Over the last four years, an intimate event headlined by Madness frontman Suggs and staged by The Gig Company with the aid of Entec Sound & Light has earned close to half a million pounds for Pancreatic Cancer UK, the charity founded to support people affected by the condition, invest in research and campaign for greater recognition of a disease that continues to have the same mortality rate (3%) as it did in 1976.

The annual show, An Evening With Suggs & Friends, was launched London’s Porchester Hall in 2013 by Jenny Johnson and Viva McPherson, the daughter of Suggs – an exceptionally motivated pair of event organisers brought together by the former’s aunt Alanah, who tragically died of the disease.

“That’s what really prompted us to join forces and put on our first PCUK fund-raiser with my dad and some of his artist friends,” explains McPherson. “I didn’t have a clue about pancreatic cancer until my aunt was diagnosed and it’s appalling that it receives just 1% of the funding allocated to Cancer Research.”

While McPherson’s involvement in events came through her work in entertainment marketing, her partner’s job as a stylist for VIPs including top musicians led her down a similar path. Johnson comments: “Our first event coincided with the publicity surrounding Wilko Johnson’s diagnosis. At the time, Wilko didn’t think he had long to survive and he really wanted to help the cause and perform. As it transpired, he made a miraculous recovery, but that is very rare with this condition.

“Having got on so well, Viva and I then founded The Gig Company and our partnership has been part of Alanah’s legacy. We love working together and both have connections with some wonderful people who are very generous with their involvement.”

Now hosted by Arsenal Football Club in the plush Emirates Stadium’s Woolwich Suite, the fourth annual edition on March 17th attracted 380 guests for a three-course dinner that raised a total of £97,140 through ticket sales and the proceeds of a lively auction run by the charismatic Russ Williams.

Preceded by a talk about PCUK by the charity’s Involvement Manager, Debbie Wells, the auction witnessed feverish bids for a holiday at Suggs’ Italian villa that fetched a massive £8,500, a Peter Blake print (£4,000), a life-size sculpture by Schoony (£4,500) and a fully signed Rolling Stones tour poster (£3,600) amongst many desirable items that also included a Gibson Les Paul guitar signed by Ray Davies. “There is no middleman with our auctions,” insists McPherson. “Whatever we raise goes directly to the charity.”

For the remainder of the evening, the audience rocked to a feast of stellar live performances by Suggs, Jools Holland, Rudimental vocalist Anne-Marie and Chris Difford of Squeeze, backed by a world-class house band featuring singers Margo Buchanan and Tommy Blaize of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ fame, guitarists Robbie McIntosh and Paul Gendler, bassist Steve Pearce, Frank Mead and Matt Winch on horns, drummer Neal Wilkinson and keyboard player Dave Arch.

Arch was deputising for the band’s MD Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens who has performed at all previous events but was absent this year due to his current U.S. touring schedule with Sir Paul McCartney. His wife Margo Buchanan, however, remained in the line-up and explained that the driving force behind their original involvement was the death in 2007 of their dear friend, monitor engineer John Roden, the partner of Entec’s operations director Noreen O’Riordan and father of their children.

“We lost John in a matter of weeks to pancreatic cancer and it was such a shock, not just to us but to the whole industry,” said Buchanan. “Since then we’ve lost Jon Lord and only last week we lost another friend to it, who was diagnosed in January. It’s brutal and it needs urgent research, so I will support Suggs and PCUK in their fundraising efforts as long as they need me.”

PRODUCTION COMMITMENT

This family connection is one of the reasons why, for the last three PCUK events, Entec Sound & Light devoted itself to managing the entire production, providing sound, lighting and rigging, while hiring additional services such as staging and risers from Centre Stage, a local crew of 14 from Affinity and trucking from R. Jameson Transport.

