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Sugarland, Radiohead tragedies elevate fears about temporary stages

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Updated: August 2, 2012 6:10AM



These are high times for the outdoor concert season.

The beer is cold. Beach balls are flying. The sun is shining.

But memories are dark for anyone who has been involved in a tragedy specific to summer: the temporary stage collapse.

Last August’s collapse before a Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair killed seven people and injured dozens of others. And it was not an isolated incident:

† On June 16 the drum tech for Radiohead was killed when an engineer-approved stage structure collapsed at Toronto’s Downsview Park prior to the band’s concert. Radiohead has canceled a series of dates in order to replace its unique light show.

† Chicago and Rockford legends Cheap Trick were lucky to be alive after a stage collapse during a sudden thunderstorm with 90 m.p.h. winds in July 2011 at the Ottawa Blues Fest in Ontario. Fortunately, the stage fell 10 feet backward toward backstage.

It could have fallen forward into the audience.

“It would have been horrible,” said band manager David Frey, who had been standing behind touring drummer Daxx Nielsen. “We were so lucky.”

The band had just hit the final notes of “I Want You To Want Me.”

“It was a 20-ton roof that probably had 20 tons of stuff on it,” Frey said. “It fell 60 feet in a quarter second. I was a foot away from the fall, and I’m looking up and going, ‘This is going to land on my face.’ It landed on our truck parked by the back of the stage and pancaked the truck. That gave us maybe 60 seconds to get off the stage, which was another adventure. The deck broke in half and we were running off the stage. Things were disappearing. Folks were shooting by. It was complete havoc.

“It has been a huge thing financially, emotionally, physically.”

† Actor Kevin Costner was nearly killed in August 2009 when an outdoor stage fell on him and his Modern West band during a concert at a Camrose, Alberta, music festival. Severe winds knocked over the stage, killing one woman and injuring 75 others.

“The wind is a quiet animal,” Costner says in “Camrose,” a 10-minute documentary about the disaster on YouTube. “The wall was coming down on me, and it felt like a bad Godzilla movie.” The band’s tour bus was crushed. (Costner and his band play indoors July 14 at the Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St. in St. Charles.)

† Chicago soul icon Curtis Mayfield was hit by a lighting scaffold blown down by a gust of wind during an August 1990 show in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The stage was installed the morning of the show. The scaffold struck Mayfield from behind and broke his neck. Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down. He died in December 1999.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes made it through their opening set in front of 10,000 people. “It started to rain,” said Marv Heiman, who was Mayfield’s manager and co-president of his Curtom Records imprint. “They asked Curtis if he would go on right away. The band started playing ‘Superfly.’ He walked on the stage. He plugged his guitar into the amplifier. A 50-mile wind hit the stage and all the ceiling lights fell on him. He was flat on his face.” He said the rigging was done by a now-defunct lighting company.

“It was almost like an act of God,” Heiman said.

From her home in Atlanta, Mayfield’s widow, Altheida, tears up as she says, “The bitterness has left me. But it took a long time. Maybe if they had done this right I would still have my husband. But I’m not going to point fingers. And I want to help bring this issue into the forefront.”

†††

Several components come into play when staging a show at a temporary outdoor venue (not an established one like Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis., or the First Midwest Bank Ampitheatre in Tinley Park).

Insurance policies need to be reviewed and stages need to be carefully inspected, especially at a time when more bands rig gear on the roof instead of the ground, where amps block views. Sound is also more clear with the equipment out of sight.

On June 9, ZZ Top cancelled a show in Atmore, Ala., over safety concerns with the stage. The band issued a statement saying, “We’re definitely from ‘the show must go on’ school but had to draw the line this time when we found that numerous hazards were present at the venue. ... We couldn’t, in good conscience, do the show knowing that the safety for those on and off the stage would be in jeopardy.”

On Sunday, ZZ Top headlines the outdoor Ribfest in Naperville in the open field of Knoch Park, southwest of downtown. Naperville is expecting record crowds between 15,000 and 18,000 people daily. The event is sponsored by the non-profit Exchange Club, which works hand in hand with the city.

