From Basketball To Bono: The Key Transformed In A Few Short Hours

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By Mary Guiden, Seattle Times

Last night, about 17,000 fans at KeyArena cheered on the Sonics in Game 2 of their playoff series. Just one day earlier in the same venue, fans walked into a completely different space, the high-tech rock 'n' roll showcase that was the stage for megaband U2.

The logistics of that transformation are staggering. The Key hosted the first Sonics playoff game Saturday night. Sunday morning, in less than eight hours, U2's stage and equipment -- 16 semitrucks full -- were unloaded and set up. Within minutes after the second concert ended Monday night, crews were knocking the set down. And the arena was ready for basketball again by 6 a.m. yesterday.

How that concert came together is a lesson in the massive behind-the-scenes logistics of modern high-stakes entertainment.

Pre-dawn truck parade

It's 4 a.m. Sunday, and the streets surrounding KeyArena are lined with semitrucks, engines running. The crew, which will total 200-plus people by the end of U2's stint here, is poised for a flurry of activity.

Sixteen riggers -- all local, and union -- are the first to get started at a few minutes after 4 a.m.

KeyArena still has remnants from Saturday night's game, and the floor is damp in spots after the hardwood basketball floor was removed. Cleanup crews are picking up Sonics signs and abandoned cups.

Riggers in the ceiling, 80 feet up and higher, lower heavy strands of rope to chalk-marked spots on the floor. Workers attach a steel chain that is then pulled back up by the riggers. At the end of the steel chain sits a motor, which will hoist itself and a piece of equipment up the chain and above the stage.

Seattle rigger Maynard Smith, 45, says his crew is in earlier than usual because U2's lighting setup is so extensive. At least 25 trunks containing motors are opened up where the stage will sit later in the day.

"It's physically challenging, because you're lifting heavy amounts of weight," Smith says.

Heavy, indeed. The steel chains weigh roughly a pound per foot, with rigging points going as high as 140 feet in the air. Seattle Center stage-crew chief Marty Pavloff says riggers can pull up 10 steel chains at normal speed and then their arms turn to "noodles."

A slew of chains will eventually hold four video screens above the stage as well as trusses filled with lighting.

The man in charge

Directing all this activity is a man with a far-ranging reputation, production manager Jake Berry.

The U.K.-bred Berry, a 30-year veteran of the music business, got his start with bands like Yes, and in the 1980s he ran production on the metal circuit, touring with Metallica, AC/DC and Motley Crue.

"We would do 12 trucks back-to-back when everyone else would do four," says Berry, 52. To compare that to other shows, Rod Stewart's recent tour was contained in eight semitrucks; Pearl Jam typically uses four.

Berry also works for the Rolling Stones -- he guided them on the Licks World Tour 2002-03 -- and he has worked with Tina Turner. He's been with U2 for about 10 years.

This show has some special challenges. To a crowd it looks seamless, but effects like video screens that drop from the ceiling and trusses that move during the show require complex equipment.

The load-in begins

What difficulties do the production crew face on the road? Berry says one of the downsides of setting up at KeyArena is the loading dock, which can handle only two trucks at a time. Most venues allow for up to five. "I would hate to say the terrible design it has," Berry politely says.

The size of the Key is another hurdle. "Because it's primarily a basketball arena we're losing 50 feet of floor space, and space is the thing we need most," he adds.

At a few minutes after 6 a.m., the load-in -- which means the major unloading of all the trucks -- begins. Thirty local hires, all city employees, start work.

Throughout the days ahead, roughly 160 local workers will assist with some part of the show, in addition to the 62-member traveling crew.

Theresa Ballew, 24, of Kent has been working load-ins for six years and says it is her "starving actor" type of job. "Lighting is my passion and theater. It's hard work, but pushing boxes can be a fun thing at times, and it's like a big family reunion," she adds.

The floor is quickly covered with trunks, speakers -- two huge rows of 12 will be hung on each side of the stage -- and boxes containing lights, spotlights, instruments and the materials that will make up the video screens. "It's a cluster, isn't it?" Berry says.

The secret to knowing what goes where, he says, is on the crates. Every case is marked so that anyone can tell its contents from 50 feet away. Crates marked with red go on the right, blue on the left. Speakers are numbered. "Letters, numbers and colors, so it's like 'Sesame Street,' " Berry says.

Berry says this load-in is going smoothly, although he is willing to share a list of things that tick him off in general: disorganization, people being late. He says he can't handle "walking into buildings after you've done 50 shows and having people try to tell you how to do it."

A few minutes after 7 a.m., the rigging crew is done. (Three workers, including Seattle's Smith, will hang out to monitor potential problems.) Fifteen minutes later, the road crew begins to unload pieces of the stage. Unlike many other acts, U2 brings its own massive, silver-paneled stage. The pieces of the stage are assembled at one end of the floor, complete with instruments, then the crew has to push them into place after the lighting grid is hoisted to the ceiling.

At 11 a.m., a call goes out for "all hands" and workers push pieces of the stage together, grunting as they go. It takes more than a few tries to move the stage just inches, and sometimes when the crew yells "push," the stage doesn't even move.

It's now time for more minor details, like adding a tambourine to the drum kit and putting up barricades around the stage. Nearly half of the people working the load-in are sent home.

The reason for it all

U2 hits the stage a little before 9 p.m. Sunday night, the first of a two-night stand. Bolstering the band's music is a showcase of high-tech effects: video images splaying across a giant curtain that appears and disappears behind the band, and a stage with an elliptical walkway that allows frontman Bono to get close to the crowds on the floor.

The trucks are loaded and ready to go by 3 a.m. yesterday, and the Seattle Center crew makes the transformation back to basketball -- a three-hour feat that required putting in the floor, changing the seating configuration and setting up media areas and interview rooms.

U2's next stop is Vancouver, B.C., where they play tomorrow night, and Berry's crew will do it all over again.

"Bono says it all when he says, 'Thanks for giving us a good life,' " Berry says.

"It is a good life, and I meet a lot of interesting people. I've traveled to India, China and Australia. It is [also] a glamorous profession; people want to talk to you when you say you're the production manager for U2. You don't get the same reaction when you say you're the branch manager of the Bank of America."

Mary Guiden: [email protected]

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company. All rights reserved.

2 Comments

I can't wait to see the show in Detroit this October, last time I saw U2 was in 1999 Pop Mart Tour, in Detroit on Halloween night, I walked out of that show speachless, this show sounds like it will out do any other band on the road today, Long Live Bono , I'm a CANADIAN, I would like to invite Bono to run for the P.M.'s Job in Canada.

GOING TO THE MANCHESTER SHOW ON 15/06/O5 CANT WAIT.SEEN U2 FOUR TIMES BEFORE ROUND HEY PARK LEEDS, BEEN THE BEST OF THEM (POPMART)IF I CAN CHOOSE A FAVORITE CAUSE THERE ALL FANTASTIC.IM GOING WITH TWO OF MY FRIENDS WHO HAVENT SEEN U2 BEFORE I KEEP GOING ON HOW GOOD ITS GOING TO BE AND I KNOW THERE GOING TO BE GOB SMACKED.WHEN LIFE IS A BIT CRAP I ALWAYS PLAY SOMETHING OR WATCH U2 AND IT ALL SEEMS OK,IT MAY SOUND A BIT DAFT BUT IT WORKS FOR ME.THANKS TO U2 FOR BIENG THEM.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on April 27, 2005 5:10 PM.

Bono Assembles an Army was the previous entry in this blog.

Jim DeRogatis talks with U2's Larry Mullen Jr. is the next entry in this blog.

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