Getting ready to rock

Hugh Dillon, lead singer for the Headstones, rocks out during the Rockin' the Big House sound check at Kingston Penitentiary on Friday. (Julia McKay/The Whig-Standard) Julia McKay / Julia McKay/The Whig-Standard

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It’s just after 5 o’clock this past Monday afternoon, and about a dozen or so volunteers sit in a room tucked inside the King Street entranceway of Kingston Penitentiary, the same room now used by the popular Kingston Pen tours.

They’ve arrived for the final orientation session for Saturday’s “Rockin’ the Big House,” the charity concert for the Kingston-area branch of the United Way. The Headstones, the Trews, the Pursuit of Happiness, Kasador, Tom Cochrane, and members of The Tragically Hip are scheduled to perform for 2,500 ticket holders (90 per cent of whom are Kingston residents, receipts show).

United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington president and CEO Bhavana Varma welcomes the group, who were issued a volunteer T-shirt and their Saturday assignments upon their arrival, and then, after the volunteers introduce themselves, she leads them out to the grounds on which the concert will be held.

She proceeds to explain what will be where in six days’ time: the stage (in front of a cellblock), the fenced-off VIP areas (to the sides), the food trucks and beverage tents (to the east), and the portable toilets (even farther to the east). The volunteers follow Varma to the west entranceway, the one on King Street closest to the Olympic harbour site, and explains how the general admission ticket holders will file in (doors open at 4:30 p.m., first band before 6) and be handed 18-ounce steel cups (VIPs will go through the main entranceway). She then leads them back to where the stage will be set up, as some of the organizers trailing behind quietly discuss final details.

What these volunteers don’t see, however, is the work that went on before it became a reality.

After Varma and event chairs Joanne Langlois and Pat and Chris Murphy came up with the idea of the Kingston Pen concert as a fundraiser for the United Way in lieu of Fare for Friends, there was the detailed permission process, at both the federal and local levels, to use Kingston Pen.

United Way had an advantage in that department, though, as Correctional Service Canada is a longtime partner of the charity, giving them half of the proceeds from the aforementioned Pen tours. If it wasn’t the United Way and if it wasn’t for charity, Varma said, it would never have been approved.

Confident they would receive permission even though the process was still underway, the committee got in and took a look at the grounds.

“We first went into the prison and decided how to best use the space,” Langlois said. “The inside courtyard formed a natural amphitheatre” with its slight downward slope. The stage would sit in front of the cellblock, which will serve as the green room for the musicians.

They also weighed whether they should hold it in the “yard” in the back corner of the facility, near the lake, as it could hold twice as many people as the inside courtyard.

“We could have jammed a lot of people in there, but they wouldn’t have the experience of being inside the walls of the prison,” Langlois explained.

“We thought that, for a little bit of an elevated ticket price, it would be better to have fewer people there and really do this right, and try to create an experience that every ticket holder’s going to have a good time and not be jammed in there.”

Once they had decided on which section of the penitentiary grounds to stage the show, they then had to figure out how. While they had been to concerts — Joanne Langlois’ husband, Paul, is a member of The Tragically Hip, after all — staging one was an entirely different matter.

“We’ve done events, we’ve all done different things, but we’ve never put on a big rock concert,” co-chair Pat Murphy explained. “So then, again, it’s about leveraging all of the talents of everybody to figure out what’s the next piece to work out how we do that.”

They turned to Michele Langlois, Joanne’s sister-in-law, who works for the Downtown Kingston Business Improvement Area and has been running events like the Limestone City Blues Festival for years.

Langlois put the committee in touch with people to “talk about sound and staging, how that works, and trying to create this picture for everybody to understand what we’re trying to create,” Murphy continued.

Michele Langlois even secured them the same stage and technicians the city uses for its Market Square concerts.

“We knew the basics of a music festival,” Joanne Langlois explained. “We knew we needed port-a-potties, we needed food trucks, we needed security, we needed backstage catering — we knew all of the things we needed, but we just wanted to bring in someone like (Michael) Schipper to nail it all down in terms of how many port-a-potties for this crowd, and the flow of the food, and the systems in place, and the fire department.”

Schipper has worked with the Hip in the past, designing their staging and solving onsite problems as they arise. He also created an AutoCAD drawing — much like a floor plan — of the penitentiary grounds. It also allowed them to move around the different elements, which the committee figures happened seven or eight times from the get-go. Where the stage would be set up was the only thing that never changed.

“It wasn’t problems that we had to solve, it was just logistics we hadn’t thought of, like the clearance, the egress, the safety,” Varma said. “We didn’t know how many beer vendors we’d get (six, plus two wineries), how many food trucks we’d get (also six), so we had to plan all of that.”

One of those challenges, for example, was bringing enough power in for the sound and light systems. While there is some electricity inside the penitentiary because of the tours, it’s not nearly enough for a rock concert, so they had to bring in generators.

And there are other considerations, such as closing off King Street in front of the penitentiary and arranging for Kingston Transit to minimize the congestion of cars (there’s room for 400, by the way).

Varma — who just launched this year’s campaign for the United Way, which is separate from Rockin’ the Big House — said that a rock concert of this magnitude is a first for any United Way.

“It’s the most unusual event I’ve been a part of,” she said.

“I don’t think any other community,” Varma said, “could pull this off, quite frankly.”

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Essentials

Here are some things to keep in mind before you head to Kingston Penitentiary on Saturday for the Rockin’ the Big House charity concert.

• If you bring a reusable water bottle — each ticket holder receives a complimentary 18-ounce steel cup upon entry — it must be empty upon entering.

• It is a standing-only event, so leave your collapsible chair at home.

• Food, beer and wine will be available (some of the vendors are donating everything to charity), and there will also be a water truck.

• Once the sun sets behind the wall, it will get chillier, so wearing layers is recommended.

• Kingston Transit will be running buses throughout the evening.

• Once you’re in, you’re in. You can’t leave and come back in (there will be a designated smoking area).

For a complete list of the vendors who will be there and other items that won’t be permitted, go online to unitedwaykfla.ca/rockin-the-big-house.