Erykah Badu and The Cannabinoids Tour Profile

Nov 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By David John Farinella
Photos: Steve Jennings

UNKNOWNS KEEPS ENGINEERS ON THEIR TOES

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Erykah Badu performing live.

Erykah Badu performing live.

To prepare for previous tours, Erykah Badu would get the band and sound engineers Kenneth H. Williams and Kenny Nash together in Dallas for a couple of weeks of rehearsals. But when Badu called on Williams and Nash for a run of shows this September, there was no mention of rehearsal — all they knew was that they were due in San Francisco on September 3, 2009.

Welcome to The Cannabinoids tour, a collective of Badu and seven producer/DJs: longtime musical director RC Williams, Jah Born, Rob Free, Symbolic One, Picnic, and DJs A ONE and Big Texas. The “band” was put together to combine the vibe of live music improv with the technology found in the recording studio. Badu's new musical peers pulled songs off of nearly every one of her releases, bringing new life to “On & On,” “Apple Tree,” “Danger” and “Soldier,” the latter from her latest release, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War.

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However, Williams and Nash didn't know this when they arrived at the San Francisco International Airport just eight hours before showtime. “The first time I met the guys was at the airport in S.F.,” recalls front-of-house mixer Williams. “The first time I heard the band was at soundcheck. We didn't know the input situation with the computers and turntables, who was singing vocals, what parts they were singing or even the song list until we got there.”

That might send other mixers scrambling but Williams had learned a valuable lesson when he joined Badu's camp six months earlier. “The first thing that Kenny and [lighting designer] Martin Thomas told me was that they subscribed to the Navy Seals motto of ‘run and gun.’ They said, ‘Hey, we kind of know what's going on, but we just go for it. You'll get it after the first show.’”

“You've got to learn to do things on the move,” Nash adds. “She's an artist. You learn exactly what that means, and you learn what she's looking for and how things flow in her world. Artists move really fast: They see life differently and they need people like us around to stabilize things. How do we make sure the picture she wants happens? That's on us on the technical side.”

FOH engineer Kenneth H. Williams and systems tech Gabe Nahshon of Sound on Stage

FOH engineer Kenneth H. Williams and systems tech Gabe Nahshon of Sound on Stage

For the pair of shows in the San Francisco Bay Area — September 3 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and September 4 at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland across the Bay — the tour rented gear from Sound on Stage. The only thing Nash brought was Badu's Shure KSM9 microphone and her Theremin. For the P.A. system, SOS supplied 20 boxes of L-Acoustics V-DOSC, eight SB218 subs, six ARCS and four JBL MS 28 front-fill speakers. The sound company also supplied a pair of Yamaha PM5DRH desks for FOH and monitors.

The 5Ds became crucial tools for both Williams and Nash as the two didn't figure out until that first soundcheck was who was going to play which instrument. “When you have a bass guitar and a guitar, you know that one is going to provide the bottom and the other is going to do more of the melodic lines,” Williams explains. “With the computers, samples and drum machines up there, any of the eight people could be the bottom or the drums or a melodic instrument at any point. And it would change from song to song. In fact, during the set I had to constantly use my headphones to verify who was playing what and figure out the structure of the song.”






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