An Interview with Promoter Steve Simon
By Don Wilcock
Last week’s Bluestock 2011 will go down as one of the most historic blues festivals, not only because of Hurricane Irene, but because of what the blues brothers and sisters did to make the best of the worst. Please check out our Photo Page to see some great photographs from Joseph Rosen and Marilyn Stringer. On this week’s Blues Beat page Don Wilcock gets the story straight from Bluestock promoter Steve Simon.
It was an historic collision of two immovable forces, Bluestock, the first New York-area blues festival of major proportions, and Hurricane Irene, a storm unprecedented in recorded history for that same area. The computer projections a week out showed Irene hitting Hunter Mountain, New York, on Sunday, August 28, at 2 p.m. Usually, hurricanes veer off the coast that far north and dissipate their energy. Not Irene! It was right on time.
On Friday night, the first day of the festival, Michael Lang, the co-creator and producer of the original 1969 Woodstock Festival, hugged Bluestock promoter Steve Simon. “Welcome to the club,” he told Simon. “Everybody will always remember this moment, this weekend, and you guys are just terrific.”
Lang’s Woodstock will be remembered for its sense of community where half a million people bonded under a virtually untenable situation in the same Catskill area and were transported by the music. Lang’s comments to Simon would prove prophetic.
On Saturday, Simon, his crew of hundreds, and virtually all the performers condensed the weekend into one day, and on Sunday Irene dropped 12.5 inches of water on the site, more than anywhere else in a state that would eventually be declared a disaster area. The hurricane, now reduced to a tropical storm, dropped so much rain that fifty miles north where I live all three bridges into Schenectady were closed down, and millions lost power.
Trapped in hotels and at the festival site, fans and performers alike partied through the storm without electricity, trapped in a situation that left nothing to do but party. Albert Cummings tells of getting down to Hunter Mountain a day early with no band and having Shakura S’Aida’s rhythm section carry him and everyone there away.
Sometimes, you just have to make lemonade out of lemons, and if that lemonade is spiked and everyone is willing, you just let it all out!
Steve Simon: Hey, Don, how are ya?
Don Wilcock for BluesWax: Uh, as I described in my email, totally conflicted.
BW: As a newsperson, I looked at Bluestock as being one of the most exciting stories of the last forty-two years, and here I am an hour and a half away from you sitting in my cellar wondering whether the water is going to go the first floor.
SS: I think you made the right decision. Without any question at all, but I will share with you that it was the adventure of a lifetime for all of us. It was vibrant, it was exciting, it was animated, it was what the blues is all about, and I am – let me rephrase that – we are all so blessed to be part of it: the love that was shown to all of us that was shared by everybody, the patience, the understanding, the assistance, the commitment, the dedication.
When would anybody ever see Robert Cray open for Buddy Guy at 12 o’clock in the afternoon? You know, these guys were such troopers. Robert and Buddy both said to me, “Whatever you need, we’ll do whatever you need. You want us to play at breakfast? We’ll play at breakfast.” They were just so incredible, and all the bands – I mean there were only two bands that didn’t make it, and the only reason they didn’t make it was because their flights got cancelled. They couldn’t get there, but they were coming. They didn’t care about the weather, and all the other bands that did get there, they said, “Look, you can put us on at any time, any place. Don’t worry about it,” and we gave all of our friends the show of a lifetime. It was just spectacular.
BW: What was the peak moment, and what was the worst moment?
SS: There really was no worst moment. There really wasn’t, and Lord knows, there really could have been, but we met around the clock just about every thirty to forty minutes, then the head of my production crew, my brother Jeff, and I, we were just meeting on a regular basis at least once an hour to evaluate all of our options and we had contingency plans in place for everything we could possibly dream up.
We were in total what I call “crisis management mode” from the time we got up there a week ago today [Tuesday] till we left yesterday. We mapped out every possible contingency and how would we response to it. All of us had been in the business for a long time, so we’ve experienced all kinds of drama and we were prepared, and we were very fortunate that our decisions were spot-on and our brothers and sisters in the blues were just extremely excited to be there and flexible and caring and understanding and if you didn’t know you wouldn’t have known that we were making changes because everything came off seamless and flawless.
BW According to our local ABC affiliate, Wyndham had 12.5 inches of water.
SS: There was enormous amounts of rain late Saturday and all day Sunday. We were for all practical purpose unable to leave Hunter Mountain on Sunday other than by foot. There was no place to go. The flooding was unbelievable. Homes were destroyed, roads and bridges were washed out, but everybody persevered. We had spontaneous jam sessions going on at a couple of different motels where people were staying from the Catskill Mountain Club to Villa Vosilla down the road in Tannersville. Whoever was there just partied.
The hotels were great. I mean they lost power, but they still did the best they could with room service. It was a happening. It had the spirit of Woodstock, where anything that could happen would happen which is exactly what we experienced, and we had the vibe of the Blues Cruise where people just came together and want to be together. It’s like your annual cousins’ club. Everybody you haven’t seen that you want to see was there. It was truly a loving experience.
