It Was the Best of Gigs, It Was the Maddest of Gigs

By in Live Sound, On Tour with Massive Attack

The following is the fourth in the series, On Tour with Massive Attack, from Robb Allan. Robb will be sharing his perspective as both a touring FOH engineer and Avid live sound team member.

Glastonbury

Glastonbury—the world’s best festival in terms of the people, the lineup, the vibe, the totally ridiculous size of the folly, the breadth and depth of the humanity on display. Its imagination, madness and genius.

And then there’s the mud that stinks and clings to your boots and clothes as if from a perverted obsessive need never to leave you, that finds its way into secret places in equipment and clothes and hides, so that you only find it days later. Its poignant, cloying smell transports you straight back to the zenith or nadir of your summer.

On Tour with Massive Attack: It Was the Best of Gigs, It Was the Maddest of Gigs

Photo by twak / CC BY 2.0

Man I love Glastonbury, except for the two times I have to get from the relative civilization of the stage and its attendant facilities, through the apocalyptic, First World War trench conditions that the audience have to endure, to the FOH position. You might say I’m laying it on a bit thick (and I have been known to embroider a tale, ask anyone), but those two journeys for the line check and the gig are always epic. How people spend days and days there in tents and stuff. Blimey.

For some reason, I’d been provided with a pair of boots, each one a different size—one perfect and one too large. I guess someone else on the crew had a mirrored pair of mismatched boots. I did ask but couldn’t find the other victim. Anyway, I always felt like I was going to lose the right boot to the grasping hungry mud. I kind of had to walk in mud crop-circles.

The Only Desk for Muddy Fields

It took me a while to get to FOH. In days past I’ve needed forklifts and suchlike to get my desk out there. Having to get there at stupid o’clock, before the audience, and have a Manitou driver and several bleary-eyed crew guys get my kit out to the appropriate position. Then wait for hours afterwards, while everyone else on the crew was showering, celebrating and drinking the rider, ‘til the crowds thinned and my forklift mate would take it all back to the loading bay. Not this time though, uh, uh, joy of joys! We turned up and as I made my journey to FOH in random ellipses (due to aforementioned footwear instability) four guys carried all my kit in one trip! The S3L is the only desk for muddy fields—it’s official.

On Tour with Massive Attack: It Was the Best of Gigs, It Was the Maddest of Gigs

The lovely chaps from Skan PA had set aside a space at the front of the riser for my desk. It was generous and my desk so small that I could have had a sofa and chairs, coffee table and telly there as well. Next time. As I set up my keyboard stand to put the S3 surface on, there were the usual roadies’ witticisms, largely centered on two themes: was I the lounge piano player? Do you know ‘summertime’, do you do weddings as well?, etc. The second and more popular vein of humor caused much mirth drawing parallels between size and performance, I pretended not to understand or made my usual reply, explaining the law of inverse proportion. Seriously though, there was genuinely lots of interest in the desk and a steady stream of my engineer friends and acquaintances from through the ages coming out especially for a look and a fiddle. When the laughter had died down and the wits had finally run out of quips, I set about wiring it up and had a chat with Matt Vickers and Tom Tunney, the system designer and FOH chief, respectively from Skan. They were super friendly and accommodating. I remember as a youngster being really intimidated the first few times I had to mix at a large festival. The guys in those days were more jaded, cynical, harder and less welcoming. More or less challenging your right to be there. They used to scribble a mark out of ten for your mix next to the list of bands who had performed. Before you left! I’ve seen people leave the FOH tower fighting back tears of indignation and humiliation.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m older (I always have the prefix veteran in front of my name these days in print descriptions), or the younger guys are happier and cleaner living, but it’s a much more pleasant atmosphere nowadays. The Skan guys had a nice chesterfield sofa, offered me a beverage and generally treated me like a welcome guest. Thank you very much.

We’d travelled overnight from Luxembourg, so I didn’t have time for my customary Virtual Soundcheck—gutted. It feels so essential now, I can hardly remember mixing sound without it. The festival was in full flow when we got there so no chance; however, as I listened to the mighty D&B J-Series rig as the earlier bands played, I felt confident I’d have a good show. It’s incredible to think Avid invented the whole Virtual Soundcheck thing less than ten years ago. Such a short time but it has so fundamentally changed the way we work in Live Sound that, without it, I feel a little underprepared.

By the way, the festival that we’d just done in Luxemburg was in the grounds of a newly converted convent. It’s now an arts center. The stage had a beautiful view of the castle perched on a cliff top behind it. The local guys told us a really creepy thing about the convent. During the restoration they knocked down some walls and they found babies’ skeletons from different eras. Gothic or what??

