WASHINGTON – On the catwalk suspended a hundred feet above the arena floor at Verizon Center, where you look down on the giant scoreboard that hangs over the void, the air smells like cigarettes and the atmosphere is eerily calm.
Calm, that is, if you’re one of the riggers hanging equipment for the Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias concert one Saturday last month. But if you’re an average mortal, you are not calm. You are starting to pant. The abyss presses in; the only thing between you and a 10-story plunge onto concrete is an open metal handrail on either side of what feels like a footbridge to a heart attack.
Better to focus on the riggers. Trussed up in harnesses that triangulate around their hips, they look like superheroes in cargo shorts. They are forbiddingly cool as they take a break before getting back to hauling up chains. One is so cool, in fact, that he’s napping on a pile of the burlap scraps he’ll use later to pad the beams. Another rigger leans over the railing as he smokes, casually flicking ash into the emptiness.
A man the size of a linebacker strolls jauntily across the catwalk as if he were ambling down the street on the happiest day of his life, the harness forcing his legs wide so that he bounces and rolls a bit from side to side.
Draped in coils of red rope, Phil Vasko brushes past with a greeting and a big grin. You’re not leaving the best office in the city, are you? he asks.
By the time Lopez and Iglesias start their soundcheck several hours later, 136,000 pounds of speakers, lights and video screens will dangle over the singers’ heads. Each piece will have been guided into place by upriggers like Vasko, who creep along the beams to secure cables and chains, and downriggers on the arena floor who attach the equipment.
Rigging a rock concert has always been hard physical labor. But as shows get more technologically complex, they require ever more intricately coordinated manpower. With two artists teaming up for this tour and each aiming for a separate spectacle – one production staffer calls the J.Lo/Iglesias alliance a battle of the bands – there’s a lot of gear to hang.
There is a truth acknowledged with some irony by veterans of the road: People come to see a show, not hear a show, says Omar Abderrahman, the tour’s production manager. He got his start as a rigger in the late 1970s, the era of REO Speedwagon and the Cars, when no one wore a harness and speakers were stacked on the floor.
That’s not good enough for the arena concerts now. In roadie-speak, the Lopez/Iglesias tour is known as a heavy show. Eighteen trucks transport 80 crates of instruments and 1,500 cases of lights and other equipment to each venue. Once they pull up to the loading dock, a construction site unfolds, with separate spheres of action.
There are three stages to build, trusses to construct, two video systems to assemble, dressing rooms to set up with wicker furniture and J.Lo’s crystal-encrusted costumes.
After the show, every last element will be swiftly broken down, packed away and loaded back on the trucks. In the space of 22 hours, a multilevel monument to sensory overload and celebrity adoration will be built and unbuilt.
It takes a cast of 100 to do it.
6:30 a.m. on the loading dock: Forklifts zip by, heading into the arena. Loaders follow, leaning into the boxes and carts they’re pushing. Two guys pick their way through the stream of motion like something out of a vaudeville routine, stepping gingerly as they guide lengths of metal trusses bridged across their shoulders.
Make way for Enrique’s mirror ball! A clutch of workers scoot past, wheeling the glittering orb in a hamper, nestled in blankets like a giant ostrich egg.
Even the hardened local crew members, Verizon Center regulars from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, are awed at the ball’s planetary size. Look at that (sucker), marvels one.
Within an hour, the floor is crawling with downriggers carrying ropes and chains, craning their heads back as they look up. Because the real show is high above. You need binoculars to see it; scanning for upriggers in the shadowy heights is a particularly elusive form of bird-watching.
There’s Steven Eajewski, beam between his legs, tattooed calves and boots dangling free. As a length of cable rises up to him, he stretches out across the beam to grab it, part Peter Pan, part gymnast. Except there’s no net.
10:30 a.m.: Surveying the hive of quiet industry as riggers set up the dueling sets of screens, Abderrahman, the production manager, is a model of calm. They don’t pay us any extra to panic, he says. Set this sprawling show up in a day? No worries. Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks played Verizon Center the night before, meaning the Lopez/Iglesias roadies had to wait until the local crew had packed up the Heart and Soul gear, which took until 2 a.m. Some of the same workers came back two hours later for this load-in.
Back in the day, arena shows could be packed into three or four trucks, as it was with Jethro Tull, the first tour Abderrahman worked on nearly 30 years ago. U2’s 360 stadium tour, with its portable outdoor roof modeled on part of Los Angeles International Airport, is probably the biggest rock show on the road ever, he says.
It’s so big that instead of one caravan of trucks traveling to each venue, duplicate sets fan out to various cities at once to set up in advance.
Abderrahman grew up in showbiz: His Moroccan grandfather and his father were acrobats; his mother was a trapeze artist. As kids, he and his brother had a trampoline act. When he left home, stepping onto the beams as an uprigger felt natural. But in the days before harnesses, he watched people fall – and die.
It’s still a dangerous business. If one guy uses a wrench, sets it down on a speaker and it goes up in the air and falls, it can kill someone, he says.
Eventually, a bulky, blocky village of equipment rises several stories into the air.
Much later, after the last fireworks explode, after the dancers turn their final flips, after the confetti falls, this vast, towering, temporary world dissolves. It happens in double time.