The crowd basks in the ConfettiSTORM at the climax of RKM's tour performance.
Tech-enhanced club fun for the other gentlemen.
How a Toronto-based, corporate-minded straight guy created a successful annual club tour across America’s hottest other gentlemen’s market – the gay demographic – is a tale of more than one man and his savvy promotion.
“It’s the production value of a circuit party at your Saturday night hotspot,” says creator and Embrace Productions President Adam Gill. “We take venues and create a different atmosphere [with] every detail, from the decorations, to the set-up, to the lights, to the visuals. We transform the experience for our audience.”
The Babylon Tour – lovingly referred to by Gill as the “gay Warped Tour” – is derived from nightclub-driven Showtime TV series “Queer As Folk.” Now in its fourth year, the 20-city “experience,” named for the fictitious Babylon nightclub featured in QAF, is a traveling package.
Gill and Embrace’s Darren Bryant bring the works to every host club: Renowned circuit DJs Manny Lehman, Tony Moran, Roland Belmares and Chris Cox; hot visuals via live mixing or a pre-produced DVD by Tony Pantages of Project Morpheus; décor and performance art by RKM, aka Rubio and Kidd Madonia, former Twilo go-go boys and self-proclaimed LED gurus. This year, RKM’s tech-embracing show includes pyrotechnics, a spewing confetti machine, and a custom-made Kryogenifex gun.
When QAF went off the air last year, the tour has had to come into its own, building its own brand based on something other than beloved TV characters. “Everyone, when they think of the show, all they think of is the actors,” says Madonia. “But when I think Babylon, [I think how] it was always fun, something different, something wild; it was always theatrical or theme-y. Those are the elements that we’re taking from the show.”
Clubs like the 15-year-old Firestone in Orlando (clubatfirestone.com) – selected four years ago as a tour stop based on factors like systems, size, location and reputation within the gay market – have come to expect the excess, as have their patrons. “We’ve done tours, like the Madonna CD release tour and things on that level,” say Tom Davis, Firestone’s director of marketing and entertainment. “But this, it’s way more of a production.”
The current tour, entitled “City of Babylon,” adds urban edge to the Babylon setting. Past themes included the Ceasar-esque “Ancient Babylon” (2005) and space age chic “Future Babylon” (2004). But they were all of QAF origin: Pieces of the show’s Toronto film set even traveled in the tour truck the premier year, including part of the Babylon club.
The tour’s first outing in 2003 included sporadic RKM performances, with the duo dressed as Rage and Zephyr, the show’s comic book homo icons. Gill initiated the whole concept as an extension of the show brand: Even his marketing style recalls a certain ad exec QAF character.
Drink, Cruise, Lube
It all started in a rare sober moment at the 2002 Winter Music Conference in Miami. Gill, who was then working on dance and rock tours at Clear Channel, ran into Queer As Folk music supervisor Michael Perlmutter. Gill masterminded a tour concept, then pitched it to the bigwigs at Showtime and Viacom. They loved it.
So Gill hooked up with each selected city’s biggest gay promoters, and the hottest national DJs. Aside from this year’s stellar line-up, the tour has also featured A-listers including Abel, Tracy Young, and Peter Rauhofer.
Even with his massive overhead, Gill has kept the tour financially viable – ticket prices range between $10 and $25 – by embracing sponsors.
“At first I was a little cautious with sponsorship,” he says. “I was concerned that we’d be exploiting [our patrons], but the reality is the gay market wants sponsorship because they want corporate America to accept them.”
Still, he remains diligent that branding is done tastefully, and that sponsors add something to the event. Midori provides open bar promotions, Orbitz offers free gay cruise tickets, Centaur Records produces a mixed CD, and the value of giveaways from lubricant company Astroglide are a no-brainer.
“I hate going to a party and just seeing banner after banner after banner after banner,” adds Madonia. Thus the Midori signage became part of the art, airbrushed into the set. This year, crafting the city theme around New York, RKM created a Midori “Central Park,” complete with green LED-lit trees. And other sponsors were postered into a Times Square area.
All of the design is as calculated and creative as the logo insertions. RKM’s goal was to fit their entire setup into eight massive hockey bags. So they decorated with foldable scrims, and inflatable skyscrapers, traffic lights and street signs, mixing street graffiti style with humorously named avenues. The duo also totes their favorite Elation Professional Octopod LED units, and screws LED light bulbs into the inflatables’ fans so they light and blow simultaneously (no pun intended).
“Lighting is very important when it comes to decorating,” says Madonia. “We try to incorporate all the lighting in the clubs, and make sure that everything – [the venue’s] [High End Systems] Studio Spots, or their [Martin Professional] MACs – hits certain directions.” They’re also fans of ETC Source Four Lekos fixtures for gobos.
The duo additionally meet with each club’s LJ, suggesting favorite lighting effects, like the one they learned from Club World Award winner Mike D.: strobing reds and blues to create the illusion of switching on UV-sensitive colors in costume and décor.
For RKM’s show portion, the two start in gargoyle-like costumes, then strip down to punk rock threads, and strut with sparkler-adorned guitars. At the – ahem – climax, a ConfettiSTORM professional confetti launcher (balloonco.com) blasts onto the crowd.
