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The Piano Man

The Piano Man
The Piano Man

UK – It’s mid-afternoon on Saturday 10th September and Stageco’s crew are present in a damp and virtually empty Wembley Stadium as Billy Joel sound checks with his band. A living jukebox, Joel plods through classic after classic, none of which are his own. “Ground control to Major Tom,” announces the singer with a Bowie impression so on the money that even the most cynical head is turned.

This was the prelude to a magical evening in the hands of a master entertainer. The second of only two European dates on his latest tour, following a show at Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena, this was Joel’s first-ever concert at Wembley Stadium. An entertainer in every sense of the word, this was the prelude to an extraordinary evening, filled with the best from Joel’s immense catalogue, linked with side-splitting stories and mock-Cockney banter.

“I don’t have anything new for you… just the same old sh*t,” joked the piano man as he opened the show. To the loyal audience who showered the artist with waves of love and respect from start to finish, it mattered not that his last new rock album was 1993’s River Of Dreams.

Inside the spacious production office, Bobby ‘Boomer’ Thrasher is a commanding presence. The affable production manager is currently midway into his 35th year with Joel. “Billy’s been my man all the way through and it’s wonderful that we have someone who can sell out stadiums like this and keep us all in work,” he said. “I came into the fold around the time of [live album] Songs In The Attic, and I’ve been very fortunate to be part of his career and be available for when he goes out to perform, which isn’t so frequent these days.”

Thrasher was referring to Joel’s present touring regime which amounts to an average of one show per week, as well as a commitment to play a monthly gig at Madison Square Garden in home city of New York. “It’s an irregular kind of tour that we’ve been doing for the last three years. Billy decided to work at a more casual pace and it’s interesting how that’s panned out.

“All the dates in the itinerary are booked to fit around his MSG shows, which are sold-out a year in advance. This is a perfect approach for Billy [67] who likes to give all of himself but allow time to rest his voice, and I have to say that it’s a regime I personally like.”

The production of Joel’s concerts continues to evolve around the newest technology even though his presentation has hardly changed for some time. The same can be said of his crew: show/lighting designer Steve Cohen and FoH engineer Brian Ruggles have served 85 years between them, and many others have been mainstays since the mid-1980s.

Said Thrasher: “I think that Steve would agree that Billy’s shows aren’t production-led because that’s not necessary when you have his charisma. The audience just want to hear him sing and play. His only gimmick is a rotating grand piano.”

Six days before the show, Stageco brought in 11 trucks with Hendrik Verdeyen leading a crew of 12. “This has been very good to work on and it’s great to do it for Boomer, who is such a nice guy,” said Verdeyen. “Being as there were only two European shows, we needed plenty of time to prepare at Wembley. We started the stage build on Monday and had three steel construction days followed by a production day and then a Friday rehearsal. It could not have gone smoother.”

With Bart Dekelver providing R&D support, as he did on other recent projects including Rihanna’s Anti World Tour, Stageco provided a four-tower stage spanning around 60m. Reserved by co-promoter Live Nation UK last December, there was a notable exception to its standard configuration, as Verdeyen explained. “Due to the height and scale of the video screen, they needed a higher roof to enable enough clearance. That meant we had to add some extra counterweights and bring in some different gear, but it wasn’t something we couldn’t deal with easily. The clearance between the sub-deck and the main roof is almost 20m.”

Thrasher’s relationship with Stageco’s operations director Tom Bilsen developed after they first met through Bruce Springsteen, the PM’s other long-term touring client. “Tom has been my main point of contact in Europe for Stageco ever since,” he said.

“He gets our systems designed and packaged, and I never have a single issue with any of it. I’ve worked with their stages countless times in the past with other artists and I’ve hired Stageco for Springsteen, but until recently we have mostly been indoors with Billy when we’ve come to Europe. This has been the first time I’ve had to book an outdoor stage for him.

“For me, Stageco is the company that really has it all together and I know what I’m getting into when I get them onboard. It’s a very clean and organised system that is always calculated correctly with all the safety features built in. They have the best crew and I get along with them every time without fail, so there’s really no reason why I would want to go with anybody else.”

Stageco has provided services at Wembley Stadium many times over the last few years. Crew chief Hendrik Verdeyen claims that although it’s not the easiest stadium venue in Europe to negotiate, it is by far not the most difficult.

“The pitch is normally fully covered and you can drive trucks everywhere but this hasn’t been the case for this show because there is a football match [Spurs vs. Monaco] here next week,” he commented. “We only had about four metres in front of the stage for our trucks, so we had to adjust our loads and work within the parameters. With support from Showstars’ local crew, we have to remove our front of house riser and delay towers from the pitch by 8am tomorrow, and then have everything else out by 8pm.”

Billy Joel’s Wembley concert was the last European stadium show of the summer for Stageco. What does that mean for Verdeyen in the coming months? “After a small break, I’ll be working on some of the fashion shows in Paris before heading off to Australia with the Coldplay tour. It won’t be long before we start to hear about next year’s big projects. We just keep rolling on!”

photos: Mark Cunningham

15th September 2016

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