Ribfest was able to attract shed-type acts this year because organizers went with a bigger and better stage — in response to stage collapses. The Steve Miller Band opened the festival Friday, and Leftover Salmon and moe. close it out on Tuesday. The Titan stage is provided by Spectrum Production Services out of Minneapolis.

“We have the largest mobile stage in the world,” said Ribfest entertainment chairman Ray Kinney. The stage is 40 feet high and 98 feet wing to wing. “It is not something that is built on site like other festivals,” he said. “This was not the least expensive option. We went to the other end of the spectrum knowing what happened in Indiana. We are very concerned about safety.

“We know we are one bad situation away from never having this event again.”

Bands should not wait until the day of the show to check out a temporary stage, according to Jerry Mickelson, who co-founded Chicago’s Jam Productions in 1971.

“Do it all in advance,” he said. “Send blueprints. Send engineering reports. Send photos of what it looks like. When was the last time it was used? Has it been a warehouse for years? Those are all questions one should ask if they are band or a promoter. We produce the California Mid-State Fair in [Paso Robles] California. We, on our own, call in a structural engineer to verify the weight we could hang from the stage. We do that on a regular basis when we work temporary stages.”

How has Cheap Trick approached outdoor shows this summer?

“With more caution than we did before,” manager Frey answered. “We find what company is bringing in the stage. Once we know who the company is we move forward. We know more about stages than we ever intended to.”

Cheap Trick now also checks local safety standards. Frey said, “Are they subject to municipality buiding codes in respect to tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, whatever the location would dictate? If it passes those two criteria [standards and stage provider], we’re usually OK with it.

“If it doesn’t, we pass on the show.”

Since the 2011 accident, Cheap Trick has passed on three dozen shows, according to Frey.

“We haven’t eliminated outdoor shows,” he said. “But no bands are following our lead. It feels we are alone on this.

“If you say, ‘We’re not playing this show because the stage might be unsafe,’ the band is going to fire their manager and get another manager. They’re going to get the guy that gets them the most money. I know that puts artists in a not-so-great light, but there’s a reality of that, too.

“I need to get over this. This has been really depressing for me. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I wasn’t sleeping.”

†††

On Aug. 17, Cheap Trick headline with Blue Oyster Cult on the grandstand at the Illinois State Fair.

The band is fine with that outdoor show because it is subject to building code. “It’s a permanent structure even though it is outside,” Frey said. “It is not temporary. If it is subject to building code, it’s pretty much a green light.”

Municipality-based events are tricky. “Especially when there’s exposure to tax dollars,” Frey said, “the city, state or the county is a promoter to some degree,” providing the land, police and sanitation.

To protect taxpayers, a government body will seek at least three bids for the services required at an event. “Oftentimes they pick the cheapest,” Frey explained. “So you get the cheapest stage from the three stage companies that made an offer. That’s one thing that affects a lot of these shows. Often they are not year-round promoters. You’ve got Ranger Rick outside of Portland, Ore., putting on his weekend festival. Then he’s done for the year. So he’s not really living and breathing in this [promoter’s] space.”

Ribfest’s Kinney said, “This is absolutely correct, particularly when governmental agencies typically go with the lowest qualified vendor. We had concerns this year. I’m a volunteer. You can call me Ranger Rick, whatever you want, but we raise money for the prevention of child abuse and domestic violence.

“We take this very seriously because we understand we aren’t professionals. We’re very happy with the decision that we’ve made, that we’ve overbuilt what we need. The load-bearing capacity of the roof on our new stage is 56,000 pounds. It is significantly bigger than what we’ve had in the past in terms of structural size and permanent components.”

Ribfest has a long standing partnership with Jam, which buys the talent and helps with transportation and band setup.

“We realized we were at the risk of having something terrible happen,” Kinney said. “So we did a huge [request for proposals] this year. We had eight different companies come in and present.”

Program Productions in Lombard was selected the new logistics provider at Ribfest. The company helped stage events such as the recent U.S. Open and Farm Aid.

Was Program Productions the cheapest or the best?

“Both,” Kinney answered. “They were not the least expensive alternative. People think this is a City of Naperville event. We do work closely with the city. We wanted to spend a little more money to sleep better at night.”