“With the whole New York [vibe], we thought we should rock it out, especially because rock and roll is having an effect now in the nightclub world,” Kidd says. They toyed with a white label remix of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and Junior Vasquez track “Babylon.” But ultimately they picked a remix of “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey to keep the performance time to eight minutes, which they consider the maximum clubgoer attention span for a show.
RKM begin their performance in gargoyle-like costumes.
Beats And Voices
Although the visuals are a large focus of the tour, like any traveling party, the music is still central. “[The tour] doesn’t really change what I do,” says Manny Lehman, ” who has been on the tour since its inception. “We’re all brought to the tour to do what we do.” A Babylon rookie this year, accomplished producer/DJ Tony Moran has a similar sentiment: “The reason that you would want me to participate is because you want me,” he says.
Moran, who has come to trust the tour producers to book clubs that meet his finicky tastes in sound systems, describes his own style as “very vocal-driven” with a lot of anthem remixes. “I also like to play my tribal beats and go through a journey,” he says. “I can’t play 10 vocals back to back.”
Lehman says he tends to ease off hardcore tribal, without overdosing on anthems and vocals either. He plays more to the crowd, which after four years he’s come to know. “[The Babylon Tour] correlates to something that’s more mainstream, as opposed to an underground circuit party,” Lehman says. “It definitely brings out a bit of a different clientele in addition to the usual.”
And while the crowds ultimately determine how he plays, Lehman distinguishes the tour from his monthly residencies at Mezzanine (mezzaninesf.com) in San Francisco and the Roxy (roxynyc.com) in New York (both Babylon tour stops). The changing circuit scene also plays a role. Where Lehman sees big circuit parties happening less frequently, smaller, more local-oriented parties are filling in with fresh faces.
Moran feels he was chosen for Babylon because he’s in sync with the tour’s energy, and now he enjoys being part of its collaborative effort. “From the first moment when we went into [our first date in] Atlanta and I first started playing, it was just like, forget it, it was Babylon,” he says.
Back To The Screen
Babylon VJ Tony Pantages loves his Edirol video gear so much that he’s occasionally referred to as “V-4 Boy.” Rather than include it in a formal tech rider, he lugs his own V-4 mixer on tour, because “it’s kind of like your toothbrush sometimes,” he says.
With Tiesto and John Digweed tours to his credit, Pantages pulls imagery for Babylon from his broad content library. It was collected over years of shooting music videos and commercials, plus media sharing with accomplished visual artists like Vello Virkhaus, via an informal VJ pool.
Pantages relies on his PowerBook laptops and his revered Edirol CG-8 visual synthesiser, with limited use of software applications. “The only [software] I’ve ever used is GRIDPro, Johnny DeKam’s software from Vidvox [vidvox.net],” he says. “I think that’s one of the most intuitive, smart, software programs out there.” His opinion of the CG-8 is just as high, calling it “miraculous” for manipulating images, like the half-naked dancing cowboys used for Babylon. “It seems basic, until you start using it,” Pantages says. “It’s basically the video version of a synthesizer, where you can control the waveforms of JPGs or TNG files.” Pantages prefers Edirol MIDI keyboard controllers because, aside from the high quality, the knob design is secure for travel via backpack.
Pantages (married) and his video partner Kerry Uchida (girlfriended) really get into the Babylon spirit, and not only via their gear. When the spirit moves them, Pantages has donned “black suede flared pants with big biker boots and a black leather vest, with gloves and no shirt and a big fat cowboy hat,” while Uchida opted for “a cutoff Playboy T-shirt cut right above his pierced nipple, and hot pants.” Fierce!
Coming Up Next
Clubs slated for the second half of the tour say they are looking forward to see the Metropolis/Gayopolis theme in its glory. Mezzanine San Francisco manager Jamie Sanchez reports that speakers and amps will soon be rented to supplement the club’s hybrid Funktion-One dance and EAW live systems, so patrons on upper levels can experience the event as thoroughly as those on the dancefloor and in front of the stage. “And we will be bringing in a lot more lighting,” adds Sanchez, “just because the production is so big on this, we want to make sure all the décor looks really good.”
Tour highlights still to come this year include Pride weekend in homebase Toronto, and the finale at Pure in Philadelphia. By August it will be over, but that doesn’t mean the end for the Babylon Tour. Though there’s no official word on next year’s theme, take our hint and hold your breath.
|I Know What Boys Want
Selections from Babylon's
tech rider for host venues.
6 - ETC Sour Four lekos
All above in addition to “first-class nightclub lighting,” including “feature lighting to highlight areas of activity.”
2 - Pioneer CDJ-1000 digital vinyl turntables
1 - Either Rane MP 2016 or Pioneer DJM-600 mixer
All above in addition to “a first class audio system (Phazon system preferred) capable of producing 130 dB of undistorted sound at any publicly accessible place within the venue.”
2 - 7.5’ x 10’ projection screens
2 - projectors of at least 3500 ANSI lumens
VJ: Tony Pantages’ Tools
1 - Edirol CG-8 visual synthesizer
1 - Edirol V-4 video mixer
1 - Sanyo Infrared camera
1 - Vidvox GRIDPro software
Plus: Apple PowerBooks laptops, Edirol MIDI keyboards