Tons of steel set stadium stage for heavy metal in Little Rock
War Memorial ready for Guns N’ Roses concert tonight
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.
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.