KC venues, festivals weather a summer of storms
The severe storm that roared through the area on the weekend of June 17 was one to remember for Kansas City venues.
The storm cut short the Willie Nelson concert at Starlight Theatre — the two openers performed but Nelson did not; it suspended Boulevardia before the two main acts performed; it halted the Funk Fest at the Providence Medical Center Amphitheater; and it cut short a mini-fest at Crossroads KC.
“I’ve been here for 16 years, and I think this year has been probably the rainiest in that regard,” said Justin White, vice president of operations at Starlight.
Though the bulk of the summer music season has passed, there are still many more outdoor performances and festivals scheduled into October, including the U2 show at Arrowhead Stadium in September. The Star talked to promoters at the biggest and largest outdoor venues in Kansas City to get a sense of how they deal with threatening weather before a show.
One of those promoters was Keli O’Neill Wenzel, whose company, O’Neill Events, presented Boulevardia and will present the Kansas City Irish Fest this weekend.
O’Neill Wenzel said nothing is more critical to dealing with weather than monitoring it and being prepared to act.
“We always … keep in close contact with a professional weather monitoring service,” she said. “If radar and other indicators point to the possibility of close-in lightning, high winds or damaging rain, we begin alerting our staff, customers and volunteers well in advance, and when serious weather becomes imminent, typically one hour to 30 minutes away, we implement our prepared evacuation plan.”
At Boulevardia, a two-day festival held in the West Bottoms, that evacuation plan involved festival staff, volunteers, the Kansas City Police Department, the public address system and social media, through which people were directed to exits or a parking garage on the west side of the festival grounds.
At Starlight that evening, the large crowd made a quicker decision necessary. With nearly 8,000 in the audience for Willie Nelson, it was going to take a lot more time to get people into shelter, White said.
“We took that into account. Sometimes that means we have to stop or hold the show long before the weather gets there. That can confuse people: ‘You’re going to hold the show? It’s not even raining yet.’ But when you’re looking at the radar and trying to make sure our guests are safe, we always make decisions based on how much time do we need to do that.”
Nelson rescheduled his Starlight show: He will perform Oct. 4. At Boulevardia that evening, the two bands affected by the weather eventually performed. Guster played a brief, impromptu set for a couple hundred people inside the parking garage; Local Natives played an abbreviated set for several hundred people at the main stage.
At Funk Fest, however, the evening was cut short and some main acts never saw the stage. Three songs into their set, En Vogue informed the crowd they’d been ordered to evacuate the stage. About 30 minutes later, “all hell broke loose,” said Chris Fritz of New West Presentations, which manages the amphitheater. “We’re talking 100-foot trees split in half. Lightning hit the parking lot.”
The rest of the show, which attendees said also started late, was eventually canceled and led to many complaints. The headliners did not perform at Funk Fest, which was presented by an outside promoter, not New West, so the decision was out of Fritz’s hands. But he said by the time the weather had cleared, it was so late most people had gone home.
In July, the Flyover show was suspended for about 90 minutes but the headliner, Gucci Mane, eventually performed. Fritz and his staff anticipated a delay and rescheduled the lineup to accommodate the weather.
“We saw the cell building so we started the show earlier,” he said. “We got eight out of nine acts in before we evacuated. Everybody played a full set. Gucci was here and wanted to play. So he did as soon as the lightning cleared and we could let people in. He waited it out for about an hour and a half came out and did a hell of a show.”
The decision to cancel, suspend or delay a show is a judgment call involving a variety of factors, including safety and time.
“The most I have delayed a festival is about 45 minutes,” O’Neill Wenzel said. “Much past an hour, it can get very difficult to manage staff, volunteers and adjusted schedules.”
Weather affected two shows the weekend of Aug. 5. A Primus/Clutch show scheduled for Crossroads KC was moved to the Uptown Theater hours ahead of scheduled time because the forecast called for heavy rains all night.
Fortunately, the Uptown was available that night. Unfortunately, the theater wasn’t large enough to accommodate the size of the Crossroads KC crowd, so some people with tickets were not admitted and were issued refunds.
That same night, Young the Giant, the Cold War Kids and Joywave were scheduled at Starlight. White and his staff saw the radar and decided to cut Joywave and move up the Cold War Kids.
“So the Cold War Kids opened, but we still didn’t get to Young the Giant,” White said. “Then it was all about what we could do to reschedule it. Our concert director started a conversation about the routing: He noticed that Young the Giant didn’t have a show the next day and asked, ‘Is it possible you could stay here another day and play tomorrow?’”
The Cold War Kids were not available the next day, but Joywave was. So the following night, Joywave opened for Young the Giant.
“Those are things you can second-guess yourself afterward. Like with Willie, it was: ‘Should we have put the opener on? Maybe we should have pulled the opener and gone with Dwight (Yoakam) and Willie.’”
On Aug, 16, Starlight was able to get the headliner, Idina Menzel, on stage after a rain delay of about 30 minutes. But heavy rain forced Starlight to cancel the Journey show on July 22 after the opener, Asia, performed. The decision to cancel can get complicated.
“When the headliner doesn’t go on, you can’t really call it a show,” White said. “And if they can’t play a full set, do you call that a show? If he’s supposed to play 90 minutes but can only play 45, is that a show? A lot of things go into it.”
“Our policy is that if the headliner is unable to play, we will reschedule or refund the tickets,” said Brett Mosiman of Pipeline Productions, which presented the Primus show. “We make every effort to get the headliner on as long as it is safe to do so. Fans did not likely pay their price of ticket for an opener. The priority is to deliver the headliner set.”
Festivals like the Kansas City Irish Fest and Boulevardia are different from a regular concert, O’Neill Wenzel said, so if a headliner has to cancel due to weather or other factors, refunds and a reschedule isn’t part of the deal.
“Our company produces festivals that are not solely music concerts,” she said. “They involve all kinds of great artistic performances, food and cultural demonstrations, product samplings, exhibits, shopping experiences, children’s activities, you name it. It’s all part of the admission ticket.
“Artist cancellation is not grounds for refund. … This is common practice among all festivals.”
Ultimately, outdoor shows are subject to the whims of nature, and promoters and venues have to anticipate what is in the best interest of everyone’s safety.
“You don’t want anybody to get hurt,”said Fritz of New West Presentations. “You’ve got a lot of iron and steel and electricity and water. It can get very dangerous. You want people to have protection from debris and the wind and rain. And even if it’s just rain, you have to be aware whether the equipment might not work or someone might get electrocuted. You can’t have water rushing on stage.
“It comes down to how accurate are the weather reports? How precise is the weather? Every instance is different and sometimes you just don’t know. It’s been an uncanny year. We’ve never had to evacuate until this summer.”