Photo: Steve Jennings
It was a typical waiting-for-spring Chicago evening in mid-March outside the Riviera Theatre in the Windy City's old Uptown neighborhood. (Performance photos were taken at San Francisco's SF Weekly Warfield.) The audience members who lined up to get in and hold down a spot in this converted Vaudeville-age venue were as young and pretty as James Blunt's mega hit, “You're Beautiful,” sounds. Tour manager Robert Hayden was in charge, and everything was set for a great evening of well-performed and finely produced music.
With a strong lyrical leaning and classic pop rock sounds, Blunt has already captured his home base in the UK with his first major release, Back to Bedlam. The former British soldier appears to be the next big thing in the U.S., as well. “You're Beautiful” is the first Number One single held by a UK artist on American charts since Sir Elton John charted with “Candle in the Wind” in 1997. The real treat for Blunt and his fans during this phase of nonstop world touring is that the U.S. venues are intimate theaters for now. At press time, Back to Bedlam had sold more than 5 million copies, but no one could have imagined it would do this well when the tour was in the planning stages.
“We've found that we could have sold out 4,000 to 5,000 seats every night, but the planning at the time was just to try to fill the 1,000-ticket venues,” says Mike Hornby, who is the veteran front-of-house mixer for Blunt. With more than 20 years of experience working with acts such as Radiohead, Supergrass, John Cale and Joe Strummer, Hornby is no stranger to powerful lead vocalists.
For the Riviera date, soundcheck ran a little late because of a testy component, but it all got resolved. The tour's monitor mixer, Gerry Wilkes, says, “We are touring with a Midas Heritage 2000 for the front and a Heritage 3000 for the monitors; they are excellent and dependable.” For the U.S. leg, Chicago company dB Sound/Sound Image is providing racks and stacks. The local system tech, Tim Shust, is on hand to make sure that what he says is the “dB standard theater system” of Electro-Voice P3000 power amps and X-Array boxes perform as planned. Klark Teknik EQs and XTA drive racks round out the meat of the system. “Because of the size of the venues on the tour, all the speakers and amps are being provided locally,” Wilkes says. For the earlier European leg, Skan (Reading, UK) provided an L-Acoustics V-DOSC system. “I can't say enough about how excellent Skan was in Europe,” Hornby says.
Front-of-house Mike Hornby (leaning) and system tech Tim Shust (too busy on the phone to pose for the camera!)
Photo: Craig Dalton
Accompanying Blunt (the vocalist plays keys and guitar) onstage are Karl Brazil on drums, Malcolm Moore on bass guitar and Paul Beard, also on keys. The musicians are consistently tight and limber-sounding, and Hornby says that they are pleasure to work with; they allow him to do an old-school, straight-ahead mix. “From a punter's perspective, I don't have to ride the faders a lot; the band is very dynamic on their own,” he says. Indeed they are, as Blunt moves from guitars to piano, from noisily rocking to quiet balladeering with and without the band's accompaniment.
Blunt has a signature vocal tone that is altogether powerful and melodic. This is an ideal situation for Hornby, as he can put Blunt's vocal “straight into the microphone and straight out of the speakers — he's just that good,” Hornby says. The engineer says that he rarely uses any effects on Blunt's vocal (only when the room is completely dead), and he only uses a little compressor/limiter when he has to worry about crowd noise level. They are always “a very enthusiastic bunch,” he says of Blunt's fans.
According to Wilkes, Blunt and the other musicians are all using wedges; there are no in-ears to be found. Wilkes says he's worked with in-ear monitoring on many tours, and it's all a matter of band preference. For the upright piano, a MIDI box is used to send signal for the monitor mix, and the microphone feeds from the Shure KSM 32s mounted over and under the piano sound box are sent only to FOH.
Mic-wise, it's plenty of Shure SM58s and 57s onstage, and Tom Krajecki of Shure has just delivered new KSM 32s for the upright piano and KSM 44s to be used as drum overheads starting with the Riviera show. “It's been all Shure the whole tour,” says Wilkes. The vibe of the band is “very '70s”: big piano, Wurlitzer and Hammond, a '70s drum kit, valve guitar and bass amps. “It's all about dynamics,” Hornby says.
Dynamic is definitely the word to describe the performance. With guitars, organ and drums pumping loud through the E-Vs during the first three songs, the fourth number switches to Blunt solo on upright piano and vocal. As he settles into a breathtaking performance of “You're Beautiful,” the crowd enthusiastically sings along — word for word. All the while, Hornby is checking levels and watching cues onstage, but he doesn't have to ride the faders much at all. “He's very accurate,” says Hornby of Blunt's microphone technique.
Also on tour is Marcus Douglas as system technician, or “P.A. bloke” as Wilkes calls him. He is the son of Sound Image's director of touring, Jim Douglas. “I'm happy to be out here with James,” says Douglas, already himself a veteran of many tours. “James is excellent every night; he's great to work with.”
System tech Marcus Douglas (left) and Gerry Wilkes, monitor mixer
Photo: Craig Dalton
“We've got a lot of talent on the tour,” Hornby says of both the technical support and the band. After completing their dates in the U.S., the crew and band will travel to Australia, Japan, Mexico and then back to the States, with all of one week or so off somewhere in the middle of it.
Momentum keeps building. It seems that Blunt is turning up everywhere, from TV commercials to cell phone company mailers to videos played constantly near department store CD racks. It is a good bet that the next U.S. leg of this tour will play in larger venues, and tickets will be even tougher to get.
Craig Dalton is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Contact him at