Ron Onesti: Toby Keith…A Red, White and Blue “Storm Trooper”
As much of a Rock-N-Roller I am, I really appreciate Country music too! Many of our customers do too, so peppering our Oldies, Classic Rock, Heavy Metal and Prog Rock experiences with a little of the “Nashville Sound” provides a nice change of pace once in a while.
You may recall from one of my previous columns that I produced concerts at race tracks a few years ago, one of them being a show we did with James Brown at Hawthorne Racecourse. Well there was another time we produced a concert with a relatively new superstar on the country music scene, Toby Keith. At the time, he had the number one hit on the Country music charts. Since then, he has become one of the biggest stars in country music history, not only for his accomplishments in the field, but also for his undying patriotism and commitment to supporting U.S. war veterans.
It was in the centerfield of the Sportsman’s Park Racetrack in Cicero, Illinois. We worked all morning and set it up like a festival, with a main stage on one end of the centerfield, food and merchandise tents lining the sides and five thousand chairs down the center. The sun was shining…it was going to be a great day!
At least it looked that way at noon. Right around 1 p.m., the sky began to darken. The guy who tracked the weather radar came down and told me there was a severe storm warning for our area. Although the sky began to get cloudy, there was no way it was even going to rain…so I thought.
Now it’s about 3 p.m. and I was standing on our stage doing a sound check. As I am doing this, I am looking off into the horizon. Something doesn’t seem right. The wind starts to pick up-I mean chairs are blowing over the place. All of a sudden, a massive twister touches down at the opposite end of the 44-acre centerfield directly across from the stage. I actually watched it form. And then, it began “walking” toward me, right down the midway! Really, I had never seen anything before like it!
I started yelling to my crew to take cover, literally throwing guys off the stage. In a nick of time, I jumped off the stage and took cover under one of our trucks carrying sound equipment. Aside from a few of the chairs being thrown in the air like that scene in “The Wizard Of Oz,” the twister danced it’s way neatly down the center, barely disturbing any of the many tents and attractions we had there.
But as it approached the stage, it got really mad. It was almost as if it touched down just to beat up on it. The hefty winds picked it up off the ground. Then, the twister lifted the roof (which was fortified with four-foot steel rods staked into the ground), spun it and left us with pieces of raw metal bent into a massive pretzel of steel hovering dangerously above the stage.
The funnel cloud then went on its merry way and dissipated into the sky. The sun came out and it was like nothing happened, except for a stage that looked like it was in a terrible automobile accident.
My brother Rich and I had to act fast. We re-activated our troops (our sound crew, some horse manure custodians and a couple of jockeys who were no real help at all). We used the bulldozer from the manure guys to lift us up to the top of the stage roof so that we could disconnect it from the stage…a killer as I am afraid of heights and I was about twenty-five feet off the ground. I was literally hanging from the top beam of the roof in order to bend it back a bit and separate it from the stage!
It worked. We were left with just a platform…but would Toby play on it? According to his contract, if the weather posed any sort of threat, he could refuse to play…and still get paid. I looked down behind the stage and there he was, just looking at me and shaking his head. I jumped down off the stage and introduced myself. He is 6’3”, but between his signature straw cowboy hat and those Oklahoma boots of his, I was lookin’ up at seven-footer! “Boy,” he said, I have been overseas and have met a lot of brave soldiers, but what I just seen you go through…you should get a Bronze Star!”
So he went on as scheduled and opened the show with his then number one hit, “Who’s That Man.” He dedicated it to the guy who saved his show that night. For me, it was just another day of makin’ the best out of music…and of manure.