David Beebe says he likes all kinds of music. Good thing, too. As house LD at The Birchmere outside Washington DC, he gets to light a dizzying assortment of musical acts from rock and blue grass, to jazz and show tunes. Supporting artists of all stripes has been a hallmark of this club since Gary Oelze set up a small stage to boost traffic at his restaurant back in 1966. Future stars like Alison Krause, The Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker and Dave Mason have all caught important breaks here, and many have returned to perform at the 500-seat venue after making it big.
In keeping with its restaurant roots, The Birchmere continues to serve food, establishing quite a culinary reputation for delicacies like its Jail House Chili and Pear/Bacon/Smoke Gouda Pizza, along with beverages like Brooklyn Lager. The chance to see internationally acclaimed artists and enjoy some pretty good eats to boot, has made The Birchmere a favorite among the famous and connected. Bob Dylan and President Bill Clinton are among the many celebrities who have been spotted in its audience.
Lighting it all, from the pre-show dinner to the performances, has been Beebe’s job since 2004. Taking time from his busy schedule in advance of a show by the legendary Graham Nash, Beebe spoke to us about his work at one of America’s most famous music halls.
We understand that The Birchmere hosts 270 shows a year. That’s quite a schedule, how do you keep up with this pace as the house LD?
“It’s my job to LOL! Seriously though I don’t really think about it. We have slow periods like the spring and summer when a lot of our acts do sheds, and we have busy periods where we don’t have a day off for a month or two. It all evens out.”
Can you give us an idea of your schedule? When do you show up at the club? How do you get ready for a show? What’s a day in your work life like?
“Every day is a little different really, some days load in is at 4pm, and some days it’s noon. Just depends what type of act we have that day, a singer-songwriter with a guitar or a full band with a semi’s worth of gear. I try to be there at least 2 hours before load in time, usually even earlier. I live about an hour away so I want to make sure I get there in time even if there’s an accident on the highway or something — I also have a lot of other things to do. I handle the club’s social media and website as well as setting up and printing the daily menus and a few other things. It’s easier to get work like that done at work rather than home, fewer distractions.
“As for getting ready, the first thing I do is help set up any of the in-house gear if the band that day is using our gear, then we pull mics and so on. Once the band positions are set I focus our ellipsoidals and any other lights I might want the focus changed on. I either check my notes if the band has been here before, or I ask the band if they’re okay with haze. Then I set my focus points and do any other programming that I might feel necessary for the show. When the band does its sound checks I do a little bit of everything to check my focus and make sure that the band is okay with everything. If something bothers them, I make whatever change that might be needed. If the band has their own LD, I help with anything he or she needs, whether it’s programming, focusing or setting up set fixtures that they may have brought in.”
What about once the show starts?
“When it’s show time I make the pre-show announcements, bring down the house lights and announce the artist. If I’m doing lights I run the show; if not I watch the show and take pictures and post to our Instagram and Facebook. After the show we tear it all down and put away our gear and load the band out.”
That sounds like a nice routine! How long have you been the house LD at The Birchmere?
“I’ve been doing lighting for about 37 years, I started at The Birchmere in August of 2004 so this will be my 14th year.”
You host a wide range of different artists, does this affect how you set up your rig? Is versatility super important?
“The setup isn’t really changed other than a bit of focusing. I tend to do a fair amount of lighting on the drums so if the band’s drummer is stage right or left rather than center I move the floor cans I have upstage and use them around the drums. If the drummer is upstage center, I have lights from above that position. Other than that, it’s really a matter of what type of lighting I do and what fixtures I use in the rig during the show. Yes, versatility is important, the more I have to use, the more looks I have at my disposal, which is always better. I may only use a little in one show and then a lot the next day. I want to keep the audience (and me) from getting bored. But I also am careful to not overuse since the show isn’t about me!”
You also host a lot of big name and legendary acts. Do they always have their own LDs, or do they ask you to do the honors?
“Actually, many don’t, in a month I might have three visiting LDs. Of course, some months there’s more and some there’s less. The visiting artists don’t really ask me to be their LD; it’s kind of expected as something the house provides, just like supplying a FOH.”
When you do have visiting LDs, what’s the secret to getting along with them?
“No secret really, we all want the same thing, an easy day, a happy artist and a fast load out LOL. I’m friendly, give them whatever they want, if it’s in my power to do so, and help them in any way I can.”
How does lighting a show at The Birchmere, which has table service, differ from lighting a concert at an auditorium setting? Do you have to be more concerned about distracting with “flash,” because the venue is so intimate?
“It’s not too different, I only use the ‘flash’ when it’s appropriate but if it’s appropriate then I do it. This IS a concert we’re talking about after all! I do try to keep the PAR focus on the stage and out of the audience, on the other hand I do have battens focused on the room for lighting the audience up when necessary.”
How do you transition from house lights to stage lights at the beginning of a show? Is it gradual?
“The doors open at 6pm and the show starts at 7:30pm every night. People eat in those 90 minutes. I set a ‘walk-in’ look for that time so that there is some color on stage. When I do the pre-show announcements 5 minutes before show time, I change the stage to a blue look. At the start of the show I fade out the lights as I introduce the artist. Sometimes the band starts when the lights come and then they introduce the artist. When the visiting artist says start, then I start.”
What are the most important personality traits you need to have as a house LD?
“Be nice, be professional, and know your console. It’s also important to be honest; if you don’t know something admit it and find out the answer.”
What kind of input do you have in selecting the fixtures used in the club’s rig?
“It’s all me. The current rig is my design, the fixtures chosen were ultimately up to me, but I had a lot of help from my friend Jason Reberski of JR Lighting in Chicago. He helped with suggestions of fixtures and then gave us some great pricing on everything. I should say the selection is up to me, but the ability to purchase is certainly up to our owner Gary Oelze. I’ve been very lucky in that he sees what’s needed and has given me the opportunities to act on that vision.”
Can you give us a little background? How did you get started in lighting? What do you regard as some of the highlights of your career?
“That’s a bit of a long story. I started in the business in high school. Somehow, I became the manager of a friend’s band, got them into a local club. Then I met other bands and went to work as an assistant sound engineer for one. I learned a bit about sound, but never really had the ear for it. An engineer I worked with asked me to go on a gig with him and do the lighting. Wow, I discovered I liked it and was pretty good at it too. I haven’t looked back since. Highlights of my career? I would say doing lighting for some personal favorites like Linda Ronstadt, Kris Kristofferson, The Proclaimers and more. But really every show at The Birchmere is a highlight to me. I like all genres and everyone that plays here is top notch. Meeting other pros, being able to do different styles of lighting here have really made this job special.”