“Unlike a lot of event organisers, Viva and I don’t have a production background,” says Johnson. “Our specialities include harnessing the connections, gathering auction prizes and co-ordinating the aesthetics. That’s why it’s so brilliant to work with Entec – whatever we do, production-wise, it’s in their hands. We just tell them what we want and they send in all the crew and equipment that are available. Entec joined us for our second year at Porchester Hall and they couldn’t have done more for us. Once we became friends with Noreen we really turned a corner. Their commitment has been astounding.”

Measuring approximately 60 metres wide by 12 metres deep, the main room in the Emirates Stadium’s Woolwich Suite is ideal for a dinner, however, it can be a tricky venue to negotiate once live music is added to the menu, especially on a stage positioned in the centre of the space. In the absence of any flying points – and with a line of columns extending down the room – it is difficult to hang any lighting fixtures or loudspeakers. Entec’s solution for the last two years at the venue has been to build a six metre box ground support truss from Tomcat elements between two of those columns with around 50cm to spare each side, and then dress the rear of the stage with a 10’ x 24’ Pea Light star cloth, lighting it with a trio of Thomas Pixeline 1044s.

According to lighting designer Mark Wood, this is precisely the kind of event that benefits from Entec’s seasoned troubleshooting. “There’s no getting away from it, this is a difficult one to light,” he comments. “Much emphasis is placed on maintaining good sight lines for the audience so the idea was to keep everything as discreet as possible. There are very few reflective surfaces in the room so a lot of effort was focused on getting colour in there. One way was to uplight the blinds on the back wall to achieve some bounce off of the roof. Due to access limitations, most of the atmospheric lighting had to be positioned at the far ends of the suite and on balconies to avoid running cable across busy walkways.”

Working alongside Will Wright, Richard Brennan and crew chief Nick Burlace, Wood reserved 22 iPix Satellite LED battens to light the columns down the room, while a chain drape either side of the stage was uplit with Thomas Pixel Par 44s, generating a very cool effect. ETC Source Fours with gobo break-ups were hidden behind each column and provided washes across the floor, and five Robe 600 LEDs lined the balcony.

For the stage itself, two lines of seven Clay Paky Sharpy Wash 330s were rigged on the back truss of the ground support with another seven on the front truss, joined by six 1kW Vision Fresnels.

“The great thing about the Sharpy on this event was that to have an impact, it doesn’t require haze which banned at the venue,” says Wood. “Its output is fantastic in that respect and bright enough for any room, and you can achieve some very deep, saturated colours, and lose hardly any intensity. The zoom is also top class, allowing you to use it as a key light and for a wide wash, which is why I also used it to wash the ceiling on a full zoom.”

Wood specified an Avolites Tiger Touch 2 console for lighting control. “It isn’t something I had used very often but Entec purchased one fairly recently and I really liked using it,” he explains. “It’s a small desk that I find it easy to carry around, and it was definitely the right choice for this event. Anything bigger would have been overkill, given the tiny FOH space in front of the stage.

“As usual, I did a lot of the prep work in Entec’s warehouse. The Touch 2’s very simple navigation makes light work of programming; I was programming ‘blind’ during the day before the rig was up, saving palettes, and then tidied everything up on the desk, assigning lights to faders during soundcheck.”

NETWORKED SOUND

Like many of his colleagues, FOH engineer Liam Halpin has worked on all of the last three PCUK shows, and describes the event as “great fun to do, especially as the standard of the musicianship is always unbeatable.”

On show day, the truck tipped at 7.00am. “Last year, we had a rig day,” says Halpin, “but having become familiar with the venue layout, it was decided to cut costs this time by employing two extra people and have everything set up very calmly by mid-afternoon. It really helped that I’d already done three of these events and kind of knew what to expect while at the same time allowing for any surprises.”

In physical terms, the layout of the event defies convention, meaning that it required the main PA hangs to be positioned where side hangs would normally appear. Regardless, Halpin agreed that it was yet another fine showcase for Entec’s d&b audiotechnik inventory, powered here by the brand’s proprietary D6 and D12 amplifiers.

