Calm before the storm

Behind the scenes as George Street preps for its big week

Published on August 2, 2014
George Street Friday evening.  — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

By midnight tonight, George Street will be packed to the gills with up to 9,000 music-loving partygoers.
It’s the week of the George Street Festival, the annual outdoor extravaganza of music and alcohol on the street infamous for just those things.

There will be singing, there will be dancing and there will be lots and lots of drinking.

But on Friday at noon, the street is in preparatory mode, and it’s far from party time. I took a stroll down the biggest little street in North America to get a sense of what goes on before the lights go down.

Just inside the gates are two security guards, soaking up the last few hours of calm before the frenzy.

One of them was a veteran. His five-years worth of festivals had shown him of the limits of preposterousness to which the intoxicated mind can stretch.

There was the time a drunk young man climbed to the very top of the enormous tree by the stage; the performance had to be stopped so a crane could be brought in to take him down.

Then there was the man who got punched in the face, lost his filling, and spent the rest of the evening on his hands and knees.

“My biggest worry is someone having a weapon. You could be putting someone in a hold, and then his buddy comes up behind you and stabs you,” the guard admitted.

While he has had no encounters of the sort, there have been moments of terror — like the time he saw a man coming towards him with a live taser.

“Luckily he turned the corner and the cops got him,” he said. “But if he’d come at you, what are you supposed to do? Stand your ground and get tasered like a man?”

“At any given moment it could break into severe rowdiness. It could go from perfect to crazy in an instant. But the people you get to meet make that risk all worthwhile. You meet so many great people. I’m a people person, so I love it.”

The other guard is a newbie, fresh off her first night on the street.

Her experience is different than that of a man. When a fight breaks out, she can’t intervene; when she’s “floating” — walking up and down the street — she has to be accompanied by another guard.

But she doesn’t feel the patrons treat her any differently for her gender.

“In my experience as a woman, I’ve never had a problem with people. It’s all about your approach. If you come into it with the attitude of ‘I’m a security guard’ with your chest puffed out, you’re going to get the response you expect. But if you’re friendly and helpful, you get back what you give.”

I wander on down the street and into a bar. The shade is a welcome relief from the blazing summer sun, but apparently that sentiment does not last. I chat with the bartender as she pours a drink for her lunchtime customers.

“It’s so hot here at night behind the bar,” she said. “With all the people in here, it gets unbearable. You learn to just sweat and deal with it.”

The heat is certainly an issue this year.

While drinking is dehydrating enough as it is, add in dancing crowds and a sky-high Humidex, and you have the potential for disaster.

So, on the sidelines, is the St. John Ambulance crew. Consisting exclusively of volunteers, the two- to six-person team is on hand to deal with the health issues that are inevitable of inebriated mobs on a sweltering summer night. On the first night, the crew dealt with only three incidents, one of which was induced by heat exhaustion. They are hopeful that as the crowds escalate, the health concerns will not.

I walk on down the street. The lunchtime crowd drinks beers outside, while the tech crew tests sound levels with a band onstage. The mood is vibrant, anticipatory. Conversation is mingled with the noise of trucks unloading and managers shouting orders.

But it’s a different scene inside Club One. The former performance venue is now quiet and cool, filled with boxes and lighting equipment. They create a maze between tables at which a small team works on laptops with focused intensity.

This is the nerve centre of the George Street Festival. Production, sound checks and staging, technical requirements, ticket sales, management — everything is based here, in this large, dimly lit room that hums with the silent craze of troubleshooting.

“This business is a business of exceptions. The best flight plans often don’t go the way that you want them,” said Seamus O’Keefe, executive director of the George Street Association.

With so many people and variables to deal with, anything can go awry. On Thursday night, for example, the bassist for the Wallflowers had a flight delay and couldn’t get in until 5:30 a.m. the day of the concert. His plane arrived, he got three hours sleep, and on he went. Disaster averted.

But there are also smaller worries to deal with. For instance, every act has a “rider,” a specific contract outlining everything the group expects when it comes in for a performance. This includes instruments, lighting equipment, accommodations — and an often very specific list of food and beverages.

No matter how ridiculous, the rider must be followed to a T — from the appropriate type and size of whiskey to the appropriate colour of tortilla chip. One year, a performer required a freshly cracked turkey egg in their smoothie before going onstage. Two years ago a group demanded grilled chicken thighs, a surprisingly challenging product to find.

Another needed black solo cups — not red.

Brandon Kalbfleisch is the man responsible for getting the right food and drink for the green room. I caught him just as he was heading to the grocery store to shop for Dr. Hook.

“They want lots and lots of alcohol,” he explained.

Although he does the groups’ shopping, he has yet to meet any performers. He deals only with tour managers.

“They’re usually pretty good,” he said. “As long as their group’s happy, they’re happy.”

When I asked Kalbfleisch his title, he didn’t really know what to call himself. He’s kind of the miscellaneous do-it-all; anything the executive director needs, he’s on it.

As the new blood on the team, he’s also the water boy. I walked with him as he went to the truck to get water for the stage.

“I got home 2:30 last night and I was back again 8 a.m. this morning,” he told me, as he heaved open the truck, taking out two packs of water bottles. “People don’t realize the amount of work that goes into this. They think 10 people just come down a few hours before and set things up.”

But it’s much bigger than that.

The festival is put off with the help of 125 people and planned over the span of a year. And it doesn’t stop when the crowds leave.

At 5:30 a.m., after the last cabs go home, in come the cleanup crew. For three hours, five people and two leaf-blowers salvage the pavement from beneath an avalanche of plastic cups, paper plates and crunched-up cans. The blowers sweep the litter into a pile, while three others follow behind filling up garbage bags — three truckloads worth.

This is the first festival where the George Street Association has the liquor licence to allow cans on the street; previous years, only plastic cups have been allowed. But for all their recyclable potential, the crowds crumple most of the cans. Thus, while the garbage fills three trucks, recycling fills three or four bags.

“If people saw what was there in the morning, they probably wouldn’t throw so much onto the street at night,” said Scott Windsor, who works with Atlantic Industrial Services, the company hired to clean the street.

But, amidst the trash, the cleaning crew also finds treasure — phones, wallets, hats are all inevitably found in the aftermath.

“One year as we were cleaning up, a lady came down in a cab looking for a lost passport,” Windsor recalls. “Her flight was that afternoon; she was crying her eyes out.”

So if you’re heading out to George Street this weekend, stay hydrated, drink responsibly, and be sure to leave your passport at home and maybe pack your common sense instead.

George Street Festival runs from July 31 to Aug. 5. This year, featured acts include Dropkick Murphys, Serena Ryder and the Alan Doyle Band.