Security concerns at fan-pleasing free Nickelback TIFF show

Alberta band performs generous, hit-packed one-hour-plus show

Who: Nickelback
Where: TIFF Festival Stage, John St.
When: Fri., Sept. 8
Vibe: Rapt adoration from Nickelheads for their fave band combined with fear of being crushed
Highlight: Massive singalong for How You Remind Me
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)

THE BAND THAT MANY LOVE TO HATE (while millions more simply love), Canada’s hoser-rockers Nickelback play a generous, hour-long free show on TIFF’s John St. stage in celebration of the premiere of a new doc about the band, Hate to Love. They play a solid set that also features chaotic crowd control for the thousands who don’t get into the gated area in front of the stage.

I arrive early, just after six for the 7 pm show, and find almost no one there except for a few security guards standing at a haphazard collection of fencing inexplicably cluttering the area about halfway from the stage. When asked, they can’t explain their purpose except to say they will eventually be closed; “6:30” is the prospected time. One has a clicker.

“How many I ask?”

“1,800”, he says.

“What’s the capacity?”

“Don’t’ know”.

I’ll hear a lot of “don’t knows” from security as the night progresses. I leave the gated area to smoke a joint — furtive habits die hard — returning a few minutes later to a now sealed gate, though the fencing is far from formidable and nothing like the “front-of-the-house” fencing and matching massive security guards at the “other front” of the stage.

A handful of people banter with the casual guards, asking to be let in and complaining there was no notice. Someone argues that when they left the area, no one told them they couldn’t come back. Another points out there are no toilets in the fenced area: “What was I supposed to do?”

It’s a cheery if annoyed crew, and DJ Shub spins tunes on the stage helping lighten the mood and feed the festive feel.

A 30-something teacher, Dave, enthuses, “I’ve spent my life being mocked for loving this band and now I’m among thousands of their believers.”

Well, strictly speaking, I’m here out of curiosity and because I’ve had some fun times drinking awesome wine with Chad Kroeger and the fellows whose self-deprecating approach and generosity with great drink is pretty appealing.

Having produced massive free outdoor shows myself at Yonge-Dundas Square for NXNE, I have more than a passing interest in security and remain unsettled by the seemingly casually created “second front” for this massive crowd. Others around me start to express their concerns. Then, Dave says to the group, “If you were already getting worried, turn around.”

Where a small cluster of people was gathering just five minutes ago, the street is now packed with a crowd of thousands — and continually growing. There is no security in the “outer crowd,” no gated safety path up the middle of the crowd for emergencies and all exit paths are quickly filling with folks determined to get as close as possible.

“Goes back three blocks,” Dave volunteers, and it gets clear to all that he will be one of the Go-To folks if things go bad. And things going bad becomes the main topic as people question security about what will happen if the crowd starts pushing forward.

“No plan.”

People now attempting to leave the gated area can’t get out because the crowd pressed up against the fencing is too thick to let them pass. They turn back.

“At what point do you move the fencing if people are shoving up against us?”

Blank smiles.

I am not a paranoid concert-goer and have attended thousands of shows almost never contemplating my mortality — until this one. And the irony of being taken down at a Nickelback show helps fuel my vigilance.

Fortunately, the crowd is astonishingly well-behaved and good-spirited. While my now jammed-in concert mates are all dreading the expected rush forward that the first notes from the band will ignite, when Chad Kroeger and crew humbly take the stage and launch into San Quintin, the crowd is more delighted than super-charged — as if this “gift” to them is something to receive graciously rather than with an ignition of adrenalin surge.

And grateful is what the crowd is as the band announce they’ll be playing for “at least an hour” more than the three- to five-song set most are expecting. And while we don’t get the trademark pyro showcase from the band, that safety concern apparently addressed, it’s a solid Nickelback set packed with hits, singalongs and heartfelt humility from the band.

When the show seemingly wraps up with an irresistible singalong to the band’s megahit How You Remind Me, those lingering in hopes of an encore are barked at by security who insist, “That’s it; show’s over. Leave. Only way out is that way through the crowd. Can’t come through these gates,” thereby igniting one more major security gaff.

As the crowd at the gate is now angrily dispatched and told to go wading into the mass of thousands and begins to attempt to leave, the band bounces back on stage and unleashes the opening chords of Gotta Be Somebody, the departing group is now met by a surge trying to press forward for the encore. Fortunately, no damage is done and the core of delighted Nickelheads leaves unscathed.