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My First Festival: Diving Into The Fray More Than 40 Years Ago At A Remote Multi-Day Event

A fledgling audio professional still in high school steps up to assemble a crew and support the West River Festival on Prince Edward Island in 1978.
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It’s not the exact festival discussed here, but another from the same era at Killaloe, Ontario that finds the author at front of house (foot up by the console). Photo Credit: David Woodhead

It was the spring of 1978, my grade 11 year, when I started seeing posters for the West River Festival. The festival was scheduled over the Canada Day long weekend (July 1), taking place about 10 miles from my house on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. I found out that the promoter owned a new recording studio adjacent to the site; I’d met him when my older brother, a musician, had gone to check out the studio.

A bit later, I approached the promoter and asked him if he’d hired a stage crew yet, telling him that he’d definitely need a crew and that I could provide one in exchange for admission, food and accommodations. He agreed, and I set about making that happen.

In case you’re wondering what business an eleventh grader has even making such an offer, the previous summer I’d worked as a stagehand at the local PAC (IATSE local 906), had parlayed that experience into being head of the stage crew for my high school drama department, and had also been running my own DJ business since I was 14.

I approached some friends from school and came up with a crew of four, plus myself. Forty-plus years later I’ve forgotten the names of two of the guys, but the other two were my best friend at the time, Jim Wood, and the improbably named Roger Whitaker (not that Roger Whittaker, the British singer-songwriter who spells his name a bit differently, although 20 years later I would find myself managing the company that supplied audio for his North American tours).

Getting Started

We reported to the festival site, a farmer’s field, a few days before the event started to help finish the stage build and do the load-in. The stage was of all-wood construction (as in telephone poles for the uprights), probably about 50 x 30 feet, with a roof and solid back wall.

I remember that Roger was on the roof detail, finishing the shingling (no Stageline for this festival!) and I mainly recall that detail because I remember watching from the ground with a mixture of horror and fascination as he polished off a hamburger that someone had bought from a local restaurant in three bites (a quarter, another quarter and then the remaining half, in case you need to know).

Solotech provided the sound system in what was probably one of the company’s first jobs outside of the province of Quebec. I know a lot of folks who work at Solotech now, and to my knowledge not one of them worked for the company back then (actually, quite a number of them were not even born then).

My main point of contact was a gentleman named Robert (pronounced “Ro-bair” en Francais) who was the crew chief and monitor engineer. I don’t think I ever knew Robert’s last name, but when I mention him to folks who have been with Solotech for a long time, he’s remembered as something between a legend and a saint.

The main PA was comprised of eight Solotech S2 three-way loudspeakers per side, and the reason I remember that detail is that they were really heavy. So heavy that for the set-up, the promoter hired a “crane” for load-in. This “crane” was actually the local highway wrecker (nothing like a modern highway wrecker, but for the time, a very big tow-truck).

It had two booms that pinned together at the end to form the towing mechanism. The booms could be unpinned and raised and lowered independently, and it was one of these that made our “crane.” It was great for lifting, but there was no mechanical traverse, so getting the cabinets in place involved manually pulling the weight of the cabinet and the steel boom. (Spoiler alert: the festival lost money, so the tow truck was not invited back for the loadout… we manhandled the cabinets down and into the truck!)

A Soundcraft Series-1 console from “back in the day” that’s similar to the Trident desks deployed at the West River Festival.

Both the front of house and monitor consoles were made by Trident, and this gig was the one-and-only time I’ve ever seen those desks. They were flat, built into a road case design like the contemporary Soundcraft Series-1, but they were fully modular. Amplifiers were Crown DC300s, a few of which did “go DC” by the end of the weekend. I don’t recall the EQs, but besides that, there were some monitors and a microphone kit and not much else.

Through the end of setup day, everything had gone very well; however, that was about to change…

Making It Work

For crew “accommodations” we set up a tent in the camping area, located a few minutes walk behind the stage. Meanwhile, two of us were going to sleep on the stage to provide overnight security for the gear. (I don’t recall there being any actual security – at all.) In any case, at the end of the set-up day, the crew retired to the tent and I drove home to return the family pickup truck, which my dad needed over the weekend.

Remember, this story takes place on Prince Edward Island, which is located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and like any large body of water, the gulf can be prone to storms. Gales, to be more precise, as in a whole lot of wind and rain. And that’s exactly what blew up overnight between set-up and the first show day.

I arrived on show day around 8:30 am to find Robert and the crew drying things off, including the console modules with a hair dryer. I took over that task, and in the course of doing so, made what was probably one of my earliest console repairs when I noticed an IC with one leg outside of its socket. I pointed this out to Robert and he did the honors (and I now know that depending on what IC was in that position, this was either an actual repair of an issue that had been missed in QC, or a non-issue as that pin is not used on some chips).

