Written by: Jay McConnery
Photos by: Mike Bouchard
The final weekend of Bluesfest 2011 delivered a cavalcade of dynamic headlining appearances; Jane's Addiction who left the crowd of late 30-something Lollapaloozers gasping for air as Perry and the fellas smoked through a near-perfect set of their peak era's timelessly bookmarked hits, Blue Rodeo who skillfully delivered true Canadiana more succintly than a syringe of maple syrup injected directly into the sphincters of the stumbly yet appreciative crowd, and the surprise headliner late Sunday afternoon- this crazy bitch known as Mother (Fucking) Nature, who arrived without a moment's notice and left a crowd of 12-day festival 'veterans' soaked, frightened with disbelief and many thankful they were still alive. Surely, anyone reading this has seen the footage, or heard about the freak storm that ended Bluesfest about 4 hours early on Sunday night, but if not, allow me: A few songs into Cheap Trick's mainstage set, at about 7:10pm Sunday, right after a most engaging and rocking rendition of 'I Want you to Want me', some very dark clouds began to blow in from the Quebecoisie North, at a worrying speed. Concert goers (including myself) were busy taking pictures as it rolled in, as it was truly unusually dark and bared down with a hilariously accurate baring. Temperatures had been stifflingly hot all day, and I think we all expected to enjoy a bit of a cool shower together and further the mood of celebration already in place with the amazing lineup of music the night held for us. Standing in the festival plaza, watching Cheap Trick work through the next song, the wind suddenly picked up to an intensity like I have never before witnessed in this city; signs anchored with huge cement blocks began to blow over, the banners along each side of the stage were flapping like loose unmanned sails, dust came up in a huge blinding cloud and all at once the front of house speakers went down. The band had just put their instruments down and began to leave the stage, as it was obviously no longer safe, when I turned to my wife and said- 'We should get into the beer tent, this might be a pretty crazy downpour..' and as we turned that way, the intensity notched up again and the collective confusion and panic of the crowd became tangiable. The wind was whipping in what felt like increasing gusts, and all of a sudden the mouth of the beer tent didn't feel like a safe place to be. The flaps of the tent began to whip ferociously as I pulled my wife forward to ask if we should retreat to the War Museum- when all of a sudden we both turned to witness the MBNA stage teeter, totter and then blow over onto itself and all the production to it's rear. It was literally a huff, a puff and then the titanic sized stage went over like a house of cards. Knowing a little bit about the number of people associated with stage production, the number of family and fans likely watching from the sidelines and the volunteers milling about- I feared the worst. This made the imagery even more awful, and implanted one visual clip that will stick with me forever.. We shared a quick glance of 'Holy Shit!', grabbed hands and ran for the museum parking garage at full tilt. Admittedly, it was handy to have an actual bunker (within a monument designed to look like one) to flee to in this situation.
Inside the muggy confines of the parking garage, we stood in disbelief as throngs of fans strolled in, obviously unaware of what had just happened, screaming 'wooo' or 'partee' or just laughing about the soaking. I met one gentleman who seemed concerned, so we shared our experiences and as I described to him what I had seen, and the likelihood that someone may very well be seriously injured, he said- "Joe Satriani will be on the other stage though, right?" Wow, buddy... We kept to ourselves or in company of other friends who might be more aware of what just 'went down' (too soon?), and the implications that it might have for the lives of actual humans. Uncertainty was certainly the most overwhelming reaction, knowing nothing, and being unable, or perhaps incapable of helping. As the storm slowed, we left the bunker to see volunteer staff scurrying about carrying tills full of cash, worried parents scanning the crowd for their children, security freaking out or lazily texting and senior staff shouting that it was all over in an attempt to evacuate the park. We were clumsily directed East, but managed to head out the West exit towards our bikes and were shocked by the damage. Everything without weight was completely blown around, perimeter fences collapsed, tables and chairs all over, some vending stations mutilated, basically just crap strewn everywhere. We walked up to the exit and saw the the remnants of the MBNA stage leaning backwards onto the parkway, surrounded by firetrucks and ambulances. I stood there for a moment trying to imagine how it could've possibly come down like that, and saw a musician I know sitting in the drivers seat of his truck, with his family, probably doing the same. We exchanged a glance and I knew immediately the best place to be was safe at home. The emergency personnel was on the scene, and it was time to let them sort things out- and get out of the way. Biking home through the lightening was nowhere near as scary, even with the power out in our neighbourhood until Monday evening. It was later the next day, with great relief that many of us learned no one was seriously injured through a tweet from the Bluesfest brass. Thank G-O-D! Focusing on the weekend's performers will be difficult for anyone that was there Sunday night, because that was the show of life my friend, and nothing else holds a candle.
In so many ways this was such an unfortunate, but somehow fittingly epic end to a monumental, galvanizing, yet very memorable and obviously incredibly well-attended Bluesfest. There were a lot of adjustments this year- many of which resulted in anger or frustration. Some seemed unavoidable the first couple of days, but as the festival went on, there were definitely moments where I had the strange feeling that we were all taking part in a colossal test of basic human intelligence, and many of us were flat-out failing. Although the new layout admittedly presented challenges with seemingly reduced sanitation services and possibly an increased focus on the bottom-line- with every change there was an opportunity to 'beat the line', usually by taking a few extra paces, or by just looking around and using your brain a little. Bottle necks were easily predicted and avoided, beer was easily snuck in (if that's your thing, you skid), , close comfortable vantage points available and often empty at several stages and all concert pitches were easily traversed with only a few real 'lawn chair' moments. Isn't this all we could've ever hoped for? No, the line-up wasn't perfect, and didn't really make sense with the Vegas theme, or at all for that matter- but do you really care? I don't! It was something to discuss, and argue about. I suppose, but the festival once again provided an undeniably incredible amount of entertainment value for ticket holders (especially full pass holders) and a fantastic opportunity to really catch up with friends, spending quality time as only your friend-family can do when given this amazing opportunity to be together everyday for 2 weeks.. What else could ever give us this excuse, as we all slowly morph into boring regulars?
Thanks again Bluesfest- I'm already looking forward to next year!