photos: Steve Jennings
It may be just four guys with guitars. But these four guys have written thousands of songs, and each one is a distinctive storyteller with a unique voice. The four guys in question happen to be legendary singer-songwriters Guy Clark, Joe Ely and John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett.
The foursome first performed together back in the '90s when the Country Music Association sponsored a songwriter event that put all four onstage together. Last year, the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, Calif., began presenting the troubadours as part of their concert series, which features world-class musicians on the grounds of Villa Montalvo, as well as outlying venues in Northern California. One of those outlying venues is the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, where Mix caught one of their intimate acoustic performances in late January.
Engineer Steve Jones (pictured at monitor position) standing at the Soundcraft MH3 console
Originally opening in 1929 as one of the premier movie houses on the San Francisco peninsula, the Fox Theatre eventually fell into disrepair until the late '90s, when Mike Monte and John Anagnostou bought and restored the venue. The recently refurbished Fox is a big room with art deco embellishments and spacious acoustics that seats between 1,200 and 1,400.
Montalvo production manager Tony Wilson, who was in charge of the sound reinforcement system for the Fox Theatre shows, contracted Sound on Stage (Hayward, Calif.) to provide the sound system. Sound on Stage installed the L-Acoustics V-DOSC system with dV-DOSC front-fill speakers for house sound and Power Physics KB-2 stage monitors.
Billed as a “songwriter in the round” performance, each troubadour plays a mini-set — strumming a few songs and providing explanations of the songs. This anecdotal setup often yields priceless dialog between the old friends. Oftentimes, the others will supply backing guitar licks and harmony vocals. After each artist has played his songs, the show peaks with all four harmonizing for an encore.
Engineer John Richards at the Fox Theatre's Yamaha PM4000 front-of-house board
Engineers John Richards and Steve Jones are used to traveling with Lovett's 15-piece Large Band, which usually requires 50 feeds on the front-of-house board. However, for the Lovett/Clark/Ely/Hiatt shows, Richards — who runs Concert Productions in Murfreesboro, Tenn. — only has to mind 12 of the available 44 channels on the Fox's Yamaha PM4000 console.
“What I learned from working with Lyle's Large Band is to go onstage and listen to the instrument you're trying to mix. All of these people are really into acoustic instruments, so we're trying to make it sound as real as we can,” Richards says of mixing for the Fox audience. “I don't do too much. I'm mainly limiting their vocals. There are annoying frequencies in every room at 400 and 3k. So I'm using a wide-band EQ to cut out those frequencies. I'm not really using any compression at all. We're trying to make it as bright as it can be.
“We're doing a lot of fly dates,” Richards continues, “so we're traveling light — just microphones. It's about the easiest dates we do.” The crew travels with Shure Beta 87C vocal microphones and SM81s for Clark's homemade guitar. Clark is the only guitarist not going directly into the console. “It's the first steel string that's he's ever produced,” Richards says of Clark's six-string. “We're miking it with a Shure SM81 and it sounds as good as the DIs.”
Another reason to mike Clark's guitar stems from his playing technique. “Guy will move around the microphone all night,” Richards says. “Guy is literally working his microphone to get different low-end sounds from his guitar. You couldn't do that in an outdoor setting with the wind blowing!”
As for the other guitar feeds from the stage, Lovett uses a Sunrise guitar pickup that runs through a Demeter tube DI. On Hiatt's guitar, a Fishman Blender — which combines a single-coil magnetic pickup with a condenser mic — is routed to a Demeter tube DI. Ely uses a LR Baggs AC GT pickup and an LR Baggs preamp combination.
At stage left, Jones operates the Soundcraft MH3 monitor console and is also Lovett's guitar technician. “It's four mic stands, four mixes,” Jones explains. “I try to keep it as simple as possible because I have to take care of Lyle's guitars and two or three other things onstage. It's simple stuff, but we dig it. It's one of those shows that lasts two hours, but goes by in 10 minutes.”
Many of the audience members attend all three nights of the Lyle and Friends shows at Fox. There's no set list and every night's a different show. You never know what you're gonna get from the collective treasure trove of chestnuts: Clark's “L.A. Freeway,” Ely's “Me and Billy the Kid,” Hiatt's “Memphis in the Meantime” or Lovett's “Road to Ensenada.”
With material like that, an engineer doesn't need to worry about effects or sweetening. “Each one of those musicians has a certain way they want their instrument to sound. I'm not here to change that,” Richards concludes. “I'm just here to reinforce that sound for the whole room.”
Jeff Forlenza is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco area.