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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

We don’t go to big festivals just for the headliners, sometimes the crowd is the star

BY Lyle Stewart Aug 14, 2019

The guys in the security pit are crucial to a successful festival show. They’re often heroes.

If you’re someone with personal space issues, the mosh pit isn’t for you.

Other standard disclaimers apply: pregnant women, people with heart or respiratory problems, and, I hate to say it, short people – all should not subject themselves to the human tsunami that can be the area in front of the stage at a large metal or punk-rock show. Particularly among the 75,000 who attended Heavy Montreal July 27-28.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind being drenched in the sweat of other people who may or may not have poor personal-hygiene habits, this may be your thing. I find it intensely therapeutic, and a great workout to boot. At times, it as if there is a collective catharsis as we push through the anger of our daily lives in a physical and draining ritual.

For close to 40 years, I have been one of those people who have struggled, wrestled, sidestepped and timed my moves to get to the front of the crowd at raucous live-music events. Ever since I won some valuable real estate right in front of guitarist Tony Iommi at a Black Sabbath show in 1982, I’ve decided that being able to make eye contact with the artists on stage is much better than being lost in the crowd. These days, I’m pretty sure I get a senior citizen’s pass, since I find it so easy. In fact, normally I am easily twice the age of anyone around me.

Lyle Stewart, front and center at Heavy Montreal

Once there, however, with two hands firmly gripping the barrier that leaves a 20-foot space in front of the stage, the battle is to hold on to hard-won territory as one is whipsawed back and forth by the centrifugal forces of tens of thousands of manic fans compressed into the space of a skating rink. It is an epic struggle, and it is often dangerous. Even more so if you don’t have an anchor on the fence, as many among the thousands dancing and moshing and struggling behind me frequently pass out from the heat, exertion and dehydration.

As I said, this may not be for you.

But it is increasingly a family affair, as we saw over the Heavy Montreal weekend. In recent years, my daughter and I have attended many festivals together, often camping out over a long weekend for three days of friends, music and parties. At Rockfest in Montebello four or five years ago, I was at the front of the stage for The Offspring when a crowd surfer’s butt collided with the back of my head. Looking up, I was intensely proud to see that it was my baby girl (then 19 years old).

Occasionally, even someone in a wheelchair will be surfed to the front.

“Hey Lydia!” I called as a burly security guard lifted her from the crowd. “Hi Daddy!” she responded as she was shuffled off to the side of the stage to rejoin the masses.

The guys in the security pit are crucial to a successful festival show. They’re often heroes. During a typical festival day of several bands, they may pluck out hundreds of thrashing, kicking and sometimes unconscious people from the crowd, passed along by thousands of hands in the tightly packed audience.

Photo by Tim Snow

Occasionally, even someone in a wheelchair will be surfed to the front this way. That’s why, when a guard points behind me, I immediately lift an arm above my head. Not just to support the person coming my way, but to protect my head from the heavy boots, knees or elbows that have left nasty bruises and gashes in the past.

As with this weekend, I recognized several security personnel from previous shows and received the polite nods and free bottles of water that help prolong one’s stay and health in the heat.

Right behind me a father danced with his 5-or-6-year-old son on his shoulders.

The real allies are the people around you, however. Everyone is in competition to get their hands on the prize of the barrier, but almost everyone is also looking out for each other. It is easy to die trampled underfoot in the throngs, robbed of air to breathe. But when someone falters, hands and arms reach out to support them, or to lift them out if they have had enough. And when an occasional jerk gets unreasonably physical, people work together to freeze them out of their space.

Not all shows are the same. For the crowd participation, my favourite was Pennywise during the punk-themed 77 Montreal portion of the weekend. The crowd was heavy but not too tight, dancing was easy and dozens of crowd surfers flew by overhead.

Slash – photo by Tim Snow

The easiest, surprisingly, was Slash with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. People of all ages congregated lightly together, with very little body press. In fact, right behind me a father danced with his 5-or-6-year-old son on his shoulders.

All that was before the final headliner on Sunday night. Slayer are the reigning overlords of heavy metal. I’ve seen them several times in Montreal and at Montebello and they have progressively contributed to my hearing loss. They also attract the most manic, physical and trying crowds. And this was to be the last-ever show Slayer would play in Canada on their farewell tour that will wrap up in November.

People around lifted me up and over their heads… and I exited on wobbly legs.

I had waited at the stage they would play behind a tiny, perhaps five-foot-tall woman who might have weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. Meanwhile, Anthrax warmed up for the final show at a neighbouring stage on the Parc Jean-Drapeau concert site. I was sure that once Slayer started, the mayhem would convince her to jump out and leave her piece of the rail to me.

I was wrong, perhaps because of the mosh code I believe in. I warned her I would have to put my arms around her to brace myself against the crush from behind so she wouldn’t be asphyxiated.

Slayer – Photo by Tim Snow

Sure enough, as soon as the first ear-splitting chords of “Repentless” boomed across the site, the unrepenting crowd surged forward, then left, then right. It was all I could do to hold on, and hold back from crushing the air out of this little woman who had spent the previous 45 minutes taking photos of herself, to much eye-rolling among people nearby.

Perhaps, like Slayer, I’m also getting close to my farewell tour of mosh pits.

But by about half-way through the show, I could only keep one arm on the barrier as people pressed from all sides and we lost access to the front. Drenched in sweat and exhausted from trying to protect her as well as myself, I warned her that I’d had enough. I then signalled to a security guard that I was ready to get out. People around lifted me up and over their heads into his arms and I exited on wobbly legs.

Perhaps, like Slayer, I’m also getting close to my farewell tour of mosh pits.

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Lyle Stewart has been working as a journalist for over 30 years. He believes that information is the ultimate check on the abuse of power and that independent media outlets such as the Nation are crucial to democratic governance.