On Tour with Massive Attack: It Was the Best of Gigs, It Was the Maddest of Gigs

Photo by Eduardo / CC BY-SA 2.0

Mixing the Show

Back to the PA at Glastonbury, the Other Stage has around 40,000 to 50,000 people watching and it was absolutely rammed for our show. It was really well covered by a D&B J system—twenty per side on main-hangs and fourteen per side-hang with a mix of J-SUB and J-INFRA cabinets in the pit to provide a cardioid sub array. From the small amount of sloshing around I did in the audience, it seemed to be really even and very well covered. One of the disappointments I’ve had at other festivals over the summer has been the sketchy sub coverage; no problem in that department here.

The system was designed to ensure that all the audio was focused on the audience, as there are pretty strict offsite noise limits. I’ve very, very rarely done this, but I sent them an email afterwards to congratulate them on the system. Their reply was very flattering; modesty forbids me from quoting it (there has to be a first time right!). All in all, we were all very satisfied with the marriage between S3L and J-Series. This summer I’ve mixed on K1, J, and Adamson and had great results with all of them. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I’d have to say the J was my favorite. Speakers just keep getting better and better. It’s such a joy to recall a song for Virtual Soundcheck, I usually use ‘Paradise Circus’, unmute the channels and hear almost exactly what you want from the get-go. At Glastonbury I didn’t even have the chance to do that. Just unmuted the channels and hoped the preparation had worked and I wasn’t going to make a fool of myself in front of all my peers and the 50,000 strong Massive Attack posse.

People often ask me if I get nervous before a show. Yes of course I do. If you don’t get a touch of the yips, you don’t care enough and probably need to think about career choices. The first song kicked in and it was all there from the off. I could relax and enjoy. Tom came to my side and told me I had headroom. I said thanks but it will build. There was a 100dbA LEQ over 60 minutes noise limit. The first song was in the mid-nineties. I was saving some of the LEQ average for later. Angel peaked at 106 but overall I managed to end up just under the limit for my show.

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The set built and built and the crowd swayed and danced, climbed on each other’s shoulders, sang along and waved their flags and banners. There was a gorgeous sunset behind me as the set started, adding to the magic of the evening. The desk performed impeccably. The snapshots triggered from the code, freeing me to concentrate on mixing. I was spinning in delays, adding dub snare reverbs, shaping each song as it grew and developed. Massive Attack have these amazing musical changes of gear. At times songs build in volume and complexity then instantly drop to a small synth theme or chiming bell. I try to underline the highs by, for example, exaggerating some of the aggressive frequencies in the guitar and enhance the drops at times by adding a tiny detail such as moving the bells around in the stereo image with every other ambient microphone muted. It’s all played live and the band is so tight that each single dramatic moment is perfect. I’ve mixed Glastonbury many times, but this has to be my favorite in terms of the PA and the mix.

On Tour with Massive Attack: It Was the Best of Gigs, It Was the Maddest of Gigs

Afterwards we drove past Stonehenge just as the sun came up, adding to the slightly mystical feeling of the whole Glastonbury experience. Even this cynical old roadie had to admit to feeling something other-worldly by the end of it all. It got me thinking about my favorite ever mixing experiences and maddest gigs.

Top 4 Gigs Ever

4. World Cup kick off concert, South Africa 2010

We had 12 Avid consoles mixing the FOH, monitors and broadcast. Great line up: Shakira, Black Eyed Peas and more. Special atmosphere, really short changeovers and 2 billion people watching on TV. Lots of shouting, brilliant Britannia Row crew. My partner in crime Chris Lambrechts and I manned desks, mixed bands, ran around helping people program shows, load up plug-ins. We didn’t sleep for a week. The most tired I’ve ever been.

3. Manic Street Preachers – Headline Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury 1999

250,000 people were at Glastonbury that year. I swear every one of them watched the Manics. There was a sea of flags and humanity all the way up the hill. Several Glastonbury aficionados said it was the most people they’d ever seen at the Pyramid stage at any one time. It was even a sunny weekend, really! Bryan Leitch, our lighting designer, had brought in a huge water-cooled laser system and he placed a green laser roof above the whole crowd. Spine tingling. Every single person in the crowd sang “Design for Life” and “If You Tolerate This” as if their lives depended on it.

2. Coldplay – Live 8, Hyde Park 2005

200,000 people crowded into Hyde Park for a bill that included The Who, Pink Floyd, Madonna and U2. No pressure then. Playing with the big boys. I was mixing on a console I’d never worked on before and U2 used up all our sound check time, but it all worked out. Richard Ashcroft guested with the band and they played “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, absolutely epic. Then Chris sang such a beautiful version of “Fix You” and we were gone. It was only four songs but an awesome, historic gig.

