Unpredictable weather has been a routine concern for outdoor music events since a summer shower drenched the unwashed at Woodstock in 69, but the climate-change-caused extreme weather of today is putting a damper on festivals like never before. Flooding, gale-force winds, lightning storms, severe heat and outrageous rains are becoming the norm, causing organizers to plan for the worst.
“We’re a lot more diligent now on our emergency preparedness and all kinds of contingencies,” says Mark Monahan, founder of Ottawa Bluesfest. “Events or full days are being cancelled, and that makes you wake up.”
The 2019 season was particularly calamitous. In May, at the Epicenter Festival in Rockingham, N.C., raging winds and a lightning storm caused the cancellation of sets by metal rockers including the Cult, whose 1985 hit (Here Comes the) Rain would have arrived too late to warn anyone. Festivalgoers were evacuated, egress was in disarray, the grounds were a mess and the festival gates were late in opening the next day.
In July, the Country Thunder Music Festival in Craven, Sask., was disrupted by the same atmospheric condition to which the event’s name alludes. A concert by American country crooner Tim McGraw was cancelled after strong winds uprooted tents and damaged gear. Flash rain left fans ankle-deep in mud and water.
Later the same month, in Edmonton, temperamental weather interrupted programming at both the Interstellar Rodeo and Chaos Alberta festivals. A thunderstorm raised fear of nickel-sized hail. “Please take cover under the canopy,” Interstellar organizers advised via social media.
While some locations are more at risk than others, those organizers who name their outdoor festivals Epicenter, Country Thunder and Chaos Alberta would seem to be a little too on the nose when it comes to perilous weather and the festival experience. There are countless things that can go wrong during a festival. Operating an annual event is a year-round job consumed by worry and meticulous planning. And now, the prospects of the work literally being washed away are all too real.
“There’s a certain amount of unpredictability that’s more prevalent now than when we started 25 years ago,” Monahan says. “Sure, you’re going to get rain. Sure, you’re going to get thunderstorms. But you don’t think you’re going to get snow in July, and, I tell you, it’s come close.”
Festival organizers typically have weather and cancellation insurance, but those costs have gone up since the weather-related disasters at Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose, Alta. (where a wind-related stage collapse resulted in the death of a spectator in 2009) and at Monahan’s Ottawa Blues two summers later, when a sudden storm with wind gusts topping 96 kilometres an hour swept through the riverside site while Cheap Trick performed. The main stage collapsed. Thousands scrambled for shelter.
After those incidents and the lawsuits that followed, the landscape changed. “Our insurance broker had less options from underwriters and prices inevitably increased,” says Helen Britton, vice-president of Six Shooter Records, the Toronto-based label that runs the annual Interstellar Rodeo at Edmonton’s Heritage Amphitheatre.
It’s not just the storms. Excessive heat caused the cancellation of this summer’s OZY Fest in New York’s Central Park. Rising water levels in Lake Ontario pushed the beloved Camp Wavelength indie-rock event off Toronto Island permanently. Outdoor theatre is also affected. For its Shakespeare by the Bow outdoor program, Theatre Calgary, after multiple smoked-out shows, now has a wildfire strategy in place, as does Bard on the Beach in Vancouver.
If there’s a silver lining to the storm clouds, it might be that rising temperatures are causing “season creep,” a phenomenon marked by earlier indications of spring and the delayed onset of fall. Because of it, the outdoor music season is expanding. It wasn’t unusual that Wilco kicked off its current fall North American tour in Toronto on Oct. 8, but it was remarkable that they chose to book the lakeside amphitheatre Budweiser Stage. The concert was the latest ever in the venue’s history.
“I’m seeing more of it,” says Brent Staeben, artistic director for Fredericton’s Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, referring to off-season events. “Nobody’s saying it out loud, but people are gradually taking advantage of what we’re seeing, temperature wise.”
More than ever, live music, not recorded music, drives the industry. Music calendars are crowded; there are only so many hot August nights to go around. “It’s a competitive market and that’s when you see people booking in the margins,” Six Shooter founder Shauna de Cartier says.
Staeben’s outdoor Harvest Jazz and Blues takes place mid-September. Unseasonably warm weather in 2017 and 2018 helped attendance. This year, the 29-year-running event saw its attendance rise to nearly 100,000, a record.
″When the festival began, we would get frost by the last bit of August," Staeben says. “But lately we’re getting five or six days of sunshine. The crowds on the streets have been absolutely massive, even at midnight in the middle of September.”
In addition to running Ottawa Bluesfest, Monahan is in charge of CityFolk Festival, Ottawa’s annual happening at Lansdowne Park. When he first took over the former Ottawa Folk Festival, it was an August event strangely plagued by bad weather. In 2012, the fest shifted to mid-September. “We’ve probably enjoyed our best weather the last three or four years,” Monahan says. Next year, CityFolk runs Sept. 17 to 20, its latest dates ever.
Still, concert promoters have only so much calendar to work with. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy just played the Jasper Dark Sky Festival on Oct. 18 in the Canadian Rockies. “It seems like an obvious result of global warming that concert booking will be affected," the singer-songwriter says. “But for the show in Jasper, we were freezing. It was ‘We are hardy people, we’re going to do this outside.’ And it was full-on, old-time cold.”
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