has worked as lighting designer, programmer and operator for Billy Strings for almost four years, doing 120-130 shows a year for the artist. “Billy really cares about the live music experience,” says Gant. “We help him create all this energy and build communities of fans who follow him from show to show. It’s a very collaborative effort.”

The current show design is expected to roll for about 18 months and will serve as “a good base to build upon in the future,” Gant reports. “With 270 songs to choose from, we established seven environments for content that changes every night based on the set list. It’s about having different looks and moods with lots of variations within them so you can transition from a slow song to a fast one smoothly and thematically without being song-specific in the design.” He likens it to “having different bins of Lego and building the Millennium Falcon during the night. We’re building a beautiful, cohesive experience every night that goes with the set list and transforms the space. “The tour’s stage features a big upstage LED videowall whose content is merged with the IMAG live cameras. There are iconic cool graphics of Billy’s that we modelled in 3D and lit so there’s always some décor behind him,” explains Larivée. 

For Billy and each band member Gant designed five UFO-like circular risers with LED tape around them and lighting pods suspended above them. They are placed in a V-shaped configuration with Billy at the head of the V upstage where he can watch the music being made around him. 

“The lighting pods can isolate each person to highlight their solos and musicality,” Larivée explains. “We’ve packed a large quantity of fixtures into them with one Ayrton Khamsin in each as the centrepiece.” There’s even “a cone gobo in the Khamsins to create a beam-me-up effect,” Gant points out.

The videowall content sometimes recreates the lighting pods on screen where they interact with virtual lights to “add hundreds more lights that you see into infinity” says Larivée.

Nine Khamsins are mounted on the upstage truss and 16 more on the downstage truss with two of them acting as key lights controlled by a Follow- Me tracking system. “All the rest of the Khamsins in the air have the ability to be linked to the Follow-Me system too, depending which groups of lights I choose,” says Gant.  “They look amazing. It’s my first time touring with Khamsins, and they’ve been super-rock-solid and exceeded my expectations.”

Gant has used Ayrton’s hard-edged fixtures since they were introduced and is a “huge fan” of Mistrals. For the tour he has 15 Mistrals on the ground around the band in a U shape and eight mounted on side trusses and in the air where they serve as “the workhorse of the rig,” according to Gant. “They’re a beautiful LED fixture with awesome colour, a lovely even field of light and a dynamic gobo package. The gobos pretty much match throughout the whole Ayrton line, which is very useful and makes it easier to programme. The Mistrals are low maintenance and look great: They’re a win-win for me.”

Another bonus of using the Mistrals onstage, notes Larivée, is that “they are compact fixtures – you don’t want too massive a footprint on the stage.”

Jake Tickle notes that Bandit’s long relationship with ACT and Ayrton meant they were able to provide the tour with Khamsins that “ticked all the boxes for versatility and the feature set they wanted. Khamsins have name recognition and acceptability in the industry and offer the reliability that large-format productions are looking for.” 

The tour also had “certain size and output goals,” which Bandit was able to satisfy with its large inventory of Mistrals whose “size factor and output are second to none,” says Tickle. “They are well showcased in this tour.”

During show design it was determined that lighting and video control “would be best within the MA Lighting infrastructure,” with grandMA3 desks “to futureproof” the show, he says. “I dived in pretty deep and was pleasantly surprised by the console.  So much of the show is about the ability to create variations within the environments, and grandMA3 allows me to have a basic go-screen and within that get into my Lego bins easily and build the show on Layout Views. The power of the system is really cool.”

“Since there’s a lot of video playback and digital lighting on the screen, Roger really needed to work natively on grandMA3 software,” says Larivée who reports that half the shows his company does are now on grandMA3. “There are moments when the colour changes and the video changes, and Roger needs to select a group of fixtures to mirror the screen and the only way to do that was with grandMA3 software. He will find that he also likes using the console for upcoming festivals since it makes it easier to clone with local rigs.”

The tour is using three full-size grandMA3s and six NPUs, supplied by Bandit Lites, for lighting control, video control and as an FOH spare or backup. The tour also runs a grandMA3 light as the dimmer beach tech desk.

“My relationship with MA Lighting goes back 18 years, and ACT has been very important on the support side,” reports Jake Tickle. “More than 50 percent of our shows now request the grandMA3.  It is the industry standard in what you expect from a lighting control platform, and the fact that ACT adds value with its customer support is icing on the cake.”

Bandit Lites also provided a pair of MDG theONE atmospheric generators to the tour.  “No other product delivers the particle size MDG does with the reflectivity and quality of haze that shows demand,” says Tickle. “Billy’s show is beam intensive, so they specified and got the best product for the show.”

“Our MDG theONE’s are amazing hazers – I’ve wanted to use them for a long time,” Gant declares. “They create a beautiful, velvety, smooth and even field. What I want is the look of a 1994 restaurant’s smoking section where the haze catches the beams but doesn’t obscure what’s going on. The MDG hazers do a great job of making everything pop without overloading the room.”

Gant says all the gear is doing “great” on the tour. “We are excited to have a relationship with ACT and Bandit, who have both been so helpful. They’re well known for their customer support and will help us immediately with any problems we encounter on the road.”

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