In The Light with Jefferson Waful – Part II
It turns like the huge earth ball slowly surely and evenly round and round spinning… – Selected Joyce Letters, edited by Richard Ellmann
Photo by Kevin Browning
RR: You’ve received fairly positive feedback from the various fan boards on the net. I was wondering how you felt about that. What has been the acceptance of your lighting work from the Umphrey’s McGee fan base from your point of view?
JW: I would say that the response from the Umphrey’s fan base has been overwhelming positive. I don’t always feel comfortable getting praise. Certainly, it feels good to know that people think I’m doing a good job, but I always view it as the whole crew is a team, and the whole crew helps me setup the lights, and they all do their jobs to the fullest extent. Each member of our crew is equally integral to making the show happen. If our monitor engineer has an amazing night, he’s going to be just as responsible for making that show great. An improvisational band, especially—the monitor mix with him anticipating where the band’s going, which instrument the band needs to hear during the jam, you know like if Jake [Cinninger] is taking an active role in the improv, our monitor engineer, Bob [Stone] might turn up Jake just a little bit in everyone’s ear because he knows that Jake is the lead voice at that particular time. All those little things are going to create an amazing show.
Because a light show is so in-your-face and so palpable, people will tend to compliment me, and a lot of times I feel a little bit guilty. People don’t usually go up to the monitor guy, or our tour manager, or sound guy, our crew chief, or our stage manager and say, “Hey, great job tonight,” because it’s not as easy to notice maybe. To me, I feel like all those roles are integral to the band and I’m just a small part. I wish that the rest of the crew got as much recognition as I feel like sometimes maybe I do. “Oooh—flashy lights!” is easy to see because it’s so in-your-face.
RR: How was your debut light show at Alpine Valley when Umphrey’s opened for the Dave Matthews Band in July? What were your thoughts about that weekend?
JW: Well, first of all, I have a whole new respect for the Dave Matthews organization. The fact that they have opening bands at all is a testament to their character because they can fill those venues on their own and they certainly don’t need opening bands to help sell tickets. They have such a classy production and management team who were nothing but friendly and welcoming to us, which isn’t always the case when you’re opening for bigger acts. The fact that Dave personally comes out and introduces the opening band each night speaks volumes. Most headliners of his caliber wouldn’t even be at the venue yet at that point in the evening, but he always makes it a point to do so.
As far as the light show, there wasn’t much of one simply because it was still pretty light outside, being an outdoor summer show. But their lighting team certainly let me use a large amount of their rig and was nothing but accommodating. I was running a full light show, but it wasn’t very noticeable with the sun shining on the stage.
RR: What have been your most memorable experiences with Umphrey’s McGee?
JW: By far, one of the most transcendent experiences of my life was when the Chicago Mass Choir performed with the band this past New Year’s Eve. Had I been there just as a fan, I would have thought the same thing, but to be involved in the performance aspect was just other-worldly. It was easily one of the top 3 musical experiences of my life. The nature of gospel choirs in general is based on channeling a higher power, so when the band combined “Amazing Grace” and their own “Glory” with the choir, the energy was literally through the roof. I still get goosebumps and tears of joy when I watch the video. I made absolutely zero effort in running lights for that song. It was like an out of body experience and the light show just seemed to run itself. And, that is precisely the reason we all do this. For those moments. It was pure heaven, and it wasn’t about the band playing a bunch of notes on some crazy technical level, it was just this overwhelming wall of positive energy.
RR: What are your goals for the foreseeable future?
JW: It’s very rare that I walk away from a light show thinking “Wow, that was perfect.” A couple times, I’ve thought of the analogy of pitching a perfect game. It’s very rare that that happens. I don’t think it’s ever happened to me that I walk away saying “Everything went perfect.” I think that I’m always motivated to improve. Certainly with Umphrey’s McGee, I have a long way to go because I’m still learning the nuances of the music.
Just listening to a band over and over and over again is not enough. Being a lighting designer, you have to actually physically execute the cues to the music because there’s a certain level of dexterity that you have to achieve in order to make the light show look the way you want it to look. And the first phase of that is learning the music. In the second phase, you have to, by trial and error, figure out what looks good and what looks bad. The third phase is carrying that out. The fourth phase is carrying that out, flawlessly.
