Backstage pass at the County Fair’s grandstand


Inside the rock show

Working backstage at the San Diego County Fair grandstand is anything but glamorous.

“It’s a lot of people working and after the show, it’s a lot of sweaty people,” said Joe Hankard, the fairgrounds’ in-house production manager.

Specifically, 16 stage hands, four riggers, plus electricians, sound and lighting engineers, runners and janitors begin work as early as 7 a.m. to prepare for the 7:30 p.m. headlining show, every night of the 21-day fair.

Overseeing all the details is Hankard, who spent 12 years on the road before coming to manage the fairgrounds concerts. He was going to go to law school, but worked as a rigger on the Rolling Stones 1981 tour.

“I was standing on the stage looking out at 70,000 people smiling, laughing, having a good time,” Hankard said. “I decided maybe this would be a cool career to make people happy.”

Preparation for the fair’s grandstand concerts begins months ahead of time, when a contract is negotiated between the fairgrounds and the talent.

The rider, infamous for including extravagant, unrealistic demands, includes expected requests such as towels, water and meals. It also includes important technical information about equipment the band requires.

Requests for keyboard or drum risers are easy to accommodate, but bands that usually tour with large video screens or light shows must leave that at home because the stage is built several weeks before the fair.

It takes four days to construct the stage, install the three 40-foot-long trusses of lights, set up the speakers and sound boards, and connect the miles of cable pumping a massive amount of electricity to power the whole operation (900 amps for lights, 600 amps for audio to be exact).

“That’s a lot of sound and a lot of light,” Hankard said. “Very few acts can’t get by with exactly what we have here.”

The auxiliary structures take another couple of days to set up on the hexadeck covering the racetrack. Trailers are rolled in to become green rooms, bathrooms, showers and offices. A catering buffet and dining tables covered in plastic leopard-print are shaded by a large, white tent with two flat screen televisions hanging on one side.

Last Tuesday afternoon it’s pretty mellow backstage with veteran rock bands The Guess Who and Grand Funk Railroad on the bill.

Grand Funk Railroad loaded in and checked their gear at noon. The Guess Who began setting up at 3 p.m. and about 4 p.m. the five-member band arrived in casual street clothes for a sound check.

The band played a few songs in order to make adjustments to their amplifiers, seats, microphone heights and to mix their monitors, the floor speakers in front of each musician.

Each musician requests a unique mix of sound they want to hear during the show. One sound engineer creates these mixes, in this case the band’s production manager Gary Koshinsky. Another engineer mixes the sound for the front of the house, so what the audience hears is quite different from what the band hears on stage, which may be only their instrument.

Creating these mixes well require finesse to avoid making them too loud, which can lead to feedback on the microphones.

“Monitor engineers are gods,” said Dave Johnson, longtime production manager for Grand Funk Railroad.

After the musicians were comfortable with the audio setup, they grabbed a bite to eat from their personalized spread in their green room or the buffet, and returned to their hotel to change for the show.

Koshinsky continued tuning guitars, adjusting lines, taping down set lists and putting out water and towels. During the show, he worked the digital sound board, making small adjustments the musicians motioned to him.

Essential to a smooth-running backstage are good attitudes and healthy dose of flexibility, Koshinsky said.

Bands like The Guess Who that don’t travel with their own equipment or crew depend on the local crew to make the show happen, from set changes to running the lights.

“I’d rather work with good gear but have a crew that’s really easy to work with,” said Koshinsky, the band’s production manager for 23 years. “It’s all about people. I’m only here for a day, it’s important to treat people with respect, have fun and get the job done.”

While older bands have been around long enough to know better, some younger flash-in-the-pan bands can steamroll in barking orders. The show will go on, but the backstage vibe sours, Hankard said.

“You’ll find the crew more skilled and motivated than their paycheck would reflect,” Hankard said. “If you treat them with a degree of respect, I think you’ll find you get the absolute best.”

As the sun dipped behind the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, the audience began filtering in. Hankard’s primary job at this point was to make sure the bands were on site and ready to perform.

Members of both bands wandered in about 20 minutes before showtime, dressed in or carrying concert clothes, heads of long hair freshly styled.

Musicians mingled with each other, restrung a guitar, caught up with a few local friends or checked out the Lakers game.

When Koshinsky gave the O.K., The Guess Who gathered at the foot of the stage and then charged up the stairs to the cheers of the crowd.

Hankard pulled out his cell phone to check the time – 7:30 on the dot.

“Once Grand Funk takes the stage, I’m done,” Hankard said. “They’ll do the show and we’ll put it to bed, then do the whole darn thing the next day.”

It’s repetitive, but every night there is a crowd cheering, laughing and smiling. As Grand Funk Railroad played their final notes and the crowd went crazy, Hankard smiled too, “This is my favorite part.”