The Stage Crew Diaries: A Tribute to the Volunteers of 35 Denton
Saturday night, 9:20 pm, Inside The Hive
The woman I indirectly report to slides a clear storage box at me in the green room area just behind the stage. The box is filled with plastic-ware, individual sized chip bags, bottled water and napkins.
"Make it look pretty!" she says, not intentionally yelling, but loud all the same. I do my best. I have no skills in this area. Another stage crew volunteer comes up to help me.
"What are we doing?" he asks.
"I was told to make it look good for Solange," I reply, and both of us bumbling idiot dudes, wet from the cold rain but still sweaty from lugging massive equipment off and on various stages, do our best to make an inviting little side table for the evening's headliner, not originally slated to play this venue. It's impossible to anticipate severe turns of weather when you're planning a music festival.
-The Best from 35 Denton Night Two: Metal Wrestling and Fence Repair
-The Best from 35 Denton Night One: The Dancing, The Technological Advances and The Artisanal Jello Shots
-Interviews with Vendors, Bands, Policemen and Fans about What Makes Denton Great
We gracelessly fan out a pile of napkins and surround it with chips and water bottles in the dark. We guess it looks good enough, and then the woman I indirectly report to charges into the area with a garbage bag full of pristine, white cloths. She tosses them randomly about the wet floor, all around the little coffee table laden with vegetable platters, half sub-sandwiches and two bottles of vodka; I can't tell what brand.
Five of us clump piles of formerly clean white towels under our feet and frantically slide around the floor, trying to mop up the dirty brown water that was both tracked in by all of us volunteers and dropped from the leaky ceiling.
On the other side of the stage, well over 800 people are condensed into a collective clump of anticipation as loud, electronic buffer music fills the spaces not used up. Nine hours down, two to go.
11:55 am, inside the Loophole on the Square
I sit down with a group of stage crew volunteers, and I am late. They have already finished whatever drinks and food they had ordered, and are now just joking around, some lighting fresh cigarettes. They're discussing strategy for the long day ahead. All of the acts at Main Stage One of 35 Denton must go off smoothly.
We walk to the stage, in the parking lot just west of Industrial Street, and already, there is so much to do.
The segmented, black wooden floor of the stage undulates under our weight like a wrestling ring surface as we look at schematics for instrumentation and equipment placement.
We struggle in groups of two or three or four to accurately place the mobile drum riser for the Cannabanoids in its correct position on a 12 foot by 12 foot carpet. We take deep breaths before we lift the five foot tall Ampegs up the metal stairs. We pause for a moment to catch our breath. We stand around a lot.
The more experienced among us carry walkie-talkies. We're trying to figure out how to open the back of the Little Guys Movers truck full of needed equipment.
"Yeah, this is Wendall"
"Ok, the guy I'm talking to said he gave the keys to someone from the stage crew, who said he gave them to Wally, who said he doesn't know where they are."
Everyone on Main Stage One who hears this transmission laughs.
2:30 pm, Main Stage One
DJ Yeah Def walks up to the stage and asks me if he should be setting up now. He is scheduled to perform at 4 p.m., and I ask another volunteer what to tell him. Instructions received, Yeah Def climbs up onstage and begins methodically setting up his DJ equipment on a fold-out table, the choreography of his movements practiced and efficient. This is clearly not his first rodeo.
The clouds that have been looming are growing a little thicker, and a little more threatening.
Yeah Def and Strange Towers frontman Lars Larsen take the stage at 4:05, and a couple hundred people are watching Yeah Def drop his signature beats while Larsen adds effects and loops and noises. Many of the people are dancing, and Yeah Def smiles several times while Larsen chain smokes.
From the ground on the side of the stage, I see a volunteer run up to another volunteer and whisper something in his ear. The wind has picked up considerably, and it has a foreboding heft to it. I am told that Yeah Def's set must be cut short.
"Now??" I ask, and start to walk up toward the stage.
"Wait, not yet!"
