Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For 'Tour Tales,' we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it's still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on 'Tour Tales.'
Thirty-six-year-old tour manager Giovanni Vargas is the consummate professional on the road. He's watched Solange bring her ambition to museums and helped bring Outkast back to the stage. His mixture of ardent professionalism and intimate experience with the creative processes of legendary artists allows Vargas to give insights into things the average fan may not see onstage. For example, Andre 3000's initial frustrations with Outkast's 20th anniversary tour in 2014.
"If Andre said the first couple of shows were rough that probably was because Coachella had a heavily Anglo, white crowd that's more often than not younger, that didn't know their full catalog," the tour manager told REVOLT TV.
For this installment of 'Tour Tales,' Vargas tells us about the constant changes made to Outkast's 20th anniversary tour, the original plan for Solange's Super Bowl LIVE performance in 2017 and how bus companies are making touring more difficult.
You was the assistant tour manager for the epic 20th anniversary tour from Outkast in 2014. How did you get involved in that tour?
By that time, myself and Silbert Mani started working closer together. He had been contacted about the tour. The only other person he had at the time was me. He and I were running the whole thing. Most of the time that I spent with [Outkast] was overseas.
Before the last show of the tour overseas, an Andre 3000 interview came out with The New York Times where he expressed how he didn’t feel that into the first few shows and "fluffed through rehearsals." When you saw him rehearse, did you notice anything was off?
I don’t think the creative for the show had really been conceptualized completely. I say this to everybody, ‘Presentation is everything.’ In my opinion, the show has to look like what the music sounds like. I think early on on the tour, even in rehearsals, we changed up our stage three different times. Earlier on, there were risers onstage. Essentially, the show was a box that we projected imagery onto. Initially, the box was on risers. We had multiple risers on the back part of the stage and they were covered by white turf. I saw that as problematic immediately because when you have risers with turf on top of it, you don’t really know where to step. That’s one of the first changes. Someone got injured on that turf and so, that turf went away. So, we kept the stuff on risers.
At one point or another, the risers became useless. So, we ended up just putting the box on the stage. That changed multiple times. The video content that was going on with the tour changed multiple times. Once the visual guys got a better idea of what both of the artists wanted, that’s when the shows really started to be fully entertaining. I think that’s what Andre meant.
Outkast has decades of hits. But, they also have what I call ‘tour hits,’ deep album cuts that weren’t singles, but get live reactions like they were. What were Outkast’s biggest tour hits on that anniversary tour?
First one that comes to mind is ‘Crumblin' Erb.’ I wasn’t expecting it to have that response from the crowd. It always got a good response. We played Wireless Festival in London. It’s a really big crowd and they had a really good response. The last show of the tour was at Voodoo Music Festival in New Orleans. It was a really strong show because everybody knew this was the last show of the tour.
What was on Outkast’s rider for that tour?
It was a bit of liquor and wings, lemon pepper (laughs). There wasn’t nothing too crazy.
Anniversary tours are tricky because you have newer generations of fans who may not be as familiar with the classic songs as the older generation. Was there ever a point, creatively, where y’all struggled with appeasing both generations?
No. Actually, I think Outkast has always been true to themselves. The challenging part of that was actually the very first show at Coachella. You do Coachella twice. So, if Andre said the first couple of shows were rough that probably was because Coachella had a heavily Anglo, white crowd that’s more often than not younger, that didn’t know their full catalog. They may have known ‘Ms. Jackson,’ ‘Hey Ya,’ and songs of the sort. A lot of those folks ended up walking away during that first show. Outkast always stays true to themselves. After the first two shows, it was a really big indicator that there needed to be a trimming down of the set list and a serious talk about creative.
In The New York Times interview, Andre said Prince and Paul McCartney came to that tour. Who were some other special guests?
Future was a guest on the first show. Janelle Monae and Little Dragon came a bunch of times. The guys from Public Enemy came. Nas came to see one of the shows, if I remember correctly. It was a lot of that. In Atlanta, they did the Outkast ATLast, and a lot of legendary Atlanta artists came out.
You started working with Solange as her tour manager a few years after Outkast, at the end of 2016, in support of her classic A Seat At The Table album. Four months after you started working together, she said in an interview that the tour wasn’t planned yet. What was the vision like for her live show in December 2016 and how did it evolve to what it ended up being?
Early on, it was more so focused on the band and what the band looked like. It had a lot of moving pieces. Closer to April 2017 was when the ideas of how she was going to have multiple types of shows [began]. We played the Guggenheim [Museum] in New York and it was a phenomenal piece of art that she put together herself, top to bottom. She did the choreography for the Guggenheim show and it was completely different than what was done at any other show. We did a run of museums. Her idea for that was bringing not only black people into spaces they’re not often sought out to attend, she wanted to bring a new piece of art into those types of spaces.
Solange is ambitious. Were there any things she wanted to do on tour that just couldn’t happen?
Yeah, there was a show we had in Houston for the Super Bowl where she wanted to put some set pieces onstage. The Super Bowl show was the first visual representation of what she wanted the festival show to look like. The circle behind the band in her show was initially supposed to happen for the Super Bowl show. Unfortunately, it couldn’t get put together in time because with these stages, there’s a lot of safety concerns they’re trying to account for. I think the issue with that one was flame retardant fabric.
What was on Solange’s rider?
Throat Coat was definitely important. She definitely requested a lot of organic and fresh fruit.
Who’s the funniest artist you’ve ever been on tour with?
Big Boi is quite the comedian.
On tour, you have to adapt if things go wrong or different. What have you had to adapt to on tour?
(Laughs) The artist that I’m currently working with (Playboi Carti) is frequently late. So, just having to adapt to how we communicate show times, venue curfews, or expense of what exceeding a venue curfew would be.
What is the cost of exceeding a venue curfew and how does that effect the shows?
A lot of the venues we go to have curfews. They may have noise curfews because it’s in a residential area. If the artist happens to exceed that curfew, the venue can impose a fee. It can be by the minute. It can sometimes be $1,000 per minute. If an opening act runs 10 minutes late, that could push back the changeover, which could make the next show late. Then, you have to talk to a headliner and explain why they’re going on late and why they have to hurry a show, so they don’t hit a curfew. You never want to have that conversation with a headliner.
What is somethings you’ve seen change about tour directing that has changed for the better and worse?
For the better, technology has helped a lot. From things as simple as GPS to digital day sheets. I know early on, you would print day sheets and slide them under people's doors at the end of the night, so they knew the next day's schedule. More often than not, recently, it's become just digital day sheets, whether it's via email or via a text message. Hopefully, it'll transition to using one of the touring apps, so it's all done through the mobile phone and the smartphone. Over the years, bus companies have modified their regulations in terms of how long bus drivers can drive. That definitely makes the job a lot harder because that adds to the price of how much it costs for that to happen. Sometimes you have to add double drivers.
You worked on the road with Lil Uzi Vert. He said earlier this year that he's retiring. But, can a rapper retire or will they just not record and perform all the time?
I think [Andre 3000] is a good example (laughs). He said he got past that phase [of making music]. People look at different things in life and priorities change. I definitely think it can happen. I don't necessarily know that Uzi Vert feels that. The industry is a tricky thing and you get to a place where you're fed up with it and you make certain brash moves. For the sake of music, I hope that he doesn't retire.
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