There are just a lot of layers and I’m still barely at phase one with Umphrey’s of learning the music. I think I’m going to be motivated to pitch that perfect game if I am so lucky at a certain point. By that I mean no errors, no hits, no walks, and no hit batsmen.
And just like in baseball, you need a lot of luck from your fielders, your defense, to make a lot of great plays; I’m relying on the band to play the perfect show. In improvisational music, that’s subjective. When everyone is playing well together, that’s what I’m looking for. I want to have a show where every little thing is perfect. I know that’s not actually possible, but that’s what I’m chasing. Every little nuance of the music is accented in a way where it’s not too busy, and it’s not too flashy.
It’s hard for me to sometimes find my voice because the band has been together for so many years that they all know the part that they’re supposed to be playing—in a composed section of the song, anyway. Our percussionist, Andy [Farag] knows the part he is supposed to play, and Ryan [Stasik] knows the bass line he’s supposed to play, but I’m still trying to figure out what is an appropriate lighting theme, or a certain level of complexity or simplicity. It’s important for me to find my voice, or to find an appropriate level of lighting for a given song.
For example, I had been with moe. long enough that I knew the style of the individual players. If Chuck [Garvey] was soloing or if Al was soloing in a given song, I sort of knew the parameters of the solo. Obviously, the solo’s going to be different every time. I knew that Chuck is going to start off by introducing a theme, and he’s going to build it, and it’ll eventually peak, then he’s going to give a certain look to the rest of the band, and that’s when the solo’s going to be over. Al might go in a different direction. Al tends to throw more curveballs so with Al, you might think that the solo is about to peak, and then he might go in a different direction, and he might reprise that theme.
I knew, very intimately, the different styles so that meant that I could interpret things that they did in a certain way, and I knew I wouldn’t be repeating myself. For example, when I sensed that Chuck was getting to the end of his solo and the climax was near, I could go to strobes, and then he started to move his hands really fast. I could even tell by the way he stepped on a certain pedal that he was about to kick it into high gear. There were different levels to his solos so I knew when he looked down, he would step on a pedal, and “O.K.—here comes the strobe part.” That’s how I interpret what’s going to happen next.
With Umphrey’s, there’s more of those sixteenth-note arpeggio runs so I need to learn new ways to interpret that. It’s a really steep learning curve and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m an amateur when it comes to Umphrey’s music, and I’m trying to learn the nuances.
RR: However, I would gather you are enjoying this opportunity.
JW: I am enjoying it immensely. I think that it’s like any job in that no matter what the outside perception is of “wow, what a great job”, when you’re in that job, you see it as anyone sees their job—what you need to improve upon and where your weaknesses are. It’s like any job in that you view it differently when you’re on the inside rather than when you’re on the outside looking in. I do enjoy it, but it’s much different than just going to a show, watching and taking in the majesty of improvisational music than when you’re actively involved in the process. There’s less enjoyment and more concentration.
RR: When I ran into you at Bonnaroo, you were involved in some VIP work. Are you still linked with ConsideritDan, and is that part of your workload?
JW: Absolutely. Dan [Berkowitz] is someone who I’ve gotten to know really well since moving to Brooklyn. We have a lot of mutual friends, and we’ve really hit it off. He’s just one of those people I clicked with right away. We’ve got the same sense of humor. I work with Dan whenever I can, whenever I have free time, and whenever I’m home. Ultimately, I feel so passionate about the experiences that I had when I was 18 or 19 years old going to shows, having my mind blown that at the end of the day, I want to help other people have those same experiences. Whether it’s lighting or writing or radio or putting together these travel and VIP packages for fans, it’s ultimately all working together towards the same goal. I want to be involved in something that I believe in. So yeah…Bonnaroo was an amazing experience because I’ve been to enough of these festivals that I know what I liked as a fan, and what I don’t like about going to a festival. Dan and some other people on the Bonnaroo team have been working with ways to bring people that VIP experience. To me, that was a joy to work on.