I am told that we are going to see what the weather does; that it's not yet imperative that we shut it down.
Yeah Def continues, and the clouds seem to move a little faster and get a little darker. Intermittently, the sun peaks through gaps in them, but only for brief moments. Yeah Def finishes his set. We are told from the higher ups that The Cannabinoids (with special guest Sarah Jaffe) must now play the indoor venue The Hive.
All of us, the stage crew volunteers, frantically load drums and amps and instruments into the backs of trucks. This is just temporary, we are told. This will only be for the Cannabinoids, and then we can reload all of the equipment back into the trucks and take it all back to Main Stage One to set up for Solange's 8 p.m. performance.
5:30 pm, The Hive
We are furiously refiguring the stage schematics for the much smaller Hive stage. At Main Stage One, there was more wiggle room to fit the seven-piece band, all manning computers, but now the wiggle room has vanished.
Several Cannabinoids stand outside of The Hive talking on their cell phones, giving whomever they're talking to directions to the new location.
There is a daunting line of festival patrons wrapping around the Hive as all of the volunteers work in a sprint to get the stage ready by 6 p.m.. Those under 21 are denied entrance. Despite the change of venue, The Cannabinoids begin their set just after 6 to a packed house. Four songs in, they introduce Jaffe. They kill it.
I, along with another volunteer, am told to run back the six blocks to Main Stage One to help squeegee the stage and clean it up in preparation for Solange. As far as we all know, her set is still happening there, but has been bumped to 9 p.m. There are now close and bright flashes of lightning preceding severe thunderclaps.
7:15 p.m., Main Stage One
We arrive at Main Stage One after running through puddles and dodging cars, our shoes and socks soaked through to our now freezing feet. The members of the stage crew who stayed at Main Stage One are standing around, the lucky ones draped in plastic rain panchos, and they look at us like we're idiots after we inform them that we are here to help clean up the stage in preparation for Solange.
"There's no way that's happening," one of them tells us. He points to a soaking wet electrical outlet. "I mean, do you want to plug something into that? Good luck."
We acquiesce, staring at the soaking wet pizza box sitting on the drum riser, taunting us. We ponder our next move as we stand on the stage, now just grateful to be under its merciful canopy.
A stage crew volunteer overhears a walkie-talkie say to a crew member that the VIP bar is to reopen in 20 minutes. But everyone who isstanding on the stage, staring at the weather radars on their smartphones thinks that that's simply preposterous.
The rain lets up briefly, and then we start to think that maybe the Main Stage will need to be prepped for Solange, but that doesn't last long. The rain starts pumping down from the heavens again.
Finally, around 8 p.m., another contingent of higher-up volunteers arrives, and they want to know why we are all just standing around waiting, staring at the soaking, empty parking lot as our backs are lit eerily by the still churning, giant LED screen behind the stage.
The crew that was on the stage the entire time finally convinces the new group of higher-ups that this really is a safety issue, and the executive decision is eventually made to either have Solange play at The Hive this evening or give her an early show on Main Stage One on Sunday.
Once more, we load all of the equipment onto the backs of trucks and golf carts and venture back east to The Hive, all of us still soaking wet and cold.
9:45 pm, The Hive
The stage crew, working furiously and without much food, has pulled off a minor miracle. The stage at The Hive is now ready for Solange to perform. So are the several hundred attendees. When she finally goes onstage just after 10 p.m., she and her band perform brilliantly, and she is gracious. She thanks the crowd profusely for their patience. After each song, the audience bursts into adulation at a volume that defies the pouring rain that once pounded magnificently against the metal roof of The Hive.
Whatever happened tonight happened because of the volunteers. They trudged through the muck and confusion of the real-time unpredictability of the weather, hungry and tired and working for free.
They pulled off a day in the life of a festival forsaken by Mother Nature. It was poetry; dirty, raw poetry to watch and help this unyielding army reinvigorate a show that seemed destined to fail midway through. Theirs was without a doubt the greatest performance of all.