1. Manic Street Preachers – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff 1999/2000

Millennium night at the new Cardiff stadium, in the Manics home city. 80,000 crazy Welsh Manics fans. When the band got on stage for the first time, everyone cheered so loudly that a warm beery wind from their voices blew across the very chilly FOH position. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I was nearly overcome with emotion. Here were three guys I’d shared driving duties with, in a van, playing pub gigs. We’d been through so much, including a terrible loss, I loved them like brothers and now they were flying on a wave of such enthusiasm, energy and pride, returning to play for their countrymen on such a special night. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

On Tour with Massive Attack: It Was the Best of Gigs, It Was the Maddest of Gigs

Top 2 Maddest Gigs Ever

2. Manic Street Preachers, Bangkok 1994

We were booked to play two nights in a large empty space, a conference center, five stories up on top of a shopping mall in Bangkok. The first ever rock band of any kind to play there. Elton John had played a sit down concert there once apparently. The set up was pretty crazy; we’d hardly flown in any of our kit, as it was too expensive and difficult. The bass rig ended up being a Marshall 4 x12 supplemented with a PA sub bass. The JBL PA they’d brought in from Japan was just about usable. We kind of made it up as we went along. The only thing missing was an Akai sampler needed for some string parts. The local production manager kept saying, “Soon come, be here in an hour.” By the second day, an hour before the doors opened, I was getting a little impatient and demanded to know exactly what was happening. My guy burst into tears and said, “Sorry there isn’t one anywhere in Thailand.”

I said, “Well why didn’t you tell me?”

He answered “Because I knew it would make you unhappy.”

I thought that was kind of beautiful and left it at that. He’d rather delay and obfuscate to save me the inevitable sadness.

There was no security barrier in front of the stage. We were told they didn’t use one for Elton and not to worry. “You do know you’re dealing with a punk band right?” The show started and 10,000 Thai kids went absolutely crazy as if, for the first time, they’d let their rock and roll demons loose. Within eight bars the stage was full of Thai punk rockers pogoing and going mental. Diving into the crowd, surfing on top of each other moshing, screaming, and the like—absolute bedlam. I loved it, the band were rocking, spinning, jumping, playing out of their skins. Never seen anything like it.

Later we’d were told that all the kids jumping up and down at the same time had brought down the ceiling of the food court, which was directly under our gig. They’d had to evacuate the building. We had a meeting with the police, the mayor, the promoter and a few other responsible types. In the end we were allowed to play the second show. They had to prop the floor up with Acro’s and brought in the army for security. These guys had AK47s and cattle prods. They told me if things got out of hand I had to turn down the volume. Deptford John said “What’ll you do Button if they tell you to turn it down?” I said, “John, they’ve got machine guns and weapons of torture, I’ll do exactly what they flippin tell me to!”

The band starts, immediately some brave guys start crowd surfing, except this time we’ve got a row of little, but tough, Thai marines in front of the stage. Every time someone surfed to the front of the stage they were zapped by the cattle prods and carried twitching to the side of the stage, losing all control of their bodies. Mayhem. By the end of the night there had to be a hundred Thai punks lying by the side of the stage in various shades of ruin. No long-term harm done, I think—probably just needed some new jeans. There was a weird moment in the middle of the show when Nicky Wire, in typical fashion, said something less than polite about the King. The whole crowd took a sharp intake of breath then went completely silent! Eerily still. We later found out that the King was seen as a semi deity even by punk rockers and the Wire had truly shocked them, more than the cattle prods, self-harm and all the rest.

 

1. Manic Street Preachers – Teatro Karl Marx, Havana Cuba 1994

You might have heard of this one. God knows I’ve told this story enough times. The Manics, in their own inimitable style, decided to play in Cuba, out of solidarity and to see what was going on. The record company didn’t want to get involved so they paid for the whole thing out of their own pockets. It was a big deal, as no Western rock band had ever played there before, and it was even on CNN as a news item.

We, of course, had a slightly different story seen through the lens of the roadie world. We had to bring in everything. Every single thing. There was nothing there to put on a gig. We hired a charter jet to fly in all the smaller stuff, but PA stacks and racks, trussing, lights etc. were shipped in. The stuff from the airport arrived on time, however the container ship carrying everything else couldn’t get through the reefs to dock because of bad weather. We had a few things and got on with setting all that up. All we’d asked for was 100 amp three-phase power and some local crew to help physically move our stuff.

The power: each phase was made of twenty pieces of 5-amp cable bared at the ends and twisted together. When we explained that wasn’t really what we had in mind to tail into our distro we got another surprise. In order to give us this much power they would have to close the power down for a whole swathe of Havana so we could only have all of it for the show. Anyway it was a hypothetical problem seeing as all the kit was stuck outside the port in raging seas. We decided to call it a night and come back the next day and see where we were. Next day, no sign of the ship. Next day the same.

