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Ozzfest: Behind The Scenes (8/3/2006)

On a warm Tuesday afternoon, Ozzy Osbourne is sprawled across the couch in his backstage dressing room.

His bus rolled up to the White River Amphitheatre (Auburn, Washington) just 15 minutes ago, and already Ozzy is the absolute picture of relaxation. He's calm, barefoot and impervious to the sort of pre-gig jitters that some of the other artists on this summer's Ozzfest are no doubt suffering. He's watching the 1974 comedy western "Blazing Saddles" with the volume on his huge television turned up to an almost ear-splitting level.

Over at the main stage, it's just as calm. A breeze blows through the barren rows of red seats, and the huge speakers give off a hissing sound like air leaking from a tire. Hundreds of Bandit-brand lights of all different hues twinkle, rotate and turn back and forth in unison in a synchronized ballet of luminosity and technology.

This is the calm before the storm.

And it doesn't last long: Within a few minutes, Ozzy's guitarist, Zakk Wylde, begins wailing on his double-neck Gibson as drummer Mike Bordin thumps his kit. Bordin's wife and two daughters — with earplugs firmly in place — are sitting in the vacant venue, the sole audience to an impromptu rehearsal jam between these two maestros. The young girls wave and call out "Daddy!" He smiles back at them and, later, invites them onstage, where they gawkily pound away on the toms and cymbals.

For the musicians, it's all very relaxed — the tour doesn't launch for two days, after all. But a horde of people you'd never recognize — without whom the show could not be — are working furiously to make sure Ozzfest's fury unfurls on time and in tune.

Each summer, it takes a village of lighting and sound technicians, riggers, guitar and drum techs, caterers, and a whole host of folks with countless odd jobs — the production team — just to get Ozzfest on the road and running smoothly for the 26 stops along the tour's route.

"It's like a circus," says Feelie, Ozzy's drum tech for more than a decade. "You roll into town, you do the show, you tear down, and you move — every time. It's just constant movement. There aren't many tours that carry 21 bands, but it works well. It's a well-oiled machine. It's gone on for 11 years running now, and flawlessly."

While Wylde wails, a bunch of stocky, heavily tattooed men in black T-shirts — each of them packing a walkie-talkie — run around, making sure Zakk's onstage cooler is brimming with ice-cold brewskies, that the strings on his dozen-plus guitars are wiped down, that his mic stand is lined with enough guitar picks to get him through a set.

Meanwhile, the tapping of a hammer is just audible above the din — a part of the stage needs to be reinforced so it can safely bear the weight of many amps. A man climbs a rope ladder to the lights suspended about 50 feet above the stage to make a few minor adjustments. Hundreds of miles of cables snake across the stage, wrapped with color-coordinated tape, looking like thick strings of licorice as they dangle out of the back of amplifiers. The Ozzfest logo has replaced the color bar that's occupied the giant video screen behind the stage for most of the afternoon; the screen flashes brightly, at seizure-inducing speed, with Ozzy's timeless call to arms: "Go F---ing Crazy."

"It is monstrous, and it takes a lot of hands carrying a lot of stuff," says John Fenton, Ozzfest's associate producer. "It's a big production, but being that it's our 11th year, everyone has it down. It oddly runs like clockwork, as long as everyone's on time."

A large white quartz clock adorns the wall backstage — accompanied by a sign that says, "Official Ozzfest Time (We don't care what time your watch says)" — to make sure everyone is, well, "on time."

"Ozzfest time is 10 minutes faster than everyone else's time," explains Jane Holman of tour promoter Live Nation. "We don't violate curfews. We start when we say we're going to start, and we end when we say we're going to end."

Meanwhile, in the Ozzfest production office, several people are organizing the hundreds of laminates they'll be passing out to the bands on this year's bill (and their respective crews) when they arrive the following morning for the full rehearsal, which will familiarize the bands with the tour's near-military operation and pace.

"It's become more of a machine each year," reflected Moby, who has been Wylde's guitar tech for several years, as he cleans off Zakk's axes. "They've tried different ways of running it, with different stage setups. It's a good blueprint of how a festival should run — I don't know if they've discovered the blueprint yet, but they're close."

Months of preparation goes into building Ozzfest every summer. Holman says it takes up much of her year.

