With his lanky arms clasped around a rusty steel truss, Aaron Nelson dangled from the rafters at Memorial Field.
He clamped lights above the bleacher seats with a wrench he wore like a necklace, readying the field for another Festival at Sandpoint concert. In three days, Nelson’s grabbed about 15 hours of sleep.
It’s all part of life backstage and behind the scenes for the festival’s production crew. The team does the hours - sometimes days - of grunt work that it takes to put on a show.
They handle details the audience never sees. They focus lights, plug in miles of wire and load and unload semitrucks stuffed with piano-sized boxes of sound and stage gear. They even cook meals for the band, press their clothes and fetch towels.
“If nothing catches fire and nobody dies, it’s a great show,” laughed festival production manager Dave Nygren. “A lot of the job is about avoiding disaster.”
Stage manager Mike Ruskey haggled for days with the Doobie Brothers crew, which threatened to cancel the show several times. One argument was because the panel that runs the sound equipment was about 30 feet too far from the stage.
“Every show is different and you are dealing with different personalities,” said Ruskey. “Sometimes you have to dig in your heels and just get on with the show.”
Before the Doobies arrived they wanted eight more speakers in front of the festival tent.
The equipment was impossible to find. A company supplying the festival sound equipment eventually bought six more speakers for $80,000 just for the show.
Performers come in with pages of requirements, blueprints for how the stage is arranged, diagrams for how how to load and unload equipment from the trucks.
There’s even a proper way to roll up an extension cord.
“If I see a guy grab one and start rolling it up on his arm, he’s gone,” said Vance Powell, Martina McBride’s stage manager.
Rolling a cord twists the wires inside, ruining expensive microphone equipment. Powell said he shows the helpers the right way one time, and if they do it wrong again, they’re fired.
Last Thursday, McBride’s truck rolled onto Memorial Field at 10 a.m.
Using radios tethered to their shirt collars and communicating in their own lingo, the production crew - no one calls them roadies anymore - had the trailer empty and the stage set in 45 minutes.
A sweating Nygren puffed a cigarette, while workers aimed spotlights, painted bleachers and plugged in wires from the large electrical cable called a “snake.”
The cable, filled with hundreds of wires for the musical instruments, runs from the stage, through the seating to a sound board. Every now and then one of the crew hollers a familiar mantra, “Don’t run over the snake.”
Someone in a truck did just that once before a festival Beach Boys concert. Luckily, it didn’t crush or snap any wires inside.
“Everyone was screaming at the guy,” Nygren recalled. A Beach Boys crew member half-jokingly told someone to call the police because he was going to kill the driver.
“The crews can get a little cranky at times,” Ruskey said. And being “with the band” or working for them isn’t as glamorous as many think.
“Most of the time we are busting our butts on stage, and rarely do we even get to see a show,” said Scott Ruzich, who is part of Nygren’s crew. “We maybe see 10 minutes and are ready to tear it down again.”
The working crew doesn’t schmooze with the performers, but once in a while gets to eat with them.
“That part is fun,” Ruzich said. “But you find out they are just like everyone else except they make a lot more money. You get over the starstruck thing pretty quick.”
McBride and her band were in the hotel while the field was set up. They arrived about 4 p.m. for a sound check. Some went for a boat ride on Lake Pend Oreille and fished, and the fiddle player fired off his homemade “spud gun.” Other band members laughed in approval as he launched potatoes 100 yards into the lake.
“The band thinks they work their ass off,” said Powell, their stage manager. “They play for an hour and are spent. We are out here all day and night.”
Backstage, Carolyn Gleason and her employees staff the cook shack. She had 35 pounds of salmon and chicken to prepare for McBride and her band. There was one problem. The barbecue flamed up, scorched Gleason’s forearm and then the propane tank ran dry.
Dinner was saved after volunteer Randy Karli rounded up a propane refill. As nearly 2,000 people entered the festival gates, the band munched homemade huckleberry pie and complimented Gleason’s menu.
“Hurry up! Christmas is coming,” yelled one stage hand as workers set up microphones and strategically placed bottles of spring water.
As crew members raced over the stage - some adjusting equipment, others looking for stray tools - McBride kissed her 2-year-old daughter and waited to be introduced.
The only glitch in an hour-and-a-half show was a bad sound cable. As McBride signed autographs, Nygren’s crew swarmed the stage. They packed boxes, tore down platforms and loaded all of the gear back in the truck.
“These guys wail,” said Ruskey, talking about his team on stage, not the band.
They set a record loading out the Doobie Brothers - 52 minutes. The band’s crew said it’s never been done in less than an hour.
Before the lights go out at the festival field, workers haul pickup loads of garbage, put tarps over equipment in case of rain and talk about sleep and a shower. They will leave at 1 a.m. and be back by 7 a.m.
“It was a good show. No one died and nothing caught on fire,” Nygren said.
Ruzich corrected him, reminding him of the flaming barbecue and Gleason’s slightly burned arm.
“It was still a good show,” Nygren grinned.
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