by Bruce A. Smith
This new column, “Stories from Backstage,” is the recounting of my experiences working in rock and roll and theater as a stagehand. For several years I worked in Nashville and Seattle where I took calls from private production companies, especially Crew One in the Music City, and did many country and rock show load-ins and load-outs. However, my preferred work was with the stagehand union in Seattle, IATSE Local 15.
I also did some work for a touring show called Cavalia, which is a Cirque du Soleil off-shoot. In Cavalia, I worked as a kind of short-term roadie known as a “fly-in,” helping with mid-level technical help on both their load-ins and “strikes,” most notably in Santa Monica and Phoenix.
Many of these accounts first appeared in a regular column for a small newspaper in Maple Valley, Washington. Some of them are a tad dated as the body of my work was performed from 2000-2007. However, I’ve decided to post them at the Mountain News because I think our readers might enjoy their insights into celebrities and the entertainment industry.
Key Arena, 2003; Tacoma Dome, November, 2006
Chicks Rule! Yup, the Key Arena concert was the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m not alone in that assessment. The 12,000 screaming fans in Seattle’s Key Arena, mostly women, came close to lifting the roof off.
The ceiling-busting energy came from something deeper than Chicks fans appreciating a great show. The Key concert was held a few weeks after lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience in the UK she was “ashamed that President Bush was from Texas,” or words to that effect. In response, critics of the Chicks had burned their CDs or crushed them under bulldozers.
Worst of all, Nashville’s hierarchy turned their backs on Country Music’s Numero Uno act and sanctioned radio stations across the nation to pull Chicks tunes from airplay, including the industry’s number one hit, “Travelin’ Soldier” – a song about a young, scared Army grunt who finds a true-hearted girl to love before he ships out.
In an unprecedented act of solidarity, Dixie Chicks fans, I was told by one of their roadies, sold-out the entire USA tour in 48-hours. Not surprisingly, their Key Arena performance, one of their first of the American tour, was stunning.
Security was cranked up several notches, too: first, because of 9/11 orange alerts, and secondly because of threats against the Chicks. Since the Key Arena is City of Seattle property and technically I was a temporary city employee, I had to show my Seattle City ID twice just to get to the loading dock. After that is was another security and bag check to enter the backstage.
The audience had to submit to a similar level of security checks outside the Key before entering.
As a result, the crew and fans were all jazzed before anyone took the stage. When they did, the Chicks took everyone higher when they opened with “Earl,” a song about a woman who executes her sister’s abusive husband who “walks right through all the restraining orders.” Before singing the last line of the chorus the Chicks stopped singing. The band vamped for a few beats, and then, with dramatic flourish all three Chicks thrust their microphones toward the audience, signaling them to finish the line.
“Earl’s gotta die!” they screamed, and folks, I really wasn’t sure the building was going to hold together. Looking at the ceiling in my Rim-of-Fire-earthquake-reflex, I noticed the Chicks had done something I had never seen before or since. The entire ceiling was used as a back drop, bathed delightfully with colored gels which highlighted projections called gobos, gizmos that cast designs, silhouettes and other cut-out type filtration across the bare concrete. It was extraordinarily inventive. Instead of using the roof to just keep the rain out, The Dixie Chick had turned the every inch of the Key Arena into a theater. It was marvelous.
That level of expertise continued throughout the entire show. Above their stage-in-the-round, which was multi-leveled and wondrously lit, the set designer flew three levels of truss that had curtains, scrim, and other backdrop-like hanging stuff that produced another splendid multi-leveled accent to the Chicks’ superb music. Creative, pricey, and again, singular in the industry.
As for the music, it was top-notch. I love the Dixie Chicks sound: modern, rockin’ country, but rooted in banjo and fiddle. And the Chicks can play their instruments, let me tell you; they’re much more than three ladies who look good while singing a couple of catchy tunes.
Natalie is their lead singer, and when she joined the two founding sisters of the original Chicks few years ago, she made the Dixie Chicks what they are today. She has soul, grit, and a rock music edge. Yet, she warmly embraces the country ethos: be close to the earth and tell it like it is, which is exactly what she did with W and Nashville’s old guard.
In addition, the Chicks brought along a dozen of Nashville’s finest musicians for their backup band. Together, they were down-right bodacious.
Unfortunately, on their return visit to the Pacific Northwest a couple of years later the Chicks chose not to play the Key, but instead went to the Tacoma Dome. Since the T-Dome is not a union house and I consider the private production companies who have the stagehand contracts there too cheap to work for, i.e.: they pay half the union rates, do not provide any health benefits, and generally never pay overtime, I don’t work much at the T. Too bad, too, because I live just down the road. But more importantly, I think the city of Tacoma should insist on living wages for all employees who work there. The Dome is a symbol of Tacoma Pride, and that pride should be evident in the how the city pays its help.
Add it all up and I didn’t make the call for the T-Dome show.
But a union brother was in the audience and he told me the show was great. Once again, he said, Natalie had something to say about the Prez because Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld had resigned a few days prior. But, apparently, she and the Chicks did not utter a single political word until the very end, and then Natalie chirped, “I guess you guys are wondering when I’m going to say something about the President and Secretary Rumsfeld.” The T-Dome erupted like they did at the Key. Natalie smiled, and then launched into the next song.
She didn’t have to say anything more.
Note: IATSE stands for International Association of Theatrical and Stagehand Employees. The Seattle local, numbered 15, indicates that it was one of the first stagehand groups organized in the United States.
Additional Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Mountain News in March 2012
© 2006, 2012 Bruce A. Smith