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Thu 3 Mar 2011 12:00 AM

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A tall order

Amy Winehouse’s performance at Gulf Bike Week made international headlines last month. The singer’s bizarre on-stage behaviour coupled with the absence of her trademark soulful voice left not only thousands of fans, but also the production crew, disappointed and frustrated. S&S goes behind the scenes to find out how those at the controls coped with the unexpected

A tall order

It started out like any other project. Pre-production on the
Gulf Bike Week concerts last month at Dubai’s Festival City went smoothly, the
crews on-site experiencing a leisurely load-in thanks to the generous
lead-times ahead of the event - even consecutive days of sand storms during the
stage build caused no more than a mere glimmer of concern.

The first night of concerts saw hip hop star Pharrell
Williams take to the stage with his band N*E*R*D, supported by Mike Posner.
Five thousand punters got wrapped up in the show, cheering and singing along,
and technically, it was near perfect.

Then came Friday night, when pop songstress Amy Winehouse
was due to delight an audience in what would be her first appearance in the Middle East. In reality, she left much of the
10,000-strong crowd feeling short-changed and disappointed as she stumbled,
scratched and mumbled her way through a set peppered with boo’s and jeers from
the audience.

In the week that followed the now infamous gig, organiser
Done Events bore the brunt of a wave of public dissatisfaction. But COO Thomas
Ovesen says his team were as disappointed as anyone, and are not to blame.

“Having put all efforts into producing a great show, we
would naturally have wanted the artist to shine. We would also have liked Amy
Winehouse to address her disappointed fans but so far all we have received is
confirmation from her representatives that they will not consider refunds as
her show in Dubai
was full length,” he explains.

He adds that he stands by the decision to book the artist in
the first place, a choice many feel was the wrong one, given her history of
substance abuse and cancelled or aborted shows. “Ten-thousand fans wanted to
see her so we feel it was the right decision to book her… but it seems like Amy
Winehouse might not have been entirely comfortable with her new sobriety and
how that affects her live performances.”

Production partner InHouse Productions agrees with Ovesen,
with MD Nick Groves saying that despite the show’s outcome, Winehouse’s
colourful past was always going to prove a draw card for punters. “Intrigue was
always going to sell at least some of the tickets; intrigue makes money. She’s
got a brilliant voice and she really can put on a great show so it was a real

Despite the singer’s behaviour on the night, he says
production was completed to an extremely high standard, and stands by his team
as well as supplier Protec’s involvement.

“Everybody worked so hard and we’re as disappointed as
everyone else is. When you put so much time and effort into planning something
like this, the last thing you want is for it to fall apart like it did. But we
can hold our head high, because on our end, there were no problems,” he says.

Both Groves
and Ovesen refute claims from Winehouse’s management of technical problems
encumbering her performance.

“I got an email from Amy’s crew that basically said, thanks
so much for your patience, we know the problem was on our end not yours. And I
really appreciate them sending that through, because it backs up what we knew,
that everything from our side was as it should have been,” explains Groves.

“Amy’s production team was very appreciative of all our
arrangements from how we managed the different travel parties to venue set-up
and importantly the level of quality our production team had delivered,” adds

Protec head of production Rob Storm also backs up Ovesen and
his team. “For people to blame Thomas is outrageous. You can’t determine how a
performer will act, she’s a human being,” he says.

“Right from the word go you could tell that she was nervous,
that there was something going on, something was not right. Once she forgot the
words to the first song she blew it,” he adds.

Keen to set the record straight on the preparations for the
event and actions of the locally-based crew, Protec’s production sat down with
Sound & Stage to explain their side of the story.

The stage

Protec’s stage build for the concerts included a debut run
of an all–black serious medium duty total fabrication roof, which thanks to
some extra ballast, withstood the strong winds blowing during set up in the
fortnight prior to Gulf Bike Week.

“It’s quite a powerful roof, especially with all the walls
in – it’s good to about 20 tonnes in the roof. It’s an amazing system, on six
legs,” says Storm. “The beauty of the Protec stages is that they have walls, so
they’re fairly sheltered. Unless the wind is driving right in the front, it’s a
sheltered stage.”

