UTC professor joins Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on summer concert tour

Jeff Davis has spent several decades behind the scenes in the theater world.

He has built sets, designed lighting setups, operated sound systems and managed production teams. In short, he has handled hundreds of elements that go into making a successful stage performance, including those at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

This summer, he will be performing internationally as the gaffer for the concert tour of Grammy-winning country-bluegrass singer-songwriter Alison Krauss and former Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant.

(READ MORE: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss reunite to reclaim the magic)

“It was a very interesting experience not being a fanboy in front of them,” said Davis, an assistant professor at the UTC Department of Performing Arts.

“They were very approachable and kind to me and everyone I saw. I mean they are who they are and they choose to be kind when I’ve heard horror stories from people who aren’t.”

Davis will operate the lighting desk for 40 concerts on the summer leg of the Krauss/Plant tour, including the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee on June 17 and a European stint with shows scheduled in England, Norway, Sweden, Italy , Germany and Poland.

(READ MORE: Bonnaroo announce lineup)

Lighting designers and technical leaders are among the lessons Davis has taught in courses at UTC for the past four years. In addition to directing lighting, he has shown students how to build sets with power tools and costumes with sewing machines. On the high-tech side, students are taught how to properly run a sound system to ensure vocals are intelligible and instruments are bright.

He acknowledged that there is a lot to process, especially for students fresh out of high school.

“I would say they are blown away by the amount of preparation it takes to get a show off the ground,” he said, “because we really strive for professional quality. That jump from high school to college level is big change.”

some text
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant perform during the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans April 25, 2008. /AP Photo/Dave Martin

In addition to his teaching duties, Davis was the lighting designer for most UTC theatrical productions while at university. For the past two years, ongoing renovations to the Dorothy Ward Theater at the Fine Arts Center have prevented performances there. The difficulty factor increased even further when COVID-19 emerged. Combine the two and you have shows that need to be produced in different locations on and off campus.

Some shows took place in the University Center Auditorium, but “Cats,” a collaboration with Chattanooga Ballet, took place at Chamberlain Field. “The Wolves” was in the gym at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. “Love and Information” was performed in the Wedding Chapel at Lindsay Street Hall.

“As a lighting designer and as a technical lead, you always have to be ready for the curveball and be prepared to make changes once the drawings and plans become a reality,” Davis said. “There’s never been a show I’ve done that I haven’t had to make some adjustments based on the real world.

“I tell students all the time that they can’t marry their art form so they can make the changes needed based on what happens once it becomes a real thing.”

Steve Ray, associate director of the performing arts department, said combining Davis’ personality with his understanding of the technical elements of theatrical production is invaluable to students.

“Jeff brings a tremendous amount of knowledge about both the concert world and the theater world to our program,” said Ray. “This is important because many of our technical students will go on to work in non-theatrical jobs, such as concert tours, industrial performance, technical sales, and churches and other non-theatrical venues.

“The touring scene is intense and Jeff brings that intensity to his work. He wants things to be done well while at the same time wanting students to enjoy their projects. It’s a good combination for a life in technical theater – intensity and fun.”

At concerts on the Krauss/Plant tour, Davis is responsible for putting the lights in the right locations for each concert, a challenge as shows move from theater to theater night to night.

“Every day I have to make sure the lights are pointed in the right spot like the night before,” he said. “All of this is to ensure that the show that was happening in Rochester last night is the same show that’s happening in Chicago tonight.”

In addition to Running Lights at the recent Kane Brown show at Finley Stadium and the Heart Strings for Hope fundraising concert at Memorial Auditorium, he has worked with country artists Travis Tritt and Confederate Railroad, Christian duo Shane and Shane, and longtime Hair-Metal -Tape worked together the Velcro pygmies.

(READ MORE: Country music superstar Kane Brown makes his way back to Chattanooga)

Davis frequently works with Chattanooga’s Harmonic Production Services, which provide audio, video, lighting, staging, and technical support for music and arts festivals, concerts, conventions, and community events, among others.

He said he got the job with the Krauss/Plant tour through connections he made with Harmonic. His theatrical background helped get him hired.

Krauss and Plant’s songs mix folk, country, rockabilly and blues. Her last album, Raising Sand, won five Grammys in 2008, including album of the year. Their brand new “Raise the Roof” continues the musical theme.

With that in mind, the duo didn’t want “whiz-bang, oh-wow lighting” for their tour, Davis said.

“You want it to feel very soft and theatrical and not draw a lot of attention,” he said. “When they saw all the theater work on my resume, they were very interested because it’s a different kind of vibe.”

Shawn Ryan is a senior writer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a correspondent for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Leave a Comment