The American Dream may be a rare sight these days, but in Saratoga, at least, I think I found a little bit of it backstage.
Thomas Harvey, Head Rigger at the 2,500-seat Mountain Winery amphitheater, loves what he does. It’s a tough schedule, he says, with long days, late nights, and early mornings, but the crew’s good up there. Plus, it’s literally his job to watch world-class concerts. “There are so many nights where I’m leaving a show and I’m pinching myself, because that was not only the best show, but the best experience,” Harvey tells me by phone a week or so after I visit the remote, spectacularly scenic venue.
His job, he explains, is to maintain the integrity of “the grid.” At the start of the concert season in May, a specialized structural engineer comes in to calculate the weight ratios for the winery’s cantilevered light system. But the lights and set pieces change from night to night, of course, so for every show, Harvey hangs new lights, corrects for potential imbalances, and coordinates his crew. Safety is paramount, and Harvey talks a lot about how vital it is for stage crew members to keep their cool no matter what. Somehow, I’ve never contemplated the enormous weight hanging over performers and often audiences during concerts. I can feel my gaze travel upward now in my mind’s eye, and I think, well, yeah, it would be great if the people hanging stuff up there stayed calm. Apparently, that’s exactly the kind of person Thomas Harvey is.
“Rigging is the most underrated and overlooked of the music industry professions, and Tom is the top of his craft,” says the winery’s production manager, Jon Garrett. Harvey is a soft-spoken man, Garrett says, but has a vivid memory for detail, a deep understanding of music production, and a genuine camaraderie with his crew. “When he does speak, we all listen like E.F. Hutton.” It’s a reference from the 1980s, but the old advertisement’s image of people gathering quickly and quietly has yet to be replaced in popular culture; perhaps it isn’t something people do very much anymore. Our attention is more often on blowhards than on storytellers, let alone on co-workers who might have something to tell us about our own lives.
Rigging may be overlooked, but it can be awesome, especially at the winery’s outdoor theater, where concerts take place looking out over the Santa Clara Valley while the sun goes down. “I’ve seen some just magical stuff happen here,” Harvey says. “A lot of times I’ll be on headset when I’m running a spotlight, and the [artist’s own touring] lighting director’ll be saying ‘Oh my god, they’ve never done that before. Wow!’”
I witnessed the Mountain Winery effect with my own eyes the night indie supergroup case/lang/veirs played. Mid-show, lesbian country-music legend k.d. lang announced that she loved the next song, and would like to dance to it. Bandmates Neko Case and Laura Veirs suggested she do so. And that’s how k.d. lang jumped off the stage, waded into the crowd, and started shaking outstretched hands and dancing in the aisles. Harvey says the band’s lighting director was floored. “He was used to having them do the same thing every day. Same setlist, no interruptions, so pretty much every show ends within a couple seconds of each other. And they were going off!”
Harvey tells me he first got into this kind of work because he loves music and music’s stories, in addition to regular adrenaline rushes. At UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate, he took the famous oral history class with professors Marge Franz and Paul Skenazy, and says that someday he’d like to write a book to document the stories he’s heard from his colleagues, whom he invariably refers to as “my brothers and sisters.” It sounds like an unusually interesting family: Neil Young’s longtime production manager, Jimmy Page’s first guitar tech -- “and the thing is, every time somebody passes away, all those stories and all those memories are lost.”
What makes this career possible, however, is the boring stuff. Harvey eventually realized that in addition to the excitement and rockstar shenanigans, he’d gotten himself a really good job. “I might be able to actually retire doing this,” he says. “I have a pension and an annuity, and I also have health insurance." As for benefits like a 401k plan and a flex plan for premiums, childcare and medical expenses, Harvey credits his union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE. (The link between labor unions and the health of the middle class is well-documented; a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper “suggests a ‘strong, though not necessarily causal’ link between the power of labor unions [and] the well-being of the middle class,” according to the International Business Times.) "It was really the best decision that I made in my life," he says. "I’m a member of Local 107 in Oakland, Local 134 in San Jose, and Local 611 in Santa Cruz.”
Harvey, naturally, has memorable stories of his own. On November 23, 1997, he was at Fort Mason, trying to hang a stage for George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars. That morning, production trucks had arrived, but the drivers refused to unload anything. They hadn’t gotten their money, so nothing moved. In addition, one of the three members of Harvey’s crew had fallen off a deck and torn his ACL that morning. The real problem, though, was the promoter, the man with the money, who was sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge in a five-hour traffic jam. Woody Harrelson had chosen that day to climb the north tower and unfurl a banner protesting the clear-cutting of old-growth redwoods; a good cause, but bad news for Harvey. He now had two people instead of three, and no stage.
On top of everything, there was the Mothership. “[It] was this spacecraft,” Harvey explains, “that they had suspended from the rafters and then dropped in the middle of the show, and then George Clinton would come out of it.” Currently residing in the Smithsonian Institution, the Mothership “existed conceptually as a fictional vehicle of funk deliverance,” according to its very funny Wikipedia page, powered “by unknown means, presumably The Funk and simple stagecraft.” The band stopped using the thing for many years because of its outrageous cost, but in the late 1990s had a new one built and were at it again.
“So the promoter showed up about one o’clock,” and paid the drivers, Harvey says. “We had doors at 8 and a show at 9… I basically had to go up and down all day, tie things on and then climb back up into the grid and pull them up… I was literally focusing lights with my butt hanging out over the audience five minutes before the band went on.” All the same, says the guy with a retirement plan, it was a kind of career high. “I got to rig the Mothership, which was amazing! Not many people can say that.” For his trouble, P-Funk’s legendary guitar player Michael Hampton invited Harvey to the recording session afterparty at Hyde Street Studios that night.
The very best part of being Head Rigger at Mountain Winery, though, Harvey says, in spite of the downsides like near-constant sweat, a surprising amount of waiting around, and occasionally finding out a favorite band is a bunch of jerks, is his distinctly middle-class joy. “I raised two beautiful kids!” he says. “I can’t really complain.”