The lights

Complementing the stage’s all-black look, including black
trusses, screens, roof and walls, was a lighting rig as per Amy Winehouse’s
technical rider. And with no spec
provided for N*E*R*D, Protec’s head of lighting Luke Bonner took over
design and programming of the show. “I was pretty happy with N*E*R*D – they had
a lot of energy and had a lot of fun with it. Their shows are very much about
the crowd interaction, it’s not just a one-sided affair. It’s not just him up
there, the crowd is performing back too and he gets his energy that way,” he

“The way I programmed it was for the big looks, the big, out
there in the crowd looks. I strobed it up and used a lot of colour chases and
flashes and stuff like that and really moved it to the beat. It was a lot of

But Bonner says the fun stopped when Winehouse took to the
stage the next night. “I was calling follow spots on her, and it she was just
everywhere,” he explains. “It was just terrible. She was going up to the
microphone about to sing and then she’d just walk off, and you don’t know what
to do. You want to keep a spot on her, because she’s still the main act, but
then she goes over and talks to the bass player, for example, and they talk for
quite a while so of course, you have to take the spot off.

“You can’t keep a light on her for a long period of time
when she’s not talking because it just looks weird.”

He says Winehouse’s usual LD did not make the trip to Dubai
for this show, leaving the job to a “trusted” assistant, who Bonner feels did a
good job despite some last-minute preparations. “When he turned up the night
before, he had nothing, apart from a patch, so he had to programme throughout
the night. It wasn’t a dynamic show, with lots of lighting cues, but then,
that’s not her, she’s not a very dynamic performer,” he says.

Bonner points to the GLP Impression moving heads used as
part of the design as the “some of the best performers on the night,” an
opinion backed up by Rob Storm.

“Those GLP’s are so amazing. Luke did a Coke/Pepsi test
between the GLP Impression and the Mac 301 – and there were a couple of things
on the 301 that were good but the differences were very, very small. If you can
imagine a German and an Italian standing up, when you ask them to sit down, the
German is on the seat straight away, and the Italian takes his time and sits
down quite leisurely – that’s the 301,” he explains with a laugh.

“Luke’s choice was bang on and these types of lights are
appearing on every spec now. They are so much easier, plus the power
implications, the emissions, the weight, all that adds up. I think HMI is going
to be around but is going to struggle against what LEDs bring,” adds Storm.

For Bonner, after the high of a solid production for N*E*R*D
the night before, the Winehouse show was a let-down, the style of which he says
he hopes he won’t see again. “Surely as a performer, regardless of what’s going
on in your personal life, you’ve got to put it aside because you’re working – it’s
your job.”

The video

One of the most visible indications of Amy Winehouse’s
bizarre concert behaviours was arguably on the large screens either side of the
stage. Protec’s head of video and senior video engineer Chris Wimbush had the
undoubtedly tough job of acting as the visual mixer for the gig.

He says his worries set in early on in the set. “The first
song was okay and then from then on I was like, what am I going to do?” he
explains. “It was shocking. When her hands were shaking, I tried to get her off
screen as much as possible but...,” he trails off in frustration.

Wimbush describes the three cameramen – two in the sides,
one at front of house – that complimented an IMAG set- up in the roof, as “top
class” but says they still couldn’t save the day.

“After the first song, I was saying to them, listen, keep
the camera at front of house as a safety on her, because we had colour balanced
the camera’s to the colour temperature of the follow spot, and no one else on
stage gets a follow spots.”

He says the singer’s fidgeting and unease on stage made too
many close-ups undesirable, leaving him to get creative with wider shots, made
more difficult by the fact that her team had requested no roaming cameras on

“Roaming cameras are a big help, because then you can really
get some good cutaways. You can’t have the lead singer on the whole time, but
you do need to have her on about 80 per cent of the time. There was a lot of
colour lighting for the band and the backup singers, which looked great on stage
but are difficult on camera,” he explains.

“I knew she wasn’t going to be very animated, but a lot of
close ups of her were going to be the order of the day. But when I saw her,
looking like she was miming and stumbling just before the end of the first song,
my hands were on my head and I was just thinking, oh-no, what do I do.”