"It doesn't ever stop," she says. "As soon as the tour ends, we're already thinking about next year. We're already budgeting, looking at talent, looking for new ideas, new bands, and new things to do to make it cool for the fans — this year we did did Miss Ozzfest. I'm on the phone with [tour organizer and founder] Sharon [Osbourne]'s office every day, year-round. We're always talking, always thinking."

Approximately 30 trucks, 40 tour buses and 400 people — including bands, vendors and carnies — travel as part of the Ozzfest caravan each summer, she says. Most of them have already been here for days.

This year's lighting designer, Patrick Woodruffe, is on hand to see that his creation is respected and realized; he first got the call from the Ozzfest camp three months ago, and has spent much of his time since working on this project. Woodruffe, who lights operas these days but has worked with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones over the course of his 30-plus years in the business, likens Ozzfest to an opera.

"You have a protagonist who's known as the Prince of Darkness," he says. "And you've got this mad, Gothic chorus of people who are tattooed and crazed, and this madman with this extraordinary and amazing music that people have known for years and years. It is like an opera in many ways — we have more than 100 lights hanging over the stage. And normally, the crew would load in at 8 a.m. for a show where the doors open at 6 p.m. These guys have to load in at 8 in the morning, and the doors open at 10:30 a.m. — which is crazy."

By 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, a little more than 24 hours before Ozzfest's official launch, the bands have already arrived — their Provost buses are idling and parked in long rows inside the venue's main lot. Many of the performers are milling about, carting plates full of fruit, breakfast food and even Buffalo wings with them, looking for somewhere stable to sit and dine — be that a golf cart, a dimmer box or the bumper of a tour bus.

The second stage — where the first half of the day's performances take place from around 9 a.m. till 5 p.m., when the action moves to the main stage — weighs tons and has been up for days. According to Steve Drymalski, the second-stage manager, it's actually a tractor-trailer that manually folds out to make a stage, to which a roof structure is then attached; in all, it typically takes five hours to erect. The crews begin working at 3 a.m. to be ready for the 8:30 a.m. door.

The bands on the second stage each get at least 20 minutes to perform; they have to be on the stage in two and a half minutes, and off two and a half minutes after their set ends. Today, Drymalski will run all of the bands through the rotations, "and get them used to getting on and offstage that fast," he says. This isn't so much a rehearsal for the bands' performances — they play one and a half songs during this run-through — it's more a test to make sure the bands can be on and off in the allotted time.

"It has to be a tightly run ship," Drymalski says. "We need to make sure everyone knows what's going on, and that they live on Ozzfest time. Really, what's happening here is we're putting on two shows: The first one happens here on the second stage, and then it's off to the main event up there in the seats."

Charlie Hernandez, production manager for Ozzfest, says it takes five hours to raise the main stage and have it prepped by 1 p.m., when fans usually begin heading inside to claim prime positions on the lawn. It takes two hours to pull it down and get it back in a truck before the 'fest moves on to the next city.

"It's a labor of love," Hernandez explains. "The whole key to it is the crew — people the fans never see. We have some of the best people in the business, and it comes down to them. These people have such a respect for Ozzy and Sharon and what they've done. We'll walk across broken glass for them, and we don't have a problem with that. There's no screaming, and we're all friends. It's a great experience for everyone."

A gang of five stagehands is assembling a winged, red-eyed skull. It will hover above Avenged Sevenfold's drum kit tomorrow afternoon when they take the Ozzfest stage for the first time.

The main stage is bustling with activity.

The area behind it is littered with equipment — drum kits, amps, smoke machines — and boxes of merch. There are golf carts as far as the eye can see, and everyone — everyone — seems to be smoking feverishly. Longhaired men and women hoist, roll, pull, and push equipment to and fro like a colony of ants — they move fast, avoiding near-collisions left and right. It's organized chaos.

Back by the second stage, the Red Chord's Guy Kozowyk is using an Exacto knife to slice holes in his band's vinyl banner. He says the Chord paid $2,000 for it; apparently that price didn't include carving out holes to prevent the banner from flapping in the wind and creating a safety hazard.

Meanwhile, bands that have toured together are reunited and welcome one another with forceful hugs. A Life Once Lost frontman Bob Meadows rolls through the vacant parking lot — which will be crowded with thousands of metalheads by this time tomorrow — on a skateboard as Unearth's Ken Susi rides by on a bicycle.

