FOR most, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is a time for relaxation with some of the world's best musicians, but Wayne Stewart barely has time to breathe
Stewart has been a volunteer at the festival since 2003 and as stage manager for Stage 6 since 2004, and in that time he's seen just about everything - and just about everything has gone wrong.
"I do a lot of festivals. I've been doing the jazz festival for 25 years, I do sound, staging . . . the rest of my life I do this for pay," he said. But aside from the music there's one reason in particular he's willing to volunteer here: the challenge. It's the most difficult job he's ever done, he said. "I do this here mainly because it's well-nigh impossible. It's just this side of possible, to do it at all."
Stage 6 is a workshop stage, so most of the sets that play include three or four musicians or bands, sometimes upwards of 20 people sharing the stage at once. "You have to get all three bands playing at the same time on the same stage, often with 1525 minute changeovers, which means 15 to 25 minutes to get the last 25 people off stage and get the next 25 people on," he said. "It is the biggest stage-managing challenge I have."
To top it off, many of them play instruments Stewart has never heard of. Of the instruments for Nomadic Caravan, a performer at this year's festival, there was a bhapang, a single-stringed percussion instrument, a bapand, a been been and one that was simply labeled "weird f***ing thing" on the stage diagram. "That's what the person who made up the chart called it because there's no way he could pronounce or remember the name," said Stewart with a laugh, pointing to the sheet of paper.
In another year, a golf cart dumped what looked like just a pile of lumber at the side of the stage - it wasn't until later that day the crew realized it could make music.
One year, the tour manager of one of the bands playing his stage decided to be "helpful," said Stewart, as he made quotation marks with his fingers, by rearranging the cords that connect the instruments to the monitors the volunteers use to adjust the sound. Partway through the set the crew realized their controls were adjusting the wrong instruments, and when there's 48 inputs it's hard to guess which is which. The only way to fix it, said Stewart, was for stagehands to dash across the stage from the instruments, following the cords to where they plugged in, and plug them back in where they were supposed to be. "So basically as the show was going, we were repatching it, and hopefully it's transparent to the audience, and sometimes it's not," he said.
This year, Stewart had to scramble again when one of the bands scheduled to play the main stage, Tinariwen, was denied entry into Canada. That caused Licardo Lemvo to be bumped from Stage 6, and suddenly Stewart had a hole to fill. The band Burning Hell agreed to fill it and rounded up as many idle musicians as they could, throwing together an impromptu set. "Great band too, one of my favourites this year," said Stewart. "It was sort of a free-for-all."
Somehow, despite all the mayhem, volunteers like Stewart keep returning to the festival year after year. "Especially this year everybody on this crew is somebody I've worked with multiple years before," he said. But it's not just stage managers and tech staff, but garbage clean-up, site transportation, water stations on site, on top of jobs like driving the performers to the airport and handling the lodgings. But there are perks: free tickets, for one, and volunteers have three square meals a day plus desserts for their trouble. All that food is cooked up behind the main stage, where a cacophony of metal can often be heard as the barbecue volunteers start a chant. "Who are we? Barbecue! What do we do? Barbecue!" they shout in unison, frying up salmon, chicken and bell peppers.
"We make a lot of noise," admitted Mitchell Ingrim, one of the barbecue volunteers. Volunteering is the best way to see the festival while keeping busy when his favourite bands are off stage. As an added bonus, he cooks for the artists, even barbecuing bear meat when Steven Seagal paid a visit to watch Ricky Skaggs play last year.