Indiana Concert Tragedy Underscores the Complex Art of Staging Outdoor Shows

Providing Safe Conditions for Artists and Audiences Involves Technology, Judgment

The sudden onset of bad weather is the nightmare every concert promoter confronts when staging outdoor shows. Artists working these shows worry, too.

That point was driven home Saturday night (Aug. 13) when high winds collapsed the massive outdoor stage at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis , killing five people and injuring dozens more moments after singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles left the stage and just before Sugarland was set to go on.

Each such calamity — and there have been several over the past two years — prompt calls for better weather forecasting, more vigilant monitoring of impending conditions, faster crowd-clearance strategies and sturdier staging.

But those who erect the stage framework on which the artists hang their sets and lighting have learned that wind and rain are endlessly inventive in their ability to cause mischief and tragedy.

“Every one of us in this business has had a catastrophe,” says the head of a major staging company who asked to remain anonymous.

“It happens to everybody. It’s like owning an airline. The wind that those guys sustained [in Indiana] was incredible.”

As he explained it, the staging company is hired by the concert promoter to erect a basic structure that is engineered to hold a certain amount of weight and withstand wind speed to certain clearly specified levels.

“You’ve got a stage, which is the outside structure with the roof and the skins and all the tarps on it,” he continues. “Then you have a set that’s put upon the stage — the deck.”

The amount of sound and lighting equipment varies from act to act.

“It depends on what they unloaded that day to add to what set the fair had,” he explains. “[Artists] bring truckloads of stuff that they load on the stage. Some of it they hang, some of it sits on the deck.”

The staging company works in conjunction with the venue’s house crew to get all the elements of production and safety in order.

There have been several recent weather-related accidents at outdoor stages.

On Aug. 6, a Flaming Lips show at the Brady District Block Party in Tulsa, Okla. was canceled after wind blew down tents, loosened a lighting rig and toppled a giant video screen. There were no serious injuries. According to witnesses, attendees seemed more distressed by the 110 degree heat than by the gale itself.

On July 17, the outdoor stage at the Ottawa Bluesfest in Canada collapsed during a thunderstorm while Cheap Trick was performing. Five people were injured, one seriously.

On June 30, the roof of an outdoor stage fell during a comedy festival in Quebec City, Canada, after what a local newspaper described as “days of high winds and heavy rains.” There were no injuries.

On Aug. 1, 2009, under the pressure of severe winds, the stage gave way at the Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose, Alberta, Canada, while Billy Currington was performing. One person was killed and around 20 were hurt, including Currington, who suffered a mild concussion, and his bass player, Alex Stevens, who was more seriously injured.

Stephen Navyac, the former tour manager for Sara Evans, Keith Urban, Alison Krauss & Union Station and others, recalls a similar wind-generated disturbance at the Big Valley Jamboree. It occurred a year before the Currington incident.

“It was the exact same stage and the exact same weather conditions came up,” he says. “Sammy Kershaw played before Sara. Our band was onstage ready to go, and I literally had Sara on the back steps of the stage.

“The sky got super dark, the wind whipped up terribly, the PA [public address system] was swinging wildly and I just made the call. I said, ‘Everybody back to the buses. Band and crew please clear the stage.’ The front-of-house guys stayed there because they wanted to protect their gear. They had to put their bodies over their consoles on top of tarps so that the dust — it was dust and rain — [wouldn't damage them].

“The promoter was nearby, and I said, ‘We need to hold off until this thing passes. It’s too dangerous.’”

The promoter then alerted the crowd to seek shelter until the rain and wind died down.

After 20 or 30 minutes, Navyac says, the crew started mopping the deck and setting up equipment that had been blown over, and within 45 minutes of the initial stage clearance, the show was back up and running.

Something akin to this also happened to Evans when she was booked for a show on Chesapeake Bay. Again Navyac delayed the show, with the concurrence of the promoter who urged fans to return to their cars which were parked close by.

“It was that [sense of] caution that struck me when I saw the Indianapolis story,” he said. “They obviously had to be watching this front come in. I wish they had used more caution. Of course, I wasn’t there. It might have been beautiful, sunny and nice.”

Navyac points out that most artist contracts have a rider that gives them the right to stay off the stage if the weather seems menacing.

“It is a bit of a dance,” Navyac admits. “If the promoter is really pushing for the show to go on, it really falls to the artist or the tour manager to stand their ground and make that call. I was with the Mavericks years ago. There was a show that was a little dodgy. I advised them not to go on, but they decided to, anyway. Stuff got a little wet, but they made it through, and everybody was fine and kind of laughed about it after. But after seeing a couple [of weather incidents] that could have been devastating, I want to err on the side of caution.

“Lightning is one of the big [hazards] most artists are careful about, sometimes not careful enough. If there is lightning in the area — and it’s covered in his rider — the artist does not have to take the stage.”

While working as a tour manager, Navyac says he relied on his cell phone and computer to keep him abreast of changing weather conditions.

“But the promoter, typically, does or should have direct connection with the state weather system and highway patrol,” he says.

Navyac says he generally assumed the concert promoter had checked the staging in advance to be sure it met the artist’s requirements and adhered to state and local safety codes.

“But you really lean on your production team, sound crew, etc. to know the structures and what is and isn’t adequate,” he notes. “I recall a couple of times when they told me, ‘They say we can hang our lights up there, but I don’t trust this roof.’

“That’s happened once or twice, where I had to go to the promoter and say, ‘We can’t provide you the light show that we typically do because the roof we require in our rider and the amount of weight it should hold, my guys aren’t seeing that.’”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.