Sturgis Canada Music Fest – What Went Wrong?

Organizer Ray Sasseville with partner Joan Hansen meet Burton Cummings
It’s inside room 207 at the Intown Suites motel in Merritt B.C on Sunday August 24th. Waking up in anticipation of attending the final day of the Sturgis Canada Music Festival which began on Thursday August 21st, I am greeted at the door by my Word Travels Fast Consulting partner, Ted VanBoort with the news that concert promoter Ray Sasseville had just pulled the plug on the final day.
But how was that possible?,” said I. Just eight hours before, Ted, his partner Karen Uildersma and I had left the Merritt Mountain Music site after witnessing a triumphant concert appearance by Saturday headliner Burton Cummings. The attendance on a scorching day had been decent, around 8,000 people in comparison to the disappointing turnouts of the thunderstorm-plagued Thursday and Friday. Promoter Sasseville and his business partner, Joan Hansen were posing for pictures with the affable Mr Cummings and enthusing about how their financial partners were thrilled by the festival’s overall execution and how they were in for an even more ambitious festival in 2015. When just like that, the final day was abruptly terminated.
Alias Blue

Sasseville had agreed to meet us at the site to explain what had happened, so we raced out to the venue some five miles out of town, to find security guards still patrolling the main entrance, one vendor still trying to peddle official Sturgis 2014 sweatshirts and a group of volunteers at the concert office, still milling about, confused as to what had happened, but no sign of Mr Sasseville!

A certain clarification was supplied by Todd Cannon, a key member of the festival’s production team. “We pulled the plug because the promoter still owed us money,” explained Cannon. “We should have done this Saturday, but we kept the power on for Burton, but it was understood that we’d get the balance owed on Sunday morning. When that didn’t happen, we turned the mics off.”

Understanding that Burton’s band had left some gear behind, we retrieved the missing items and drove out to The Coast Inn in Kamloops, headquarters of Burton Cummings ensemble, where we handed the equipment over to the band and were treated to lunch by Cummings’ tour manager Sam Boyd . A topic of conversation during the meal were previous concert disasters caused by a lack of funds from the promoter.

“It happens all the time”, recounted Boyd who still operates his own production company. “A promoter stages a concert, hires a production company to run the show and then runs out of money and guess who gets stiffed – the production company!  Yet when that happens, they still have to pay out of their own pockets to dismantle the stage; it can be a costly venture. So the rule of thumb is, if the promoter can’t pay up front, the show doesn’t go on. I had a situation where I had to tell Jim Belushi and Bad Company that there was no show in Grand Bend, Ontario because the promoter hadn’t paid for the production”.

Nick Walsh (Moxy)
Nick Walsh (Moxy)

Returning to Merritt, we were tipped off by a disgruntled vendor that Sasseville was still at the site, occupying a large white trailer on the campgrounds. Ted, Karen and I drove back out to the site, spotted the tour bus that had been used as a VIP staging area and found Sasseville, surrounded by his team, looking rather forlorn in his trailer.

Joking that we had come for that celebratory drink he had promised us upon the conclusion of a successful festival, I said we were not confrontational but just wanted to know what had happened. Certainly, everything had seemed in order when I flew into Kamloops Airport Wednesday night with members of Teenage Head and Coney Hatch.

As co-partners of Word Travels Fast Consulting, Ted and I had been responsible for supplying the majority of the artists to the festival. Artists booked by us included, Burton Cummings, Jefferson Starship, Canned Heat, Coney Hatch, Teenage Head, Alias (re-uniting for the first time in 21 years), The Stampeders, Killer Dwarfs, Nick Gilder and Sweeney Todd and The Killer Dwarfs.

Aware that Sasseville had ran into previous trouble staging concerts in Salmon Arm  B.C in 2011 and Vernon B.C in 2012, we had been insistent that he pay all our bands a 50% deposit by April, fund all flights and hotels and pay them the balance the day of their performance. All these obligations had been met, Cummings’ $50,000 deposit had been paid almost immediately and his balance paid well before the concert which gave Sasseville some credibility with Burton’s Feldman Agency .