Over its 25 years Ribfest has raised more than $12 million to various charities.

The City of Naperville is paying closer attention to staging in all its outdoor events from Ribfest to the smaller Labor Day Last Fling extravaganza.

“Especially once the Indiana thing happened,” said Naperville City Clerk Pam LaFeber. The city clerk’s office coordinates all special events in Naperville. The office sits down with the park district (Ribfest is on park district land), public works, the police department and engineers.

“We’ve always looked at wind load,” LaFeber explained. “We don’t have structural engineers at the city, but we have inspectors who look at the stages. We have a wind meter on top of the stage canopy and program productions people are to speak with our chief building official and discuss wind calculations. They monitor that during the event.” LaFeber said any outdoor show in Naperville would be stopped over a certain point of wind speed.

In February, in response to the Sugarland incident, Indiana lawmakers passed a law that requires the distance from the stage exceed the height of the stage by at least eight feet. “They completely missed the point,” Mickelson said. “If the stage is 20 feet tall and you add eight feet, the audience is 28 feet from the stage. You miss the whole experience of an outdoor concert. That’s not the safety issues they should be dealing with.

“Its not how far back you are, it is how safe or sound the stage is.”

An important element that’s often overlooked, Frey said, is cancellation insurance. “If an insurance company has potential taxpayer exposure, it is required that they get cancellation insurance. So when insurance companies write cancellation insurance policies, they do it locally. Which is a good idea. If you’re in a hurricane you want those type of things in your policy. So the local guy will write cancellation insurance policy for the event covering everything. But sometimes they don’t write them all that well. This is hypothetical, but they will write there have to be three sightings of lightning within 500 yards. Not two sightings. Or the Doppler radar has to be in the orange half a mile out, not red.

“So you have a guy sitting there who doesn’t do shows very often and he goes, ‘I gotta pay the band, that’s part of it, but I also have to pay security and refund tickets.’ There’s this huge financial exposure he has that’s tied to a cancellation insurance policy. Because if he cancels the show he still has all the expenses and the insurance company has to write the check. So if he doesn’t follow that policy to the letter, he may not get the check from the insurance company.”

Ribfest does not have cancellation insurance. But the Exchange Club has stopped Ribfest shows in bad weather.

“If it’s canceled because of bad weather there’s no refunds,” Kinney said. “In the past we’ve closed the park due to thunderstorms and lightning sightings. We had Pat Benatar one year and she never got to play because of the weather. She gave us a discount the next year, which was very cool and very unheard of.”

The Ottawa storm that toppled Cheap Trick’s stage was not a surprise, Frey said: “There were storm warnings all day.”

Altheida Mayfield flew to New York from the family home in Atlanta on the August morning after her husband was hurt.

“I saw blood on the stage floor,” she said. “It was really strange. I was talking to Curtis just before he left. For some reason he kept talking about the flight he came in on. He said he felt like he was falling. He passed it along as maybe he was getting too old for these flights. He had a premonition.”

Mayfield’s manager Heiman said a settlement of around $1 million was reached. The Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series, which booked Mayfield, had a limitation of insurance. “Curtis refused to go after for more than what they had,” he said. “How do you sue the Martin Luther King Concert Series if you’re Curtis Mayfield?”

†††

Are outdoor concert goers being more cautious?

“I haven’t seen it,” Frey said. “It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

Mickelson hasn’t heard concern from fans. “But people trust us,” he said. “We don’t cut corners. Whether it’s a stage or crowd control. when you rent or buy anything you have to know who you’re dealing with. You have to deal with quality vendors. If you don’t do that you’re courting trouble.”

Frey said, “These are good events. They are win-wins. You have a local municipality who brings in a lot of people. They bring in tax dollars. People are buying soda and parking. They’re staying in hotels. People love it because they get to see a bunch of bands. And the bands love it because its a soft ticket situtation where they are often going to play in front of a lot more people than they would play in front of if it was just them. And they’re making better money because the events need to pay more because it is only happening on one weekend.

“ I don’t think the general public is going to say, ‘We’re not going to the event because we might get killed.’ ”

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