We woke on the day of the show to good news—the ship had docked and the PA was on its way to the gig. Great, we rushed to the theatre and then waited around for a couple of hours. Eventually it turned up in these ancient, flatbed trucks. The local crew, who all looked a bit too clean-cut and martial to be the local crew (secret police?), showed no interest in unloading trucks. I had a little Spanish and tried to explain that normally it was considered part of their job description to help carry equipment. They explained they were just going to sit there in the shade and smoke cigars and such, Claro? Yes, clear, no ambiguity at all. We had to load every single flight case by ourselves. It was 40 degrees Celsius and humid. No air-conditioning of course. This was before my road-to-Damascus digital conversion and we had to manhandle my huge old analogue board and effects racks to the FOH position up a million or so stairs. Man there were some sweaty roadies that day. Anyway we got it all in and up somehow. All ground stacked, even the lights. We had enough power to turn bits on one at a time.

Some kid turned up in the afternoon and asked if he could play guitar. He explained that he loved rock music but couldn’t afford an electric guitar and only had an acoustic; he just wanted to try an electric guitar, just this once. Deptford was going to kick him out but James said no, let him have a go. He’d never seen all these amazing amps and pedals and his face just lit up. Then James strapped his Les Paul around the kid’s neck and he grinned like he was fit to burst. Loads of white teeth, great dental care in Cuba, but there are no electric guitars. The first chord caused him to stagger backwards from the sheer power of the amps. It’s still the loudest guitar rig I’ve ever heard. Anyway he played his heart out and we all loved it. It felt like a real connection. He didn’t leave empty handed, let me tell you, now there was at least one electric guitar in Cuba.

We completed our sound check, of sorts, and were sitting around watching as the crowd poured in. The Karl Marx theatre is the biggest in Cuba and holds five thousand people. The young crowd had banners and flags and were so excited. The first ever rock gig they or anyone else in their country had seen. The tickets were 25 cents each! It was at this point we we heard a mad rumor; Fidel Castro was going to pass by the gig and say hello to the band. No, surely not. Then he was there. Tall and straight, wearing full jungle fatigues, hat and everything. I remember he had a really sharp crease down the front of his combat trousers, immaculate. He chatted to the band and named a couple of their songs he liked. Incredible, this man had fought alongside Che Guevara and now knew Manics songs. He said he particularly liked a song about baby Eli, who’d been at the centre of a sad family tug of war case that was in the news at the time. He asked if the boys could play it early in the set, as he had to leave for another engagement. So you’ll watch some of the show? Really? Amazing! Nicky then ventured that as we were a rock band and we’d flown in a huge Turbosound Flashlight PA from the UK, he felt he should warn Mr. Castro that it would be really loud.

Castro looked down at him from his full height, with his big beard and booming voice and said “Son, it cannot be louder than war”.

So there I was in Havana, which was all-dark outside, because we needed all the electricity in the whole town to do our gig. Fidel Castro sitting behind me, literally behind me, nobody between us. The gig is worldwide news and five thousand screaming kids are going to see their first ever gig. Not just another day at the office then. I have to say all the kids in the audience were warmly smiling and waving at ‘El Presidente’ as if he was a favorite Uncle, not a military dictator. “Eh Jefe, Eh Fidel Buenos noches.”

The gig was amazing. The kids loved it and had a great time singing along and waving their flags, a bit like a very humid, cleaner version of Glastonbury now I come to think of it. The leader stayed all the way to the end. I kept looking over my shoulder thinking what must he make of all of this? He had a benign smile on his face and sat there tapping his foot as if he was having a great time. I hope he was.

That night, after we had put everything back on to the lorries, we had a great celebratory party. Who was going to believe this story when we got home? We kept shaking our heads and saying, “did that really happen?” We were supposed to leave the next day in the morning, but then the message came through at breakfast: before you leave you have to have lunch with El Presidente!!

“But what about the flight?”

“Don’t worry the plane will wait”.

“Eh,….ok”.

Before lunch begins, El Presidente Fidel Castro stands up and taps his glass for silence. He then says in his huge, bass heavy, declamatory voice: “Yesterday I said you couldn’t be louder than war. I was wrong. You were louder than war and you, you” he points at Sean the drummer, “you are the artillery.”

As a live sound engineer, I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing artists including Coldplay, Massive Attack, Manic Street Preachers, Natalie Imbruglia, Richard Ashcroft and Lisa Stansfield. I have also mixed broadcast sound on David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Jay Leno, the Brit Awards, the MTV Music Awards and the 2010 World Cup Kickoff Concert.
  • Tom Gordon

    I always love your rock & roll stories Robb!

  • RA

    Hi Tom. How are you? Saw your anniversary with Gearhouse. Congratulations. Hope the family are well. lets talk soon. all the best Robb