At one point during Chicago rehearsals for the Saint Pablo tour, Kanye West turned to his production people and asked: "Why do we have to have a stage, anyway?" Thus began a push to focus on a 16-by-20-foot platform, surrounded by old-school white lights known as Par Cans, so West could float 15 feet above the audience when the tour opened August 25th. "Everything [in concerts] right now tends to be a stage – a giant video wall, constant lights and wiggly things," says Mike Grega of Strictly FX, which has handled special effects for the last two West tours. "This show is nothing like that. It's nuts."
"The whole concept of this is to go anywhere you want," West announced on opening night in Indianapolis, which could have been a mission statement. Rather than sticking to one spot, general-admission fans follow West and his mid-air stage, shambling throughout the floor. Although the show has a pre-arranged set list, including "N—-s in Paris," "Jesus Walks," "Power" and "Blood on the Leaves," and a healthy sampling of his latest album The Life of Pablo, it has the feel of what backup singer Tony Williams calls "a mosh pit, a rave, almost like a DJ set." Wearing a denim jacket, black leather pants and, of course, Yeezys, West paused during "Runaway" to deliver a rambling motivational speech. "The corny shit has to die," he said opening night in Indianapolis. "Inspiration has to rise."
The first-of-its-kind floating stage, suspended from crane-like structures known as trusses, uses high-speed motors to propel itself up and down and sideways. The crew (not West) programs it to hit certain "marks" in the arena – Grega calls the mechanics an "orchestrated ballet." West has said he first envisioned the floating-stage concept 10 years ago, and took eight months for intense planning and designer auditions. "I just wanted people to get into it and have a fun time. Make it not be just about watching the artist but people watching their friends and singing along with the lyrics and just being able to see themselves and their outfits," he told E! News after the Indianapolis show.
It took West and his band one show to get accustomed to the new landscape. The backup musicians, accustomed to performing a few feet away from the star, were stationary, dark and distant. And West, although he prowled confidently on the platform in Indianapolis, may have been more nervous than he let on. "He does have some fear of heights," says Williams, who is also the rapper's first cousin, "but he was quite natural on it."
Additional reporting by Corbin Reiff.