Met at Kamloops Airport by two drivers, piloting brand-new, leased SUV’s and driven in style to our hotels 40 minutes away in Merritt, things couldn’t have been more positive. Dropping Coney Hatch and Teenage Head off at the Ramada Hotel, I hooked up with my partner Ted and his lady Karen, who had driven out to Merritt to do some sightseeing along the way.

Ted informed me that Ray had reported over 3,000 advance tickets sold, and understanding that he had initially projected a number of 10,000 customers to break even on his first Sturgis Canada festival, prospects for a walk-up of an additional 7,000 patrons over the four days of top-notch music could easily be anticipated.

Things looked even more encouraging when Sasseville drove up to our not-quite-so-glamorous Intown Suites motel to hand out envelopes of cash to Teenage Head, Coney Hatch and Alias who were scheduled to open the festival later that day. The look on the faces of these guys when we handed them the cash, hours before their appearance were priceless. Suffice to say, Ted and I earned a major boost in popularity.

A quick check on the Weather Network TV channel caused concern as it called for a major thunderstorm later in the day and sure enough, just as Calgary’s Alkatine were about to start playing, the heaven’s opened and lightning flashed. To say no one was present would be an understatement. I don’t know what happened to those 3,000 advance campers but we concluded they must still be huddled in their campers and tents and certainly the threatening conditions killed off any walk-in traffic.

Still Teenage Head made the best of it, with lead singer Pete McAuley rattling off familiar tracks like “Picture My Face”, “Top Down”, “Something On My Mind and “Some Kinda Fun” before wrapping with “Disgusteen”. Due to the steady downpour, the band wanted to delay their start but the stage manager insisted  they started as scheduled which meant rain water started to pool dangerously around the feet of bassist Steve Mahon and guitarist Gord Lewis, forcing Mahon’s wife, and tour manager Deb Mahon to yell for a stagehand to squeegee away the water before her musicians were electrocuted.

Cathy Richardson (Jefferson Starship)
Cathy Richardson (Jefferson Starship)

As the rain subsided, Coney Hatch took the stage and although there was still only a few bodies in a sea of white chairs in front of the stage, the side stage VIP section had started to populate. If they could have only turned the VIP section around to face the stage, there might have been some semblance of an audience.

Coney Hatch followed with bassist Andy Curran, guitarist Carl Dixon, drummer Dave Ketchum and new guitarist Mike Borkosky and their set was rolling along smoothly  with standards like “Stand Up”, “Blown Away”, and “Boys Club” when Curran’s waterlogged bass amp gave out at the start of “Hey Operator”. As a sound tech and Curran fiddled with the offending equipment, Dixon saved the set by launching into a rendition of Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” and Burton Cummings’ “These Eyes” while a new amp was substituted.

Alias closed off the night, on stage for the first time in 21 years, and showed they hadn’t lost a step with lead vocalist Freddy Curci in fine voice on Sheriff’s “When I’m With You” and other Alias hits like “Say What You Wanna Say”, “Waiting For Love” and “You Remind Me”. Supported by guitarists Steve DeMarchi and Roscoe Stewart, keyboardist Dennis DeMarchi, drummer Chris Sutherland and former Sheriff/Frozen Ghost bassist Wolf Hassel, Alias announced they are once again open for business.

Thursday might have been a write-off attendance wise but Friday started promising enough with the delivery by Sasseville of more cash for Canned Heat, Jefferson Starship, Killer Dwarfs and Nick Gilder which we happily dispensed to the bands.

Again, another thunderstorm ravaged the site, and again killed any walk-up traffic and by this time it was clear that those projected 3,000 advanced sales were somewhat inflated. The rain subsided by the time The Killer Dwarfs started their set and lead singer Russell Graham tried to spark some life into the sparse audience by jumping off the stage to run around the VIP section, shaking hands with a handful of attendees.

Nick Gilder and Sweeney Todd were the first act to spark a reaction from the crowd, cajoling people at the VIP lounge to move to the front of the stage, Gilder jumped into the photo pit to glad-hand the audience and his set list of hits like “Hot Child In the City”, “Rated X” and “The Warrior” got the audience dancing. Concluding with a fiery version of Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” and his anthemic “Roxy Roller”, Gilder was the first artist to win an legitimate encore which he took with a dynamic version of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”.

