Behind the Stage at Stardust Picnic

by Betsy Powell
Pop music critic

MUSICAL FAMILY: Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy tosses the frisbee with daughter Emma (top) and plays the flute with son Sam (bottom) before showtime as they hang around backstage at Stardust Picnic stop near Guelph late last month.

"Alan Doyle, now that guy's a piece of work," roars Guster's Brian Rosenworcel referring to the Great Big Sea singer. "Ego out of control," agrees bandmate Ryan Miller, cracking a grin - and a can of beer - aboard the band's tour bus.
Such backstage talk at a summer music festival might be taken seriously in places where the rock n' roll food chain determines who gets the biggeset trailer, the best food and, sometimes barricade to keep other acts away. (Ask anyone who saw Hole's bunker backstage at Edgefeset last week.)
But organizers of the travelling Stardust Picnic at Toronto's Fort York this weekend manage to keep egos at a minimum and a relaxed, mellow vibe at a maximum, even when a giant thunderstorm rolls in, as it did recently at the Guelph lake Conservation Area: "Daddy, you should have brought our bathing suits," says Emma, 10, to her father, Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy, who sits nearby on a lakeside table while he and son Sam, 7, play with a wooden flute.
"I should have?"

Blue Rodeo, Great Big Sea, Guster, 54-40 and Sarah Slean are on the bill amid the trees and rolling hills in a conservation area on the outskirts of Guelph, about an hour's drive west of Toronto. Funk/soul songstress Ivana Santilli, bluegrass ensemble Heartbreak Hill and roots/rockers The Skydiggers join the Toronto dates, but not 54-40 or Sarah Slean. Stardust stops in seven cities this year.

Threatening rain clouds are gathering. Three tour buses belonging to Blue Rodeo, Great Big Sea and Guster are parked on the grass, darkened windows preventing a view inside. There is no hierarchy here band names on promotional advertising are supposed to be diplomatically displayed in the same type size. (A small promotional flyer, however, does give the edge to Blue Rodeo and Great Big Sea.)

Under another tent, a few minutes before their set time, lead singer Neil Osborne and his 54-40 bandmates hang with record company staffers, crew, media, managers and other musicians, including Hayden, on a break from playing music this summer. Crew chief Pat Mooney watches from a hammock suspended beneath the 18-wheel transport truck-turned stage.

In the serene backstage setting, there are no lineups, though two turquoise port-a-toilets are doing a steady business.

As dinner hour approaches, staff of Capers Catering put the finishing touches on a buffet table located under a large white tent. There's baked Atlantic salmon, sesame chicken, a made-to-order pasta bar and salad piled high in two bowls the size of small ponds. The dessert table is loaded with fresh-baked pies, cookies and a mountain of strawberry shortcake. "They'll all come out like bears as soon as its dinner time," says publicist Joanne Setterington.

It's a brutally humid, the kind that sends hair into fits of frizzies. Alcohol, it seems, is the choice of no one except Guster's Ryan Miller. "I need 24 bottles for Great Big Sea," a member of the crew says to one of the caterers, "Big ones."

Drummer Matt Johnson of 54-40, wearing blue gloves, beats his drumsticks against a plastic chair, before getting the signal to lead the band on stage. "No intro CD," one of the crew members calls out from the top of the stairs. No music, in other words, and Osborne looks up to ask why. "I don't know," is the reply. Osborne shrugs and continues climbing the steel steps, and soon 54-40 is kicking off their set: "I used to love you baby / with all my heart and soul . . ." just as the heavens open up and cracks of lightning ricochet across the field.

With puddles forming underfoot and thunder rumbling overhead, one wisecracker says: "Apparently they're gathering the animals two by two." But the harder the rain falls, the harder the band plugs away to fervent cheers from spectators, huddled under coloured raingear. Soon the music stops and Osborne comes tearing down the stairs and into a tent. He shakes his head like a wet dog and rings out his Husker Du T-shirt without taking it off. "I don't think our gear's going to work til it dries off," he comments.

The rain stops. So does the energizing effect, as the mood turns tranquil. A crowd of HMV employees brushes by, on the way to Great Big Sea's tour bus for a pre-arranged meet-and-greet.

Back inside the Guster tour bus, percussionist Brian Rosenworcel, Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller (who share vocal and guitar duties) kick back after their early-afternoon set. On a table sits a picked-over fruit platter, a deli-meat tray, but no sign of the tube socks and goldfish that are included in the band's rider.

PRE-SHOW WARM-UP: Singer Neil Osborne of 54-40 stretches (top)
before his band head on to the stage and into a thunderstorm (below)

"You can go to college shows in the States and they'll come through," explains Rosenworcel of their clowning. The long Americans on the bill - they're from Boston - they've recorded the city's independent album of the year (Goldfly) last year. The trio has toured the U.S. with Newfoundland combo Great Big Sea. They're now good enough friends to take good-natured swipes at each other.

Promoter Pat Sambrook has dark hair, deep blue eyes and look-you-straight-in-the-eyes confidence. He drys off two plastic chairs and settle in to explain the origins of Stardust. Three years ago he approached Blue Rodeo with an eye to a concert at Fort York. He attended an event there a few years back which, even under hurricane-like conditions, showed the potential of the historic fortress as an outdoor concert venue.

Sambrook credits Stardust's success it has expanded at a time when other touring festivals, including Lolapalooza, have called it quits - to its modest size. Crowds, on average, are in the 4,000-5,000 range. Stardust has also established a reputation for its unique venues, including Kingston's Fort Henry, on the side of a hill; Deer Lake Park in Vancouver; Calgary's Olympic Park.

Nor is the grub offered fans strictly rock-festival-standard hot dogs, fries and Coke. The Toronto shows will feature an oyster bar, sushi, barbeque pits and imported beer.

In the food tent, Cuddy presents purple tickets to the catering staff and helps fill three dinner plates for his children. His co-frontman Greg Keelor has arrived, and smokes a butt outside. Cuddy sees Sambrook and approaches, "You've got horseshoes up your butt," he tells the promoter, slapping him on the back. Sambrook looks for an explanation. "It cleared up."