HOT SEAT- Light master: DMB did it for Fenton
In 1991, Fenton Williams was a typical student taking classes at PVCC and hoping to transfer to UVA to earn an engineering degree. But then he had a better idea: drop out of college and hang out in bars!
Fun, sure, but a smart career move? For most people, not so much. But for Williams? Sheer brilliance.
"Things panned out from there," says Williams, stating the obvious during a recent phone interview from a hotel room in Los Angeles.
Now 35, Williams has worked for the Dave Matthews Band for 15 years, starting as its road manager and serving for the last decade as its lighting designer and video director.
"Everyone involved had a good feeling like something special was going on," he says of the band's beginning.
Special indeed, as the Dave Matthews Band– getting ready to wrap up its 2006 tour in Charlottesville on September 22 and 23– has consistently been one of the top earning concert acts in the world for the past decade, selling out stadiums and spawning legions of devoted fans.
In the early days, Williams recalls, things weren't quite so glamorous, as the band drove from gig to gig in their own cars and hauled their own equipment into countless bars and small performance venues.
Plus, Williams hadn't yet found his niche.
"I was undoubtedly one of the top three worst road managers in the world," he laughs. "I can't claim to be the most organized person."
Fortunately, he laughs, a "tougher" character named Coran Capshaw came along to make sure the ship sailed while Williams provided comic relief.
"He's really funny," says Waldo Jaquith, who founded the DMB fansite nancies.org and who worked with Williams in the late 1990s at a graphic design firm while the band was on break. Williams, Jaquith says, "can keep a straight face and say outlandish things to friends or strangers."
Capshaw wasn't spared.
Some may remember a black and yellow bumper sticker that appeared on cars in the mid- to late-'90s, urging "Do it for Fenton!"
That message, Williams says, came from a prank he played one night in a bar on DMB manager Capshaw, who jotted to-do notes in a notebook. Each time Capshaw walked away, Fenton left Capshaw an instruction in his notebook.
"They were things like, 'Deposit $10,000 into Fenton's account tomorrow,'" he laughs. After a dozen or so such notes, the final "to-do" Williams wrote said simply "Do it for Fenton!"
Capshaw, who discovered the additions the next morning, got the last laugh, embarrassing Williams by hiring a plane pulling a "Do it for Fenton!" banner to fly over Veterans Field in New Jersey during a concert. Capshaw soon had the bumper stickers made up as well.
"He branded me," Williams laughs.
There was plenty of laughter, sure, but it may have been boredom that netted Williams his current responsibilities.
"In those early days of traveling around," he says, "I wouldn't have much to do, so I'd play with the lighting." He was a quick study, and though he has no formal lighting training, he says he's come a long way.
"In one sense, Fenton is almost like another member of the band, the way he does lights," says fiddler Boyd Tinsley. "He's right there in time with us, changing what's happening on stage with the music. It's very musically inclined."
This year's tour has a "modern look," Williams says. While the show opens with very simple lighting, the set changes as it goes, building to a climax. "We recreate the feeling of things being blown up without having to do it," he says.
Williams says DMB's set for the 2001 show in Scott Stadium, which featured cylindrical pieces of fabric filled with blowing air, was "awful."
"That was an early attempt at a semblance of a set," he says. "It's progressed quite a ways from then."
And while the shows themselves are bigger and better, Williams says the relationships between road crew and band are as well.
"As much of a cliché as it might sound, it really is a complete family out here," says Williams, who's been married for three years. "It's your family away from home, and everyone is very tight. There's no battle; the only goal that exists out here is that when those seven guys hit the stage, they have everything they need and are in the best mood possible."
Why here? It's a great town.
What's worst about living here? 29 traffic
Favorite hangout? C&O
Most overrated virtue? That's tough.
People would be surprised to know: I can't eat popsicles or use chop sticks. The wood is like someone scratching their fingernails down a chalkboard. Newspapers, too. Don't like touching 'em so much.
What would you change about yourself? I'd stop smoking.
Proudest accomplishment? I'm too young to have a proudest accomplishment.
People find most annoying about you: I say "thank you" and "sorry" too much.
Whom do you admire? Jeff Thomas (DMB sound guy)
Favorite book? Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Subject that causes you to rant? Snakes on A Plane
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Climbing over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. (I'm scared of heights.)
Biggest 21st-century creep out? John Mark Karr or whatever his name is. Creepy.
What do you drive? Dodge Durango
In your car CD player right now: I'm not sure. I've been gone most of the summer.
Next journey? Los Angeles to Salt Lake City
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Stuck on a broken jet ski on the 4th of July off Newport Beach drifting away from Newport for three hours as night was settling in. Henry and I thought we had seen our last fireworks.
Regret: Pointing out that Henry was 100 yards from me when a boat finally picked us up. They didn't know he was there.
Favorite comfort food: Mac & cheese
Always in your refrigerator: Cheese
Must-see TV: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Favorite cartoon: Simpsons
Describe a perfect day: Sunday at home with my wife and friends.
Walter Mitty fantasy: Living on a boat cruising around the Caribbean
Who'd play you in the movie? Jennifer Aniston
Most embarrassing moment? Probably having all the lights shut down for 30 seconds or so in Nashville in front of 20-some thousand people. You couldn't see a thing on the stage.
Best advice you ever got? Probably to move to Charlottesville. Things would be very different for me if I hadn't.
Favorite bumper sticker? "Never underestimate the power of idiots in large groups"
Fenton Williams PHOTO BY RUDY ARIAS
The famous bumper sticker spawned by a joke between Williams and Coran Capshaw.
The early days: LeRoi Moore, Fenton Williams, and Dave Matthews in the early '90s. PHOTO BY JACK BAILEY