Wimbush also reveals that the presence of autocue on stage,
to feed Winehouse lines from her songs, meant limited the use of the roof
camera in order not to show it. He goes on to admit that the shots he had from
the left and right of stage weren’t “very exciting”, but says he had no choice
but to use them to fill the gaps left by the unsuitable shots of the singer
close up from front of house.

“Considering what we had, I honestly think it would have
been difficult to have improved it,” he says.

Although he feels there was room-for-improvement, Wimbush
says he was generally happy with the N*E*R*D show the previous night, which saw
heavy use of an MA server linked to the lighting.

“Luke had programmed the same colouring to come up through
vision as what he had on stage, so once in a while I could bring that in,” he
says. “In hindsight, I probably brought that in a little too much but it was
something different, to key the camera through the same sort of colours that
were appearing on stage.”

But Wimbush agrees with his colleagues that Winehouse’s
performance has overshadowed the N*E*R*D gig by a long shot. “I’ve cut many
international bands and that was the worst, by a long way,” he says.

The audio

Delta Sound’s Rob Eatock was sound engineer at both the
Winehouse and N*E*R*D gigs, although Winehouse brought with her a monitor team.
He says unlike the Dubai
production team, at least her local crew knew what to expect. “They are obviously
used to the type of show she does – they knew what they were going to get out
of it from day one.”

He admits that while it’s increasingly less common for an
artist to do a sound check in person before a show, in this case, it may have
helped - but he is quick to emphasis the maybe. “It might have made a bit of
difference for us, to be able to realise what we’re getting ourselves into, if
she was in that state of mind,” he says. “In a digital world, everything is
pre-programmed on the desk, there are plenty of ways to check her microphone
without her having to be there. So ultimately, I suppose I don’t think that
would have made a difference or played a factor in what happened.”

Eatock refutes claims there were issues with in-ear monitors
at the gig – in fact, he says, none were used – and stands behind Delta’s
support as well as the touring audio crew. “They are there to do a job and
they’ve done the best that they can do with what’s provided by her vocally. If
you’re singing into a microphone and it sounds terrible, then blame the
engineer. But when you’re not even singing into the microphone, especially
behind a big PA and a big-band sound, you make it very, very difficult for the
engineer to get out of it anything even remotely good,” he says.

“They can only set it up as best as they can. And I can’t
fault their work, to be honest. Hats off to them for trying – they didn’t get
it right but you can’t blame them for that.”

Eatock reveals that Winhouses monitor engineer had not been
completely satisfied with the tour mix, and had planned adjustments anyway,
after the tour was completed. Now, it seems, the pressure may be on to do this
sooner rather than later. “They had planned to work on that after the tour
anyway but obviously her not singing into the mic and walking off stage really
affected that anyway,” he explains.

Winehouse’s erratic behaviour – particularly in moving
around stage and standing too far away from the mic proved as challenging as
the quality of her voice, according to Eatock. “I wasn’t on stage with the
monitor guys, I was at front of house, but there was quite a bit of feedback on
stage that they were trying to deal with in trying to turn up the microphone to
compensate for how far away from the microphone she was standing,” he says. “The
band sounded great, the backing singers who came up and sung on Amy’s
microphone – not even on their own microphones – sounded great, so much so that
we were turning the mic’s down when they came on. Unfortunately in a situation
like that, it’s down to the performer herself.”

He explains that measures to counteract the singer’s
behaviour were ultimately unsuccessful, but admits that even if they were
auctioned, the gig still may not have been salvageable as a ‘successful’
concert. “There were countless messages from front of house to their bass
player on stage, who is the musical director, relaying messages to him via his
monitors saying, ‘get her to move towards the microphones’. In my opinion, that
was the only way that gig could have been saved,” Eatock says.

“Loads of people will say, well, you could have turned the
band down to compensate for her being so low, but that’s not the sound that
they wanted. Her tour manager wants the show itself to follow a certain
criteria, and they obviously weren’t prepared to change the complete sound of
it depending on what mood she was in.”

He supports the opinion of the rest of the production crew
on site that ultimately, Winehouse was responsible for pulling through with the
goods. “It’s the age old thing, you put rubbish in, you’re going to get rubbish
out. You can only do so much.  To make
her sound better was a physical impossibility.”

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