In any case, we got the system up and working again and were on time for what was probably a noon start. The weather had cleared up somewhat, but the site was already very muddy from the previous night’s rain, and the crowd was fairly sparse. I have no idea if this was due to poor ticket sales or people staying away because of the weather… probably a bit of both.

A look at a classic Crown DC300 “solid state” amplifier, the same model that drove the huge Solotech S2 loudspeakers.

I have no memories of any drama involved in getting bands on and off the stage, so that tells me that my crew was doing a good job and that things ran smoothly for the first day. I’m not going to pretend to remember exactly what the weather was like that day, but I do remember that by the time the last act finished, the weather had deteriorated into a full gale again. I had cut the crew staying in the tent for the day, so Jim and I set out to get the tarps tied down on the PA towers, starting with the stage left side.

This was a real challenge in high winds and driving rain, but we got it to a point where the PA was covered. Wanting to double check some of the knots, I sent Jim on ahead to the stage right tower.

Having checked the knots, I was making my way across the pit area in front of the stage, my head down and my rain hood up, when I heard a voice come to me from above. Startled, I looked up, and there I beheld a man with long hair and a beard, the backlighting from the two floodlights on stage creating a slight halo effect around his head, an arm outstretched.

I said, “Jesus! What the hell are you doing up there?!” And he repeated what he’d said to me the first time, which was “Got a light?” as his outstretched arm was holding either a cigarette or a joint.

I quickly explained to him that he had absolutely no business being on the stage, and the gentleman, who we will call “Mr. Hippie King,” explained to me that he and his “old lady,” Mrs. Hippie Queen (Leslie West, I am truly sorry…) had made this festival scene without any plans whatsoever, and looking for a dry place to crash for the night, had been attracted by the lights on the stage and thought they would stay there.

As I started to explain that the stage was strictly off limits and it was not possible for them to stay there, things were further complicated by my normally very mild-mannered friend Jim bellowing out of the rain and wind and darkness “Ike! Where the f— are you! I can’t do these f—ing tarps by myself!” and a whole lot of other choice words to that effect.

I told Mr. Hippie King to stay put and not touch anything and quickly went off to help Jim with the stage right tarps. This done, I explained to Jim what was up and we hurried back to the stage to evict the squatters. When we got up on deck we found that our “guests” had already laid out our sleeping bags and were rummaging through our cooler to see what was available for drinks and dinner.

I admit to having a charitable streak and thus had been considering giving the Hippies a quiet corner of the stage, but this was the last straw, and we bade them leave the stage at once. This they did; I have no idea where they went after they disappeared into the rain and darkness, although it occurs to me years later that they probably doubled back and made a nest for themselves under the stage.

The stage secured, we bedded down for the night, me drifting off to the realization that one of our cats had been peeing on my sleeping bag in the years since I’d last used it.

Pulling It Off

The next day was similar to the first (maybe the next two days, I really can’t recall if it was a two or three-day event), but somewhere in there I got to mind the monitor console while Robert was off doing other things. I won’t call it “mixing monitors,” but I was prepared to if anyone had asked for an adjustment.

The rest of my recollections are fragmentary; generally, things went along pretty well technically, the weather was mostly awful, the farmer who owned the land made a fortune towing festival-goer cars out of mud holes as they left the site (word was that you paid by the mud hole, so if you got stuck again, you had to pay again). The CBC Halifax mobile truck, a 40-foot tractor trailer, had to be towed off the site with a bulldozer.

Ah, more “fun in the mud” back in the day – check out those main PA stacks… (Photo Credit: David Woodhead)

I only remember three of the acts; Canadian singer-songwriter Colleen Peterson, a put-together group with East Coast musicians Pat Reilly, Steve Naylor and George Antoniak (all friends of my brother and folks I greatly admired), and the Matt Minglewood Band. The latter was an accomplished blues act that was very popular in the Maritimes. They may have closed the show…

I recall one drunken biker-ish looking individual who’d been shouting “Minglewooood!” the whole time – before, during, and after every act, until he was hoarse. He was also comfortably passed out in the mud in front of the stage by the time Minglewood actually hit the stage so I doubt he caught any of their set.

Afterwards, the site was littered with beer bottles so I told the crew that we might as well be the ones to collect them and split whatever they were worth. That we did, piling them up neatly under the stage; however, by the time I got back to the site with our pickup to collect them (and the tent) someone else had grabbed them.

So, all I got was some great experience and a West River Festival T-shirt. It was my very first swag shirt, and I considered it a lucky shirt for the next few years while I went on to many other “firsts” in my career.

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