Supplemented by two d&b V-Subs at each side were four V8 top cabinets (per side), flown from the ground support in an upstage left/right configuration, facing down both sides of the room. At the front of the stage was a pair of Y10Ps covering the dance floor area and two Y7Ps mounted off the staff tube to cover near fill.

“It was certainly a wacky system design but it worked,” observes Halpin. “Height restrictions dictated that we install two groups of three d&b dual-purpose T10s on cluster brackets stands as delays. It was probably the smallest and easiest deployed line array you’ve ever seen!”

Halpin mixed the entire show this year on an Avid Venue Profile. He says: “Being that kind of house band-plus-guests arrangement, we always play it safe and run a fairly generic input list because it’s not a band that can ever send out a technical spec. Invariably, we find out that we have a drummer rather than what he’s actually going to be playing. The input count ran to about 40 channels but that included a lot of room for manoeuvre, to accommodate a much larger kit than we had, for example.”

Despite being a relatively small event in terms of audience size, Entec assigned the full technical might of its Dante networking system – an audio standard for the company since it bought into the concept two years ago. “I spent a good nine months developing what amounts to a fairly complex network but we’ve packaged it in such a way that it’s simple to operate day-to-day and is as robust as possible,” comments Halpin.

Two of the networking racks were deployed at this year’s PCUK event: a LM44 drive rack consisting of a pair of Lake LM44 system processors for system EQ and matrixing, and a Cisco 26-port Ethernet switch system; and a RedNet drive rack with two Focusrite RedNet I/O units – one analogue and one AES – as well as a Cisco switcher.

Halpin: “The Profile fed into the RedNet rack at FOH and the Lake rack on stage provided the outputs for the system. Having the Dante units allowed us to cut out a lot of conversion and simplify the patch. I went into prep the gig a few days earlier and using those Dante racks enabled me to foresee a few potential issues.

“You’re effectively running silence while you reload show files on the Profile so we had a little playback rack fed into the Dante system via the RedNets, down to the stage and matrixed in the LM44s. This meant that if I needed to do anything of that nature for a visiting engineer I had instant playback readily available for them.”

In addition to the main system, Entec fielded four d&b E12 speakers on tripod stands in the bar areas, predominately for the reception announcements. “We also ran background music to those speakers from a laptop that was on the network,” adds Halpin. “It was on a CAT5 cable which was a breath of fresh air compared to mini jack cables, and infinitely more reliable.”

MIXING MONITORS

“The way the room is laid out is very similar to a corporate event or an awards dinner,” says monitor engineer Maurizio Schiavi, describing the vibe in the Woolwich Suite. “So it wasn’t surprising that we placed some of our racks and amplifiers behind the rear drape for aesthetic reasons.”

Schiavi admirably rose to the challenge of squeezing 12 wedges into a 6m x 6m space with a nine-piece house band. “That was quite a feat in itself!” he laughs. “There was a lot that could have gone wrong in terms of the wedges firing upwards into the concave ceiling, causing unpredictable feedback through focusing. Liam and I went through a variety of system tests during the early part of the day to work out how best to deal with this phenomenon, and I used my Smaart Live rig to help me set the wedges’ EQ.

“All that mattered was that the performers were happy and that was great to know because these musicians are all very experienced with grown-up expectations of how the limited stage space would impact on the amount of instruments routed to their wedges. We had a chat and made a compromise.

“The singers had to work with the backline in close proximity and it was loud up there. But they’ve performed in every kind of venue imaginable so it wasn’t too demanding to have them play on a stage that wasn’t much bigger than that of an average live music pub. Fortunately, it wasn’t very hard to give them what they needed. In fact, during the gig itself, I was only asked to make a minor adjustment on one or two occasions which, for a show of that nature, was remarkable.”

