On its Facebook page, the Shawnee Cave Amphitheatre bills itself as “a venue like no other.” Anyone who’s visited this magical spot less than 100 miles southeast of St. Louis knows in a heartbeat that this not mere marketing hype.
Tucked into the base of a massive 100-foot high sandstone rock formation that sits in the middle of 60 rugged acres of craggy paths, creeks and waterfalls, the naturally formed cave evokes powerful prehistoric images of raw power. It is the kind of setting that etches itself permanently in the minds of live music fans.
Kyle Curtis had a hand in creating just such memories Memorial Day weekend when he lit the site for an event featuring a lineup of jam bands that included The Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Kyle Tuttle Banjo, and Chicken Wire Empire. Enlivening the surroundings with vivid colors and making the cave wall come alive with gobo patterns, he enhanced the evocative effect of the setting without distracting from the artists on stage.
Helping him accomplish this feat was a collection of 54 CHAUVET Professional fixtures supplied by Chris Parton and his team at Midwest Music Supply. Curtis’ design, which was run on a ChamSys MQ500M, transformed the entire 300 by 100-foot cave area.
“My favorite part of this project was getting to build such a huge lighting canvas,” said Curtis. “Usually, even the largest stages I work on are only 80-feet wide. At this venue our ‘stage’ was only 40-feet, but our overall canvas was many times larger.
“We ran about five universes in total, not because of channel counts, but for DMX routing to allow touring LDs to take some or all of the rig,” continued Curtis. “If they didn’t want to control the cave lighting, we could retain that control on the MQ500M and just give them the stage lighting. We used two NET-XII nodes to provide all the distribution and also DMX lines for touring LDs’ floor packages.”
Curtis relied on ingenious fixtures placement to ensure that the 300-foot long cave walls were covered in brilliantly colored light. There were two mobile stages at the event for FOH and VIP platforms. He was able to hang trusses from these areas to provide lighting positions for 12 of his 16 Rogue R2 Wash fixtures, and six of his 12 Maverick MK1 Spot units. (The remaining Rouge and Maverick units were deployed for stage and audience lighting along with two STRIKE Array 2 fixtures.)
“The R2s washed the cave walls in a base of color,” said Curtis. “The wide zoom range of those units allowed me to cover a wide area, and their colors were uniformly deep. Then, we had the MK1 Spots added extra texture and movement on top of that base color.”
For added color, Curtis placed 12 COLORado 1 Quad fixtures under the cable walls. Drawing on the high output of these RGBW fixtures he had no difficulty covering the entire “ceiling” above the stage in a rich variety of colors.
“The cave walls and ceiling were very neutral in color, so we were really able to use the entire lighting spectrum to create many dynamic looks,” said Curtis. “I tend to favor the blues and magentas for my environmental lighting, but the touring LDs really used the entire color gamut effectively.”
Motion also played a key role in Curtis’ design strategy. “We used the strong output and wide zoom range of the MK1 Spots to add texture and movement to the cave walls,” he said. “Due to the scale of the cave walls and the proximity of the audience to them, our gobo rotations made it feel like the entire cave was moving. For this particular genre of music, it was a perfect fit.”
Although many things about the amphitheater seemed like a “perfect fit” for live music, the site hadn’t hosted a concert in over a decade. Originally opened as a venue in 1969 on a former saltpeter pit, the theatre once featured national rock and country acts. Purchased by new owners, the site was refurbished and was ready to reopen last year, before the pandemic hit.
The Memorial Day event represented a homecoming for the site. More live music shows are scheduled for the summer. This will mark the complete return of Shawnee Cave Amphitheatre, and a new generation of fans will be treated to an unforgettable experience at a site that, true to its word, is truly unique.