Regions get a big city concert
By Stuart Coupe.
“They started the build on Tuesday, you’d better get down there soon,” says the email from Michael Chugg, co-promoter of Elton John’s regional Australian tour in October.
The build is for a concert in Wollongong that sees Elton John go onstage at around 6.30pm on the following Sunday. I look at this email and think I must be misreading something – building a stage on a Tuesday for a show six days later. Surely this is for a concert before Wollongong. Setting up a concert surely can’t take that long, can it? Yes, it can. Yes it does.
If you’re rolling yours eyes at this point let me explain a few things quickly. For starters despite being around the rock’n’roll scene for more than four decades as a writer, manager, promoter and so forth I have never ever seen the build for a major international show. Like never. OK, I know a bit more than the average concert goer in that I realise a concert staging set up isn’t just plonked, fully constructed, into a venue via some almighty helicopter system. I’m not quite that naïve. But until I went to Wollongong I had absolutely no idea – absolutely none – about how much work was involved in putting together one of these setups.
The second thing you should know is why I’m actually interested in this stuff. I’m writing a book about the history of Australian road crew. It hasn’t been done before and it should have been. It’s a look at the real people and work that crews do. It’s a celebration of the characters – those who have died, those who have left the road, and those still working – who put these shows together.
So, as is always the case with my writing, I figured you can’t write a book and expect people to take it seriously without experiencing it all. Whilst I think about sitting in a truck for an all nighter from Sydney to Melbourne I figured I needed to see the build of a major concert and hang with the people who make that happen. So I head to Wollongong to watch the stage build and set up for a show that will play to 22,000 people.
Christian Pepper from Force Events who are in charge of all this sends me an email laying out what exactly is going to happen. In essence by the end of Tuesday the intention – if all goes well – is to have the stage deck built. Wednesday will be the build of the roof on the deck and if there’s no screw ups and hold ups they will start to lift the roof by the end of that day.
The following day he says they will “be lifting the roof with stage at full trim.” Not for the first time I have no idea what this means but I get the general idea. Come Friday and they’ll be building the front of house mix structure and finishing off the stage. Production loads in on the Saturday and the actual show is the following day. On the Monday the roof and front of house will come down, the stage deck will go out on Tuesday – a full week after they started – and Wollongong will have its football oval back again. It will be like Elton John and hundreds of crew were never there.
When I roll into the backstage area the stage is built, lights are on the stage, the PA stacks are partially assembled but not fully raised and the two video screens are still in a semi somewhere. Dozens and dozens of loaders and crew are busily doing stuff that they seem to know like the back of their hands. They’re actually a gentle calm. No-one is panicing. Just doing what they do. They are all directed by Tom Michael, the other partner in Force Events. Christian is in Melbourne overseeing the build for some dance extravaganza or another.
Did I mention that when I arrive the whole football field has been covered in white turf protection mats (that came in four semi-trailers) and around 12,000 plastic seats (two semi’s worth) set out? No, I didn’t.
By 3pm the first semi-trailers of production gear come through the gates – some have travelled from the last gig in Mackay, others from Sydney – to be greeted by around 80 loaders supplied by Showcall. They’re a diverse collection of individuals (a lot more women than I expected) united by only two things – hi vis vests and an ability to quickly and efficiently follow the surprisingly basic and direct instructions: “Those trucks are full – let’s empty them.”
For the next few hours I wander around marvelling at really simple things – that someone actually knows how to pack and unpack those semi’s and where everything goes and in what order it comes out (and goes back) and the way the production crew onstage know precisely how to fit this myriad of cables and boxes together. I’m reminded frequently of the way a pilot once described the inner wiring and workings of a jet plane – “imagine an explosion in a spaghetti factory” he wrote, “but somehow it all fits together and planes fly.”
And I’m staggered by the attention to detail, particularly in this day and age of terrorism at major events. Momo (that’s what everyone calls him) from Avert Risk and I chat whilst every seat in the venue is inspected on show day just in case someone has planted something. He shows me the grassed area behind the stage where Elton’s helicopter will land at 3pm on show day. When I ask what would happen if there was an ‘incident’ once gates had opened Momo tells me that there are various evacuation points, and that the people on the floor will be ushered to the grass area where Elton’s helicopter is intended to land.
I ask Momo what will happen if Elton’s helicopter is en route and close to landing. He tells me that there is a contingency plan for the chopper to put down. When I ask where he looks at it, smiles just a little and says, “I can’t tell you.”
Elton does land in the designated area – but a half hour early as there’s concerns about the increasing winds. Meanwhile his crew soundchecks, the final touches are put on the staging and gates open at 4pm. Right on time. Everything backstage is still strangely calm. There’s always a sense that a calamity of varying proportions is just seconds away. Everyone thinks it. No-one says anything.
Busby Marou open the show, Elton comes on right on the stroke of 6.30pm. He plays great. Nothing goes wrong. The crowd is delirious. No-one dies. No babies are born. There appears to be no bad acid. Elton utters his best line of the night – “Two words I never imagined myself saying – ‘Hello Wollongong’”.
Twenty minutes before the show ends I wander backstage. The loaders are hi vised up again and ready to go. Elton comes off. He’s been driven to the helicopter before the house lights go up. The band follow five minutes later and hop into a waiting van for the drive to Sydney.
Less than ten minutes after the show ends the stage gear is being loaded down ramps and into trucks. It’s almost 9pm. Four of them need to be on the road tonight to overnight to Melbourne to get on the Spirit Of Tasmania for the concerts in Hobart. If they miss this boat it will not be a good look.
It’s feverish till midnight. I wander back at 6am the next morning as the stage is being dismantled. The matting and chairs have already been rolled up and packed.
One of the production crew who knows what I’m doing wanders over and says quietly, “This is what we do Stuart – we build pyramids, then we take them down and move them on.”
All pictures by SUSAN LYNCH.
• Stuart Coupe was an artist manager in the halcyon days of Australian rock. Now he is an acclaimed author, and radio music presenter. He is writing a book on Australian Road Crew.
This article first appeared in the print edition of CX Magazine November 2017, pp.24-27.
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