BW: I talked to Albert Cummings. I used to mentor him back fifteen years ago, and he was telling me that when he got there, he had no band and that Shakura S’Aida’s rhythm section backed him up, and they’re absolutely phenomenal, and he had nothing but wonderful things to say about the sense of cooperation amongst the people that were there. Can you give me a couple of anecdotes from your perspective as presenter of this event?
SS: I mean, certainly. There were a number. I would say that probably – well, they were all important, but I’ll just give you some. I got a call from Buddy Guy to say, “Don’t worry. We’re coming. We’ll get there. We’ll be there. We’ll play. We’re on our way.”
BW: Where was he coming from and how was he getting there?
SS: Buddy was coming from Chicago. They were flying and driving. Robert Cray, the same thing, coming from the West Cost. He called me up and said, “Steve, we’re on our way. We may be a little late, but we’ll get there.” They actually got there a little early, but I think probably the moment for me was when a bunch of Blues Cruisers came over to me at Hunter Mountain and said there’s no other place they’d rather be, and it was just magnificent. It was just magnificent.
We went around to all the folks who were camping and we said, “By 8 o’clock Saturday morning we need to move you indoors even though the weather’s going to be kinda nice, we need to move you and your tents indoors. We’ve made arrangements at Hunter Mountain to use one of their buildings. There’s plenty of room, but we just can’t have you on the hill on the slopes knowing we’re going to have torrential storm coming in in the next eighteen hours.”
Everybody was cool, and not only that, everybody helped everybody. It was like a group effort to pick everybody’s tent and equipment up and move it indoors. It was just amazing. It was absolutely amazing. Talk about the spirit of Woodstock. Probably the most poetic moment for me personally was Friday night. Late at night the music’s still going, and Michael Lang comes over to me backstage, and of course Michael is Mr. Woodstock, the creator and founder of Woodstock, and he came over and just put his arms around me and said, “Welcome to the club.”
SS: “Welcome to the club. Everybody will always remember this moment, this weekend, and you guys are just terrific.” I mean how many – I wanted to cry. I was so touched. I was so touched.
SS: Yeah, it was a “Wow!” It was a big “Wow.”
BW: I think back to what Lang went through that weekend, and how he must have bonded at that moment. I can’t think of anything more incredible.
SS: It was a moment to say the least, a real moment. I feel blessed. I feel grateful. I feel appreciative. There is nothing in this world that compares to a blues fan, nothing. I mean my partners who have years and years of experience of putting on rock and jam concerts, very successful, turned to Jeff and I multiple times over the weekend to say, “There’s nothing like the blues. Nothing compares to it.” And they’re right.
We knew that going into it ’cause we’d known that for decades, but when it’s your show, and you’ve got all of these challenges that you’re faced with, that you’re dealing with no a moment by moment basis. The vibe of your audience becomes part of your DNA, part of your ability to think clearly, and see clearly. Again, the encouragement, the love, the patience, the assistance, it was off the charts fabulous, just fabulous.
And even Sunday, here we are stranded in hotels blacked out, no electricity. It was a party, and it was fun. And there were no complaints and certainly when you have that many people, there’s always going to be one or two that aren’t happy about something, but it didn’t even register. I mean 99.999 percent of everybody there had a fabulous time, and would not have traded it for anything. If they had a choice, be home or be there, they’d rather be there. That’s how cool it was.
“When would anybody ever see
Robert Cray open for Buddy Guy
at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?”
BW: You said earlier that you had all kinds of contingency plans for everything that could have happened. Where on that scale was the reality of that event?
SS: I’m not sure I understand the question.
BW: From wonderful to horrible. One of the things that struck me, I watched the news for twelve hours. Being a newsman, who was in Vietnam writing a daily newspaper when Woodstock hit, my journalistic nature kicks in when something like this happens, and I was wondering what you envisioned in your mind versus what actually happened, and where did it fit in terms of how bad it was because it just looked horrible from my perspective. When they showed the map you guys had the most rain of anybody in New York State by like three to five inches more than everybody else in the state, and they said that Tannserville I guess it is and Wyndham that there were no roads going in or out. It was totally blocked off.
SS: We prepared for the worst. And the worst was to evacuate, and we made a decision after counseling with the governor’s office, State of New York, Red Cross, state troopers, local police, that we were not going to evacuate, that it would be more dangerous to send people on the roads than to keep them there.
We had enough food and water to accommodate everybody that was there and we made a conscious decision early on that we were cancelling Sunday because that was the storm day and that we were going to once I spoke with Buddy and Robert knowing that they were willing to perform Saturday early, we felt that if we could put Robert and Buddy on at noon, and at 1:30 back-to-back sets, then it would give us enough time to set up indoors, finish outdoors at 3 o’clock and it would give my production crew enough daylight times to break everything down outdoors.