All That Remains' Phil Labonte growls into his mic onstage during his band's soundcheck while the members of Between the Buried and Me apply sunscreen to their arms and necks. Crew members unravel stage banners and inflate two huge Black Label Society balloons, which will later soar above the stage.

"The amount of work that goes into this thing is ridiculous," says Labonte, surveying the work being done behind the scenes. "It's a massive production, and it's kind of amazing that it happens every day without a hitch. It almost has a life of its own."

"When you buy a ticket and you're a kid, you don't realize how much goes into it," says Full Blown Chaos frontman Ray Mazzola. "Everybody thinks, 'Oh, these bands are partying.' Nope. The poker games, the barbecues, the wrestling in little tubs — that'll be later on in the night. The dump out, the dump in — everything's time-sensitive. You have to be on and off in five minutes, total. And you can't step on anyone's toes."

While Avenged Sevenfold run through their set on the main stage, their Suicide Girl-meets-Abercrombie & Fitch model girlfriends park themselves in the emptied seats in the barren venue, looking on lovingly. An outsider can't help but notice that, during rehearsal, most of the bands seem as though they couldn't care less about what they're doing — playing highly technical guitar riffs effortlessly. But tomorrow, when these same bands take the stage and play the same riffs, they'll be either manic — running around, jumping off speakers, revving up the crowd — or playing with a scientist-like concentration.

Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia, wearing a red workout shirt and black pants, is power-walking through the vacant rows of seats inside the amphitheater. The band spent 14 hours on a plane, flying in from Milan, Italy, and she needs to stay awake until at least 9 p.m. so she can adjust to Ozzfest time.

Meanwhile, Alicia Black, who handles production and wardrobe for Disturbed, is in their dressing room, preparing — she's setting up their wardrobe cases, which each contain various personal effects, like calendars, pictures of dogs and babies, artwork from their kids, small stereos, and even humidifiers. "I have to make sure there's beer and Jδgermeister," she says. "If you've got that, the show goes on. I need to make sure all the stuff we advanced is here — soda, beer, water, deli trays. I'm setting it up to make it comfortable for the guys, with towels, shampoo, socks. It's not glamorous, but it is what it is: People ask me for stuff, and I get it."

After the band's rehearsal, Avenged drummer the Reverend lies down in the parking lot in front of his bus, exhausted, and stares up at the cloudless sky. M. Shadows nods toward him, as he mounts his tricked-out motorcycle before taking it for a spin down Auburn Enumclaw Road.

Needless to say, the Ozzfest organization is just as particular about who is on the tour aas it is about how it's run. Fenton, Ozzfest's associate producer, is involved with every aspect of the festival, including booking. A number of factors weigh into his decisions.

"If you're a second-stage, rotating band, having an album coming out in May or June is perfect," he explains. "It could be your first album coming out, because the decision's not based on history. But having a label that understands metal — and these bands — is key. The label, the agents, the managers: everyone has to be on top of things. And if everyone's on their game, and more importantly, the music's good, they're on."

He says he sees every band play a gig before inviting them to join Ozzfest.

"It's hugely important to see these bands live, to see the connection to their own fans, and having fans that will come out and see you, whether it be in your hometown or out on the road," he says. "These bands have to be up and working. This isn't anyone's first tour: You have to put some time out on the road before you get here."

He notes that the most successful bands on the tour also possess a certain savvy. "On Ozzfest, the amount of time they have onstage is not important," he says. "It's going to the signing booths, hanging out all day, being out there with the fans. Being here, being around everybody all day, and the opportunities that are presented to you are almost more important than the amount of time you're on the stage."

Fenton, who has been involved with planning Ozzfest since its humble beginnings, says that even after all these years, he's still deeply inspired by what is accomplished each time around.

"It never gets any less amazing," he says. "The amount of work that's put into these shows is incredible. People work from before the sun's up, all day long, to make sure everyone has a good day."

"It's really a great thing," says production manager Hernandez as he watches his worker bees sweating under the hot sun, working frantically to pull together the summer's biggest — and hardest-hitting — tour. "Everyone knows each other, so we have a great time in the summer, because we get to see friends. This is a great opportunity for these bands to get their careers going — it's almost like a farm system. After the first and second show, it's just a machine and we're screaming down the highway.

"After the last show, everyone splits," he concludes, "and we come back next year and do it all again."

Source: Chris Harris /

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