071711 Cheap Trick/The Funky Meters, Ottawa, ON

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July 17th, 2011 was a big day at the Ottawa Bluesfest.  A really, really big day.

Now before I spill the beans let me distract you by talking about the Be In The Band showcase that happens on the final Sunday of Bluesfest every year, like it did on this day.  And if I describe the BITB showcase well enough I might just fool you into thinking that it was the “big”ness I was referring to in my gripping opening paragraph.  It isn’t, but let’s see if I can trick you.

As one pf the instructors/MC’s for the showcase I was onsite by 11am, well ahead of the gate-opening hour of 1pm.  I was there to help receive and corral the young musicians: 100+ 7-15 year-old budding rockstars, each one with several months of professionally-curated band rehearsals under their belt and each one virtually bouncing off the walls with nervous excitement.  When you tell that many kids to show up somewhere on a Sunday morning in July you’d expect a few stragglers, but when you’re showing up to play on a real stage at one of the biggest festivals in North America, well whattya know, everyone tends to arrive on time.

And so I spent a couple of hours meeting, greeting, high-fiving, and handing out passes before spending the next five hours encouraging, tuning, and ushering twenty-seven young bands on and off the stage.  It was so fun, so cute…so inspiring watching all those cocky musical upstarts playing everything from A to Z (ie: Aerosmith to Frank Zappa) in makeshift bands with great names like Curious George, Memories From the Future, and The Burning Strum.  

There were synchronized stage moves, well-practised between-song banter, and no shortage of rollicking guitar romps and even thundering drum solos as the young musicians traded stage fright for stage might and showed a well-amazed crowd the culmination of all the work they had put in under the tutelage of local professional musicians (such as myself and several of my good friends) through the Bluesfest’s truly fantastic youth programs (this one and the Blues In The Schools program, which I am also fortunate to be involved in).

The kids were so great.  Their parents beamed with pride and even casual passers-by were duly impressed.  And no wonder!  While the BITB Showcase was taking place on the Blacksheep Stage two young bands that had literally gotten their start in the program (The Brothers Dube and Full Tipped Sleeve) were simultaneously playing full-on, paid gigs on two of the festival’s other stages.  

So, pretty big day huh?  Well don’t be fooled; you haven’t quite heard the half of it.

Once I was done “working” I was free to grab a beer or three and see what music there was to be seen.  This segment of my day started with a dash of deep swampy funk as I caught the last chunk of The Funky Meters.  A musical postscript to New Orleans funk pioneers The Meters, The Funky Meters contained a couple of the same members (like keyboard wizard Art Neville [1937-2019] and bass funkmeister George Porter Jr.) and two more great players: Ian Neville on guitar, and a member of New Orleans’ Batiste musical dynasty, Russell Batiste Jr. (speaking of NOLA musical dynasties).  What I caught of their set was sunny, funky, and maybe a little bit beer-drinky.  It was a great way to usher in the evening.

I had been somewhat excited – or at least heavily interested – in seeing Joe Satriani next but unfortunately he had cancelled his appearance.  Instead I meandered around the festival site killing time waiting for the evening’s headliners.  During these travels I ran into m’lady.

Though I’d possessed a semi-All-Access lanyard to the fest that year I hadn’t been using it for much “access”, mostly because watching shows from sidestage or the photo pit meant not watching shows with m’lady.  That said, as a fairly big fan of Cheap Trick I had pre-cleared it with her that I would indeed be watching their set from sidestage, and I was pretty excited for it too.  When we ran into each other she was alone and she wasn’t feeling very well.  Cad that I am I scanned the crowd trying to spot a group of our friends so I could leave her in good hands.  The field was packed and I couldn’t find a single soul that we knew so I bit the bullet and agreed to stay with her for the set after all.  We found a spot on the fringe of the crowd about midway back and hunkered down to watch Cheap Trick from there.

Thank ye gawds.  It gives me shivers to think about being on the stage for what happened next.

Well, not next.  Because next was Cheap Trick coming out and launching into Hello There (the same song that kicks off their legendary album Live at Budokan) before carrying on with their version of California Man.  Like, what a good band!  Four songs in they gave us their signature tune I Want You to Want Me but it was clear that the band still had plenty to offer.

And one song later came an event that made the news all over North America.  