Now, you gotta remember, this is a massive undertaking. This is a three-day festival in a huge venue all outdoors. So we created everything. It was literally a million dollar undertaking. We felt – we reverse engineered everything saying we have to get everything down. How quickly can we do this, this and this and that’s what drove the time. We figured if we could start tearing down outdoors at three Saturday, we could get everything and everybody out of harm’s way.
Obviously, Buddy and Robert stepped up to the plate and said, “Whatever you need.” They acquiesced to a different set time and we were able to move everything indoors so that as soon as the last note was hit at 3 o’clock by Buddy, whatever time it was exactly, we were ready indoors with the rest of the show with a very orderly transition. It was seamless, almost as if it was planned. We even had all the merch people indoors at that point. We had food vendors lined up. I mean it was seamless. It was almost as if you thought this was how it was planned, and I had enormous assistance. I had all professionals that do major festivals that the pubic never sees, but they enjoy the net results of their effort as we did. They were just flawless in their execution of their responsibilities.
BW: What did you hear musically that moved you the most and made it worth the while?
SS: Oh, Lord, first of all, when you run side-by-side stages with no breaks, so for all practical purposes have nonstop music, it raises the performance bar to the artist. I mean it just does. It’s just a natural phenomenon. I’ve seen it before and I saw it again at Bluestock, and that’s one of the reasons I did it that way ’cause I just enjoyed that experience so much. It’s a – from a logistics standpoint it’s an enormous amount of work to pull it off that way, but it was to me the only way to fly. So everybody that performed, whether they performed Saturday afternoon and evening indoors, the bar was raised. I mean they just played their hearts out. I would say some of the most amazing moments for me was Quinn Sullivan performing with Buddy Guy, Albert Cummings performing with Shukira S’Aida’s rhythm section. Nothing short of incredible, incredible! He exploded on the stage. Shakura S’Aida, Shemekia Copeland gave amazing performances. The problem, Don, here with this particular question is that there were no weak spots.
BW: Yeah, I hear ya. You’ve got to play diplomat.
SS: Right, now I answered the question from the heart. I should have answered it from my mind, not my heart.
BW: I’m dangerous that way, Steve.
SS: Yeah, I hear ya.
BW: That’s what I try to do in my interviews is try to get people to stop thinking. That’s one of Albert Cummings’ statements, as a matter of fact. He says, “If you’re thinking, you’re stinking.” That’s one of his classic lines, and that’s what must have happened this weekend. I can imagine it in my mind. What are you going to do now?
SS: Well, I just got home late last night, and I have to leave for Chicago for some business today, a couple of days. Uh, take a little bit of a break, a little bit of a rest and get my energy back. I’m really exhausted, and start working on Bluestock 2012.
BW: What did you learn from this that you would do differently next year?
SS: What I learned from it was that I used to think hat I was in love with the blues. Now, I know I’m totally infatuated. I’m saying something cute, but what I learned from this –
BW: You’re preaching to the choir here, Steve, so I understand.
SS: My love for the blues is real and forever, and my love for my fellow blues fans is real and forever. What will I do differently? Absolutely nothing. I plan for the best and be prepared for the worst and hope for the best and know no matter what happens, it’s gonna be a great show. One thing I can honestly say is Steve and Jeff Simon Presents gives good show and I’m very proud to say that.
BW: My take on what you’ve said to me is that it would be interesting to create situations that put artists together that don’t normally play together, which, of course, is one of the wonderful things about the Rhythm ‘n Blues Cruise, but you had an imposed situation here where that happened. It would be nice if a festival could be that from the heart in a planned setting where people played together that would not ordinarily play together.
SS: Well, I’ll tell ya, we, myself specifically, have always been enamored with the Blues Cruise and the whole way it’s produced, and I basically looked at that as the footprint for Bluestock. This was, pardon the pun, without water, but this was the Blues Cruise on land.
BW: Well, almost [on land].
SS: No, literally.
One Minute Of The Flooding On Hunter Mountain
BW: It was on the water literally.
SS: It was the Blues Cruise on land, and you know something? It was supposed to be because Roger [Nabor, Head Pirate of the Legendary Rhythm 'n' Blues Cruise] is my idol. He’s my inspiration, always has been and always will be, and we even have a Club 88 every night that went until the wee hours of the morning, and everybody that was in town sat in. You know, all the musicians that weren’t on a plane or a bus or driving that hung out in the area sat in. It was just magical, absolutely magical. I can’t think of anybody whose life hasn’t been changed for the positive. So, in answer to your question, we’re not going to change a thing.
BW: Thank you.
BW: Stay in the game. We need you.
SS: I’m here until I die, man.
BW: Me, too.
SS: I’ll be here after I die, too.
Don Wilcock is editor in chief of BluesWax. If you have any comments about this article or if you attended Bluestock, we would love to read you comments below.
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