Tons of steel set sta­dium stage for heavy metal in Lit­tle Rock

War Me­mo­rial ready for Guns N’ Roses con­cert tonight

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - SHEA STE­WART

Un­der a warm blue sky brushed with white clouds, work­ers scur­ried around War Me­mo­rial Sta­dium on Fri­day af­ter­noon, ready­ing it for tonight’s visit from gut­ter-brawl­ing rock­ers Guns N’ Roses.

The only sounds within the Lit­tle Rock sta­dium were the clangs of steel on steel, the beep­ing of fork­lifts and crew mem­bers erect­ing the tow­er­ing 60-foot-tall main stage, com­plete with band ris­ers, LED-lit stair­cases and three mam­moth video screens.

Dale “Opie” Skjerseth, pro­duc­tion man­ager for the band, stood in front of the in-progress stage and rat­tled off how War Me­mo­rial Sta­dium got from Thurs­day, when crews ar­rived in Lit­tle Rock, to to­day’s show. It’s all in the num­bers: 15 trac­tor-trail­ers of pro­duc­tion equip­ment; 15 trac­tor-trail­ers of steel to con­struct the stage; 100 tour­ing crew mem­bers; an­other 100 lo­cal crew mem­bers; 4,500 chairs for the sta­dium field and “a lot of lights.”

It took 36 hours to erect the stage, and six hours to prep the pro­duc­tion equip­ment.

“Noth­ing gets eas­ier; peo­ple just want more stuff to bring with them,” Skjerseth said. “This show, the band has put their view into it, and we took it and ran with it and de­vel­oped the show.”

The pay­off will come this evening as the sun ex­its, the gloam­ing ar­rives and the sta­dium ex­plodes with py­rotech­nics, lights and the mu­sic of the rock mu­si­cians once deemed “the most dan­ger­ous band in the world.”

Skjerseth, 55, has worked with con­cert pro­duc­tion since 1979, start­ing in small clubs and the­aters in his home state of Min­nesota. His first big tour was Van Halen’s 1984 Tour. He has since worked with AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Black Sab­bath and oth­ers, in­clud­ing Guns N’ Roses on its 1991-1993 Use Your Il­lu­sion Tour.

Set­ting up and tear­ing down con­cert stages is Skjerseth’s ca­reer, and noth­ing es­capes his at­ten­tion, par­tic­u­larly stage floor­ing. It can’t be too grippy or too slip­pery, he said, and band mem­bers have to be com­fort­able on it in all weather con­di­tions.

“The No. 1 thing with any act is the floor,” he said. “You want to make sure they are stand­ing on a proper sur­face. Ev­ery act is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. The main thing is you don’t want them to fall down.”

Crews ex­pected to fin­ish the stage by this morn­ing, and the band — Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKa­gan, Dizzy Reed, Richard For­tus, Frank Fer­rer and Melissa Reese — will hold a sound check later to­day be­fore tak­ing the stage around 7:30 p.m.

Gates open at 5 p.m. with mu­sic start­ing at 6:30 from opener Sturgill Simp­son, a cos­mic coun­try trou­ba­dour who would get ap­proval from coun­try le­gends Way­lon Jen­nings and Wil­lie Nel­son.

The Not in This Life­time … Tour — so named be­cause Rose, Slash and McKa­gan hadn’t toured to­gether since 1993 be­cause of band in­fight­ing — started in April 2016. The tour has vis­ited North Amer­ica, South Amer­ica, Asia, Aus­tralia and Europe and will con­tinue through late Novem­ber.

The cur­rent string of dates in­cludes sta­di­ums such as War Me­mo­rial Sta­dium, which has hosted big­name con­certs by acts such as NSYNC, Ge­orge Strait, the Ea­gles and The Rolling Stones since open­ing in 1948.

Tonight’s show will be an­other chance to show­case the nearly 70-year-old sta­dium, said Shea Lewis, in­terim sta­dium man­ager and a re­gional su­per­vi­sor with the state Parks Depart­ment. In Fe­bru­ary, the free-stand­ing War Me­mo­rial Sta­dium Com­mis­sion merged into the state Depart­ment of Parks and Tourism.

“It’s just a great op­por­tu­nity for the state of Arkansas … to bring a band in who is so well-known and the tourism im­pact it has statewide,” Lewis said.

Af­ter tonight’s show, Guns N’ Roses, a 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in­ductee, will play Tues­day at Mar­lins Park in Mi­ami. The band played Den­ver be­fore Lit­tle Rock.

The tour is so ex­ten­sive that Skjerseth said three car­a­vans of 15 trac­tor-trail­ers haul­ing stage steel roam the coun­try at all times, set­ting up for fu­ture shows. One is al­ready in Mi­ami, and an­other is bound for Win­ston-Salem, N.C., for an Aug. 11 show.

The work was on­go­ing Fri­day and the sta­dium was empty ex­cept for crew mem­bers. No scream­ing fans. No cell­phones held aloft, light­ing the field dur­ing the band’s hit power bal­lad “Novem­ber Rain,” and no Guns N’ Roses, who stomped and swore their way into the pub­lic con­scious­ness with their 1987 de­but al­bum Ap­petite for De­struc­tion.

Amp stacks were still be­ing rigged into place, and none of the 4,500 chairs had been set up on the field, where the turf was pro­tected by heavy-duty plas­tic squares.

Still, Skjerseth was con­fi­dent as only a vet­eran can be that ev­ery­thing would go as planned.

“Noth­ing is re­ally a sur­prise to us any­more,” he said. “There are no dif­fi­cul­ties. The chal­lenges are min­i­mal that we all just roll with it. The chal­lenges all hap­pen at the be­gin­ning [of a tour], get­ting ev­ery­thing to meet. Once it all meets, it be­comes one.

“Then you have it. It’s yours. It’s your job to bal­ance it out.”

And by Sun­day af­ter­noon — af­ter 12 hours to take the stage down and three hours to pack — the Not in This Life­time … Tour will be gone, bound for Mi­ami.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/THOMAS METTHE

Pro­duc­tion crew mem­bers set up the stage on Fri­day in prepa­ra­tion for to­day’s Guns N’ Roses con­cert at War Me­mo­rial Sta­dium in Lit­tle Rock.

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