Although Entec was fully stocked with five packs of Sennheiser IE4 in-ear systems on the day to cope with any request, the singers and musicians worked only with stage wedges, namely 10 d&b M4 and two M6 monitors that were placed downstage right for the BVs – a choice made in order to accommodate Jools Holland’s baby grand piano snugly behind the singers.

At the last minute, the original choice of a Yamaha PM5D-RH monitor console was replaced with the brand’s newer CL5. “I love that it’s fast to operate and so responsive,” says Schiavi. “When you’re mixing monitors you don’t have time to mess around, looking for something on your board like EQs, dynamics and mix sends. You want it right there so you can aid the performance quickly. That’s my job and that’s what I get with the CL5, as well as great sound.”

A standard range of Shure, Sennheiser, AKG and Beyer microphones were positioned around the drum kit, on the bass and guitar cabinets, and the horns, with Radial J48 active DIs assigned to keyboards, acoustic guitar and bass. Vocals and announcements, meanwhile, were catered for by wireless hand-held Shure UR2s with Beta58A capsules, and hard-wired SM58s on stands for the backing vocalists.

“We had a wireless Beta58A ready on a stand at the side of the stage that guest singers could just pick up as they walked onstage,” comments Schiavi, who used Shure’s Wireless Workbench software to co-ordinate and monitor radio frequencies.

“Seeing it on every Entec gig makes me very happy because as a monitor guy, RF problems can be a serious nightmare with a drop in level or complete fall out affecting not only vocal signals but also in-ears,” he says. “In monitor world, one should avoid all risks and Wireless Workbench is a great asset. You do a frequency scan before soundcheck, a few times before the show and monitor the condition of the RF throughout the performance, and that gives you a lot of confidence as an engineer to know you are doing the best for the artist.”

The sound crew also included stage manager James Kerridge, Tom Olorenshaw and Peter Eltringham, who was making his debut with Entec. Claire Walley at Dawbell looked after publicity for the event and Music Bank kindly provided band rehearsal facilities.

DISTINCTIVE

The Gig Company’s other recent projects have included an event for drug and alcohol rehabilitation charity Focus 12, for which the ‘dynamic duo’ successfully persuaded Van Morrison to perform.

“There are so many charity events out there and what we do is to deliver a distinctive fun element,” says Jenny Johnson. “When we started working on behalf of PCUK, the charity didn’t have a demographic for fund-raising like this but we’ve now created that and I think it’s really helped the charity as a brand. It’s not only the money you raise, it’s the other revenue streams and opportunities that it opens up.”

Reviewing the March event, Maurizio Schiavi spoke on behalf of the Entec crew: “There was very much a communal sense of ‘we’re all in this together… let’s make it work’, and our main advantage was that we didn’t overlook anything in our planning. I think we all went away with that great feeling of having done something positive for a very deserving cause.”

For Noreen O’Riordan, however, these events have a much deeper resonance. “This charity is very special to me for obvious reasons. It feels good for me to be able to give back some love and work alongside great friends who are very dear to me and my family.”

Photography by Mark Cunningham & Sue Moore

WIX’S MOTIVATION

entec-pcuk-wix2015Sir Paul McCartney’s keyboard player since 1989, Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens talks about his loyalty to the annual event…

“Like Margo, my first personal encounter with pancreatic cancer was through John Roden, who became Paul’s monitor engineer just as I joined the band. John went downhill very quickly and it was a tragedy when we lost both him and Jon Lord, another pal, so it became firmly on my radar.

“I’ve had such a blessed career that I like to give something back whenever I can because it’s something positive that you can use your skills for. So it feels good to continue my association with Suggs’s event and also do things like go to the House of Commons to talk with [Secretary of State for Health] Jeremy Hunt and try to raise awareness of this cancer. Survival relies on early detection and to achieve that there has to be a lot of research funding.

“Joining Suggs in throwing my weight behind this cause is a good use of my time and another reminder of my relationships with John and Jon, and it’s wonderful that my lovely musician pals come back each year to be a part of the fun.”