When tragedy struck at Sugarland's Indiana State Fair appearance Aug. 13 - in which five people were killed and at least 40 injured when a 70-mile-per-hour gust of wind ripped at the stage's roof and collapsed the entire structure in a matter of seconds -- it carried an ominous sense of familiarity.
Just weeks ago, members of Cheap Trick narrowly escaped injury when a similar gust toppled staging at a show in Canada, and a storm wrecked the Flaming Lip's stage before an outdoor gig in Oklahoma last week. And in late July, lawsuits were filed against the promoters of the Big Valley Jamboree near Edmonton, Alberta, in the wake of an August 2009 incident in which a storm also caused a stage to collapse, killing a fan and injuring Billy Currington and several band members.
Concert promoters have long been aware of the inherent dangers in outdoor events. But with the number and intensity of concert accidents seemingly on the rise, the industry is likely to re-evaluate its policies and approach to increase safety and minimize weather's impact on the business.
"Something that everybody may be considering is a state-by-state inspector," says Conway Entertainment Group president Tony Conway, a veteran promoter who has guided the CMA Music Festival and this year's Show Me Festival in Missouri through plenty of bad weather.
"I would think that the federal government might want to have structural engineers check these temporary structures when they go up, kind of like the carnival industry's done with their rides. They had a lot of ride-related accidents back 20, 30 years ago, and so now every state has a ride inspector. And I think it's helped."
Whether anything could have helped at Sugarland's show is debatable. According to multiple reports, concert officials warned ticket-holders that a severe thunderstorm was on the way. Promoters believed the bad weather was still 30 minutes from hitting the fairgrounds, though a mere four minutes after the announcement, the gust swept through the grandstand ahead of the storm front. Once winds made the structure unstable, it fell almost instantly.
Sugarland manager Gail Gellman, Conway and Triangle Talent president Dave Snowden, the former buyer for the Indiana State Fair, all believe the Indiana disaster was a freak occurrence.
"I know that roof very well," Snowden says of the venue's staging. "It is first-class, state-of-the-art. I have used that roof many times."
And Snowden and Conway both spoke highly of Mid-America Sound Corp., the Indiana firm that provided the staging.
"Mid-America is a first class, A-plus operator," Snowden says.
But the stakes are perhaps higher than ever in the concert business. With climate change covered almost daily in general news stories, it's not out of the question that the number of weather-related incidents could be on the increase. And modern productions carry more tonnage than in a previous era.
Conway still remembers his first concerts as a teenager when festival seating allowed ticket-holders to rush to the foot of the stage. He recognized even then that if the lights came unhinged, he was in peril, and he determined never to watch a show from that vantage point again.
In that era, speakers were stacked on the stage, not flown from concert rigs. But trusses are now routinely built to carry 50,000 pounds of gear or more, even with winds whipping at 50 or 60 miles per hour.
Conway agrees with Gellman that the Indiana State Fair tragedy was a tragic fluke, but he maintains that if the government insisted on an outside inspector as an additional safeguard, it would be in the best interests of the acts, the fans and the artist themselves.
"You can always replace equipment," he allows, "but you can't replace a life."
As for the band, Sugarland and their crew were saved from disaster by tour manager Helen Rollens, whose decision not to allow the band onstage saved the tragedy from becoming worse.
"They always do a prayer circle before they go on, and Helen came back down and decided to hold," the band's manager, Gellman Entertainment founder Gail Gellman, told Billboard. "They were going on otherwise -- there's no question about it. And the fact that she decided to hold, that was the difference between them walking on stage or being where they were. Literally seconds. Every single person in our crew would have been on stage-guitar techs, band, video crew, stage manager, tour manager, spouses-everybody would have been on stage had she not held. It gives me the chills to say it."
The date was clearly disastrous - it was tough to go forward, and not just because of the emotional toll. Looking beyond the human tragedy to the practical issues that Sugarland faced, the band had just one set of its staging-including its video wall, set, sound lights-and the band's instruments, including all of Kristian Bush's guitars, were destroyed.
Gellman decided quickly to cancel the duo's Aug. 14 booking at the Iowa State Fair, and although Gelman was uncertain about the status of the band's tour when Billboard spoke with her on Monday, on Tuesday Sugarland announced on its website that the tour will resume in Albuquerque Thursday. How the group will respond at a psychological level is not yet known. Nettles is recognized as one of country's most emotional singers.
"Jennifer's an optimist, but she's also a realist," Gellman observes. "Both of those things live very well inside of her and I think when people know her through her music or see her on stage, it's not just a show. I've never heard her or seen her disengaged, whether it's in front of 40 people or 70,000 people at We Fest. It's the same person, same emotion, and I think this will go very deep inside of her."
Ray Waddell contributed to this story.