They Keep Rockin' In The Rain

Outdoor Concerts - Sometimes The Show Can't Go On If Danger Looms

By Dave Hoekstra, Chicago Sun Times, July 15, 2010

Weathered veterans of outdoor concerts know it is important not to rush to judgment.

Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools remembers an outdoor show in Charlotte, N.C., where bandmates tracked a storm on radar. They told everyone to leave the lawn and enter the pavilion or return to their cars. Fans rode out the storm and, when the rain let up, the show went on.

Hairbanger's Ball, a Chicago hair-metal tribute band, has a clause in its contract to keep the stage under cover -- to protect the '80s coiffure, of course.

The question of when it's too rainy to rock has been on the minds of Rush fans ever since the rock band's July 7 show at Charter One Pavilion was canceled because of fierce storms that smacked down the venue.

A fan who traveled to Chicago from New York filed a breach of contract lawsuit saying the show was shut down despite tickets that called it a "rain or shine" event. The rain stopped soon after the show was postponed, and skies were clear the rest of the night. (The show has been rescheduled for Aug. 23).

This does not rock you like a hurricane.

Mark Campana, president of Live Nation Midwest Music, said the plug was pulled after a group meeting with the Live Nation tour producer and local staff, Rush's manager and the band's production team. Rush was not involved in the meeting.

"The key was the amount of water that had fallen," Campana said. "The wind caused the water to blow onstage. We all decided not to test the electrical system. We could have cranked up the electricity, but we felt a test could cause harm to people since they were already in the theater. Equipment was set up. ...

"We are always going to err on the conservative side when it comes to safety."

Hairbanger's Ball does about 40 outdoor shows throughout the area every summer. "The general rule is unless there's lightning, the show will continue," said Jennifer Remis (a k a Polly Pantz), co-founder of Hairbanger's Ball. "Unless the wind is blowing the stage over. We just played Rock Around the Block [in Lake View] last Friday and it rained. It was fine. Everyone stayed. It happens every year.

"But our hair has to be covered [for the wigs]," she added with a laugh. "It has nothing to do with the $50,000 worth of equipment onstage. We carry tarps. We learned that the hard way years ago, getting dumped on, not having tarps and losing some equipment."

The band headlines Mullet Night from 5-7 p.m. before the July 30 White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field. A fixture at Retro on Roscoe, Hairbanger's Ball will appear there again Aug 7 and 8.

Rain or shine.

Widespread Panic is in the safe confines of the Chicago Theatre tonight, where the rockers begin a sold-out three-night stand. But Schools said the festival veterans have a "million" scary outdoor stories.

"One of the first big shows we did at the fairgrounds in Athens, Ga., was like 1990," he recalled. "It was Gov't Mule, Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, and we were headlining. That will give you an idea how long ago it was. There were 30,000 people there, and as soon as we got onstage the thunderstorms started rolling in with lightning. We stopped and started five times. It's hard to gauge.

"It's the tour manager's job to look out for his band. It's the promoter's job to look out for his audience."

Just last weekend the Old Town School of Folk Music stopped a show for the first time in the 13 years of its annual Folk and Roots Festival.

Lightning ended Sunday's "Blues From Niger" finale by the band Etran Finatawa after 10 minutes. "We did not want to cancel it for anything," said the school's production director, Alisa Baum. "We pushed it and kept it going in the rain."

Baum let the festival's tech company make the final call. The musicians were disappointed because of the long trek they made from the republic of Niger.

"They would have loved to keep playing," Baum said, "but the electricians know what's going on."

One legendary outdoor show in Chicago rock history was the Neil Young and Crazy Horse set at the August 1997 H.O.R.D.E. festival at the former New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, now the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. Lightning forced Morphine to cut short its second stage set. By the time Young appeared on the mainstage, winds were charging through the pavilion. The pirate flag on Ralph Molina's drum kit snapped in the wind, and H.O.R.D.E. banners blew off their moorings.

Hail flew deep into the pavilion, and people were screaming. The pavilion's concrete aisles resembled Niagara Falls as rushing water reached the ankles of fans huddled around the stage. The theater's audio and video power went out. And Young played on.

Switching to emergency generators, the band continued on smaller amps, performing by flashlight and candlelight. The set list went overboard, and Young switched into ambient material such as "Like a Hurricane" and "Down by the River."

Campana was at that show, although he was not involved in decision making.

"The ultimate authority is the artist, because it's their safety," said Campana, who helped open the now-defunct Poplar Creek amphitheater in 1982 in Hoffman Estates. "Neil Young may have just decided to gut it out. If an artist is in the moment, it's hard to tell them to quit playing their art. It's difficult to make a call in the middle of a show.

"Rain is typically not a problem. Where you run into problems is lightning strikes and wind blowing debris and blowing the rain."

Schools concurred and pointed out, "Water and lightning is not a good mixture with electricity and people."