Although we’re all sad to see our magnificent two-week music showcase come to an end, the most disappointing part is that it had to end in a traumatic manner that was entirely unrepresentative of the whole experience.
The last night of Cisco Ottawa was one to be excited for from the get-go – a scorching hot summer evening that was to begin with rapper Lupe Fiasco, transition into rockers Cheap Trick and Ra Ra Riot, and finally close with popular indie veterans Death Cab For Cutie. The sun was sizzling, the beer was ice cold, the numbers were as large and excited as the first night – and no one could expect exactly the turn the evening could take. Lupe Fiasco started the night with a bang; pumping the crowd as he pogo-bounced around stage, stopping the show to buy a staff of popcorn from a wandering vendor, tossing open water-bottles into the sticky crowd and spitting out recognizable rhymes. His energy and mass following was remarkable, and he was just about the only thing that could get that many people so close to each other and moving wildly in the hazy evening heat. Regardless of whether or not we wanted to, Lupe got us sweating more.
After strolling over to the Subway Stage to try and catch dance-rockers Ra Ra Riot, a festival spokesperson came on the stage to announce that a severe weather warning was being issued for a quickly-approaching storm – so no show would be happening just yet. It wasn’t chaotic, people were milling, getting refreshments and beer, and for the average person looking to the sky – it was only a little overcast and slightly windy. But amidst frustration of the show being put on hold, it was clear that the massive dark cloud hanging over the Ottawa River was growing blacker, angrier, and closer to the festival site. Within seconds, it happened; the leaves overturned and everyone broke into a jog to beat the fast-approaching storm. Squeezing into the War Museum foyer, people only minutes behind me were entering soaked to the bone, wiping their faces and wringing their shirts. Announcers came on the Museum speakers to try and usher everyone to a parking lot. We all looked at each other, down to our dry clothes, and said with a puzzled smirk, “I don’t think so.”
Text messages asking our safety and whereabouts came in by the dozen, as well as photos of the chaos that was less than 100 feet away. Cheap Trick had been rushed off stage, and almost immediately thereafter the main MBNA Stage collapsed like the sped-up wilting of a flower, crumpled and pointy with broken poles and posts. Tragically, approximately five people were seriously injured in the caving stage havoc, but emergency response and security teams were brave and fast-acting during their pursuit of the casualties. Tables had been whipped over, lawn chairs abandoned and frantic concertgoers who had tried to stick out the storm rushed in – many in tears – to the dry and flickering lit Museum.
Ultimately, immediate sympathy for festival director Mark Monahan was felt; the man behind the Bluesfest organization, volunteers, delegation and decision-making. Although composed and entirely responsible for calling Cheap Trick off the MBNA stage only minutes before the structure collapsed, we can only imagine the panic that sets in when your cherished hard-work has turned into sprinting mobs of screaming people. Of course, it leads to media speculation of the safety of a festival – even though it’s been a well-oiled machine since its inception in 1994. No one can plan for that sort of catastrophic act of Mother Nature, and all that can be done is exactly what was: fast-thinking, split-second decisions and prioritizing safety before festival satisfaction.
At the end of the day – or should I say two weeks – Bluesfest and its incredible line-up was an overwhelming success. We can all hope that the memories of this beautiful display of music and togetherness will not be trampled like the wet plastic cups and lawn chairs that remain defeated at Lebreton Flats today. Hopefully everyone can send good thoughts to anyone affected by yesterday’s unfortunate events and focus on the overall safety of the patrons, the musical spectacles that were crammed into every evening, and the rarity of experiencing something quite like that. Next year we know we’ll receive the same treatment and delightful musical exhibition; we’ll just have to remember that these are some of the realities of the true music festival – unpredictability and the chance that at any second, it might become one for the history books.