English singer-songwriter Mike Rosenberg, better known by his stage name Passenger, is in the midst of his biggest headlining tour to date, supporting his acclaimed new album Whispers. His earnest folk-rock tunes have enchanted sold-out crowds across America, and our cameras caught up with Rosenberg on Aug. 19 at Columbus, Ohio’s Newport Music Hall to go behind the scenes and find out what keeps Passenger’s tour on the road.
“I love touring,” says the 30-year-old Rosenberg, who says he has been playing shows nonstop for the past “five or six years.” Sitting in the modest tour bus that will take him to 17 North American venues by the tour’s end, Rosenberg reflects on the element that makes his performances so powerful. “The biggest thing about my live show is the interaction. I try to make everyone feel as welcome as possible and as engaged as possible.”
Passenger travels with a crew of trusted friends and fellow road warriors at his side — including Australian singer-songwriter Stu Larsen, his former road manager turned tour photographer and opening act. But onstage, Rosenberg is a one-man show. Mike takes the stage armed with only an acoustic guitar and a microphone tucked inside the heel of his shoe, a clever trick employed by front of house audio engineer Simon Kemp to give his foot-stomps a more booming resonance in the venue.
Despite his lack of backing players, Rosenberg more than fills the stage with his infectious energy, which is felt by everyone from superfans singing along in the pit to couples canoodling in the upper balcony. From the minute the lights go down at the Newport Music Hall, a charming dive that stands as one of the States’ longest-running rock clubs, Rosenberg has the wall-to-wall crowd eating out of his hand. He’s able to quiet the crowd to pin-drop silence during delicate numbers like “Riding to New York” and his breakout hit “Let Her Go,” as well as elicit boisterous cheers during rollicking standouts like “27,” “I Hate” and the anthemic “Scare Away the Dark.”
“We talk a lot in the audio world about dynamics, going from being very quiet to being very loud,” explains Kemp. “It’s a way that you get emotion out of people. I don’t know anybody else in the world that can do it (like Mike.) He impresses me every night.”
Equally impressive, perhaps surprisingly so, is Passenger’s light show: the cascading, mulit-colored beams that decorate the stage are of the caliber one might expect from an amp-melting rock band rather than an introspective folk musician. Still, the lighting design — as carefully orchestrated by lighting director James Scott — serves to enhance, rather than overpower Rosenberg’s show.
“A single person on a big stage is very difficult to not distract from the intimacy and honesty of the show,” says lighting director James Scott. “I’m just trying to make shapes and textures and an environment for him to play his music.”
But what shines through most of all during Rosenberg’s 90-minute set is how easily he’s able to make a 2,000-person show feel like a fireside serenade. Rosenberg’s ability to connect with his audience is a skill honed from his many years busking, performing impromptu concerts in outdoor locations for audiences mostly unfamiliar with his music. The experience was crucial for Passenger to expand his fan base and fund his career before finding worldwide radio success. But even now, with a song that resided in the Top 5 of the Hot 100 chart, Rosenberg retains the passion and enthusiasm for performing that drove him to success in the beginning.
“I feel a big pressure — and it’s a good thing — to play like it’s my first and my last gig,” Rosenberg says with a smile. “Every (show) is just so important to me.”