Nick Gilder
Nick Gilder

Canned Heat provided the perfect bridge between Gilder and headliners Jefferson Starship with a laid-back set of blues classics like “On The Road”, “Going Up The Country” and “Let’s Work Together” which set the stage for another Woodstock golden oldie, Jefferson Starship. The San Francisco legends may be without front woman Grace Slick, but with Chicago native Cathy Richardson, the band boasts a capable replacement, and backed by the likes of guitarist Paul Kantner and former Quicksilver Messenger Service guitatist David Freiberg, delivered classics like “Count On Me”, “Miracles”, “Somebody Love” and of course, “White Rabbit”.

As the temperatures soared on Saturday, nothing could have prepared us for what Sasserville did on the Sunday although cracks started to appear Saturday afternoon when he told us he was having problems cashing a bank draft of $5,000 for Moxy as there was no TD Bank in Merritt. “Okay”, thought I. “But how is he also going to pay The Carpet Frogs, The Stampeders and Doucette on Sunday if he didn’t have the money for Moxy on Saturday?”.

Still with increased attendance evident on Saturday, the beer tents were  bustling and it seemed Sasseville was going to make his projections.  Sturgis, South Dakota’s Jasmine Cain started the day with  a rock solid performance that included Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Guns N Rose’s “Paradise City”, Moxy followed with an energetic set fuelled by charismatic front man Nick Walsh and Jacksonville Florida’s Molly Hatchet added their own contribution of southern rock, highlighted by their hit, “Flirtin With Disaster”.

Burton Cummings
Burton Cummings

Which set up the night’s finale, Burton Cummings (and his Carpet Frogs back-up band),  showing why he is indeed a Canadian icon with a hit-packed set list that included nuggets like “No Sugar”, “Albert Flasher”, “Clap For The Wolfman” “Laughing”, “These Eyes”, “Running Back To Saskatoon” and a surprise cover of The Equals’ “Baby Come Back”. Cummings wrapped up a sizzling performance with “American Woman” and “No Time” before returning for a two-song encore that included “Louie Louie” and “Share the Land”

Backstage, Cummings executed interviews, posed for photos and chatted with everyone in attendance, as Boyd later observed, “he enjoyed the entire experience”. Yet even as Burton was posing for photos with Sasseville and Hanson, the wheels were falling off the Sturgis Express.

“I got back to the office at around 2 am and noticed all our beer money was missing,” explained Hansen, accounting for the cash shortfall which she and Sasseville claimed derailed the festival. “Knowing we didn’t have the cash to pay people on Sunday, I decided to cancel the final day,” added Sasseville, comments that didn’t jive with what the production people offered.

So what did go wrong? Clearly the whole Sturgis bike rally idea did not work. Sturgis South Dakota might get an average of 500,000 riders annually but this concept obviously hasn’t caught on in British Columbia. And with the bikers absent, regular concert patrons were obviously turned off by the event’s image and stayed away. The town of Merritt’s RCMP detachment didn’t help matters by setting up multiple roadblocks heading into town and reportedly confiscating some 50 odd bikes for noise violations although Merritt RCMP Sgt Sheila White denies these claims saying only a few tickets were handed out for improper helmets and improper driver’s licenses.

And those archaic BC liquor laws didn’t help either. By confining imbibers to a side VIP tent, and even worse, a beer garden totally closed off at the far end of the site, patrons  wanting to drink were restricted from assembling at the front of the stage.

Andy Curran & Carl Dixon (Coney Hatch)
Andy Curran & Carl Dixon (Coney Hatch)

At the end of the day, Sasseville didn’t have enough money to pay the production staff or the final bands. The attendance for his festival just wasn’t there and the event clearly wasn’t promoted properly. Had he advertised his festival differently, had the weather been more favourable, who knows. Certainly, the site is scenic enough yet it seems the town of Merritt is reluctant to support a large influx of music fans.

So what happens now? Sasseville is still intent on pursuing another festival in 2015 – this time without the biker connection. He claims he has learned from past mistakes but he will need a very large infusion of cash if he hopes to proceed in the future.

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