The weather took a sudden, ominous turn.  The sky blackened and the hairs on my arms stood on end.  There was a dense surge in the air as thick raindrops and blustery wind gusts appeared.  M’lady and I ducked into the large merch tent that was nearby, where we stood watching as the band continued with Tonight It’s You.

Suddenly the music was cut from the mains and I heard an urgent announcement come through the monitors to clear the stage.  The bewildered band stopped playing and someone came out and basically pulled the musicians towards the wings.  I recall seeing lead singer Robin Zander trotting half-heartedly towards the wings when a freak gust of hurricane-force wind blasted the concert field.

It sounded like a squad of fighter jets flying ten feet overhead.  

The huge canopy that held the lights cans and the video screens caught the gale and the rigging folded backwards onto stage.  I actually remember it in slow motion but it was anything but slow.  In an instant the stage had collapsed on top of the band; I was shocked, amazed, and horrified.  And scared too, for that same monstrous gust had shaken the roof and the walls of the huge merch tent we were in with a terrifying, menacing force.

I was sure that I had just seen at least some of the members of Cheap Trick killed, like, I was sure of it (they were okay*).  And I was further concerned that the structure we were sheltering in was about to collapse as well, which would surely send steel beams and tables and chairs and people (like me and m’lady for instance) careening about in a hurricane-force wind.  

“We’ve got to get out of here!” I yelled, grabbing m’lady’s hand and tugging her one way and then another.  The entrance to the tent was crammed and people were running around everywhere.  I pulled m’lady in one direction and then another frantically looking for an open flap in the tent wall.  She suggested that we should stay in the merch tent because it was raining so hard outside.  Just then another blast of wind shook the roof and I pointed towards a row of tables.  “This tent is about to collapse and those tables are going to fly around like dice in a box!” I shrieked, my head turning back and forth.  “We’ve got to get out of here!”  

I’ll never forget what happened next.  

Just as I was frantically running around in a panic a volunteer in a wheelchair scooted by.  He was gently and firmly yelling, “Don’t panic!  Don’t panic!” and his plea literally stopped me in my tracks.  I took a moment to suck in a long, deep breath.  It quelled the mania in my brain long enough to find my bearings through the swirling mayhem.  I calmly and firmly led m’lady through the crowd to the back of the tent where I simply lifted up the flap and we scooted under it to freedom.

As we started walking on the street just outside the festival the rain had already started letting up.  When we were passing behind the back of the collapsed stage I could hear someone underneath it yelling for a medic over and over.  It gives my chills to remember that scream.  Again, as it was happening I was sure that there were dead musicians under there.  I wanted so much to run under the stage and try to help but I’m no doctor; I’m sure that I could only have made the situation worse.  

Once I got home I wrote up my final review of the Bluesfest season, one that steadfastly avoided any of the trouble by lying that I had left the festival after the super-positive and upbeat Be In The Band Showcase (the Bluesfest didn’t like bad news in their online reviews).  Then the summer went on to see another stage collapse in Indiana and then there was the Radiohead stage collapse in Toronto the following summer (both of those incidents involved fatalities).  It was an ugly trend and one I wish that I and m’lady (and Cheap Trick, and the Ottawa Bluesfest) hadn’t been a part of.

I think it’s very safe to say that the Bluesfest hasn’t been the same since.  In the immediate aftermath they lost pretty much all of their stage sponsors (naturally) and their lineups for the next few years were notably diminished.  Cheap Trick launched a lawsuit against the festival and the staging company but the results don’t seem to be in the public record.  

So yeah, it was a pretty big day.

Creepy opportunist that I am, I immediately jumped on the Bluesfest’s poster site and purchased one of the four posters that Cheap Trick autographed before they went on stage that night.  The subtle musical memorabilia anomaly is framed up and hangs on the wall of my practise room.  

I see it every day but it rarely reminds me that I was supposed to be standing on that stage when it collapsed.  Sometimes a distracted memory is a blessing.

*When the canopy fell backwards it landed partly on their equipment truck, which was parked up against the back of the stage.  This prevented the roof from collapsing all the way down onto the stage and likely saved the band members from significant injury.  However one of their crew members was seriously injured when he was impaled by a piece of falling rigging, though he survived.

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