The perks of being a Bluesfest volunteer: Joel Eastwood on beer tents, free music and how he didn’t get to drive a piece of heavy machinery

Joel Eastwood (Twitter) is entering his fourth year in journalism at Carleton University. Originally from Hamilton, Ont., Joel escaped to Ottawa at the first opportunity and is trying his darndest to blend in with the locals. Joel curls in the winter, complains about the heat in the summer and procrastinates all year round.

For most Ottawa locals, Bluesfest is a summer staple. The annual music festival plays out over two weeks on the grassy slopes of Lebreton Flats surrounding Canada’s War Museum, and, contrary to its rather genre-specific title, showcases all manner of musical artists.

Although I’ve lived in Ottawa for three years, this was the first time I would be in the capital for Bluesfest, and I was determined to take advantage of it. Last year I was in France during the festival, enviously reading friends’ reports of the shows. This year it was my turn to flood my Facebook feed with breathless accounts of the acts I had seen.

Joel Eastwood at Bluesfest (photo: Adam Dietrich)

A brief disclaimer: I wouldn’t call myself a diehard music lover per se, if only because the term conjures up images of a bedroom plastered with vintage band posters and vinyl sleeves. My dresser drawers don’t house any band T-shirts or shoeboxes stuffed with ticket stubs. I like music – I appreciate music, even, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious – but don’t know the difference between a treble clef and a triad, I can’t sing worth a damn, and I tell people I play guitar in the same sense that North Korea tells people it is a democratic people’s republic.

I’m also not much of a festival goer. I’ve never been to any of the big North American music festivals (Coachella, North by Northeast, Osheaga, etc.) and, with the exception of a lone visit to Hamilton’s Festival of Friends, the only music festival I’ve attended is the annual Celtic Roots festival in picturesque Goderich, Ontario.

The crowd during the Dropkick Murphys performance on July 9 (photo: Adam Dietrich)

So, in brief, I was excited for the prospect of seeing live music in an outdoor setting, but unsure of what exactly to expect. Thinking ahead, I signed up to volunteer at Bluesfest, partly out of a desire to see how things ran behind the scenes but mostly out of a stubborn refusal to spend any more of my sparse student budget than necessary.

Back in high school I worked on the stage crew for several productions. At Bluesfest, most of the technical work is left to the professionals, so I signed up for the closest thing I could find – inventory control. I wasn’t quite sure what it was when I picked my required six shifts, but it sounded a lot more interesting than scanning tickets.

As I learned at the start of my first shift last Tuesday, inventory control is responsible for keeping the drink tents stocked with beer, pop and water. The drinks are stored in large metal containers – dubbed pods – which sit behind the beer tents, and most of the volunteer work involves guarding the pods and radioing back to the inventory control headquarters called “the cage” whenever something runs low.

I’ll be honest – this didn’t quite live up to my far-fetched fantasy of operating a crane or forklift (really, I was hoping to drive some sort of heavy machinery) – but while it’s not a particularly glamorous job, it’s turned out to be a whole lot of fun. Depending on the shift and the location of the pod, the job ranges from long periods of idling to short bursts of frenetic activity when an emergency crops up. Plus, I got to careen around the festival grounds in a golf cart the day before the festival opened, which was pretty cool.

While the job description is fairly straightforward, every four-hour shift throws up all sorts of unexpected little challenges that require a bit of lateral thinking and a little muscle. To date, I’ve helped paramedics track down ice and festival-goers find their drunk friends, and learned how to jimmy open the big black security fences using a padlock and a piece of pipe.

A handful of last year's volunteers (photo: Marc Lavoie, from the Bluesfest flickr page)

The hours are made a lot more rewarding by the people I’ve spent them with. Festival volunteers run the gamut from high school students scraping together their necessary hours to veterans who have volunteered for years. The volunteer organization runs largely on an honour system and I’ve heard frustrated tales of volunteers skipping out on shifts or crashing golf carts. But that’s all hearsay; in my direct experience, everyone I’ve worked with has been enthusiastic, good-natured and eager to help.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I was volunteering purely for the warm fuzzy feeling I get from helping my fellow man. It’s a nice feeling, but I volunteered for the perks, and there are plenty. We get two T-shirts, unexpectedly hearty hot meals with every shift, a discount on merchandise, and, best of all, free access to the entire festival.

I’ve tried to take full advantage of all that free music, attending every night of the festival’s first week. The experience was nothing short of fantastic. Over six nights I danced to a dozen different acts, ranging from blues rockers The Black Keys to mix maestro Girl Talk, who showered the crowd in confetti and toilet paper.

Bluesfest stage crew attempt to control a canvas flap before the Black Keys' performance last Friday (photo: Adam Dietrich)

But I’ve enjoyed the smaller shows most of all. I actually skipped the first half of the Black Keys’ set to see Newfoundland darlings Hey Rosetta! play on the other side of the park. An unplanned 45-minute intermission brought about by raging rain didn’t dampen the band’s soaring harmonies or the crowd’s unfettered energy.

In my mind Hey Rosetta! was topped only, performance-wise, by fellow Canadians Library Voices. Hailing from Regina, Saskatchewan, the eight-member band pumps out the sort of irresistible driving indie pop that slaps a smile on your face and puts a spring in your step. The band didn’t so much play their instruments as fling them around the stage with wild abandon, at one point almost harpooning an audience member with a wayward drumstick.

If you’re a fan of any sort of music at all, there’s probably something you’ll like at Bluesfest; if you don’t want to listen to music, there’s a performance by Nick Jonas (hey-oh!). But seriously, so far Bluesfest has been a blast. And the best part? Well, probably the free admission. But the second best part? It’s barely half over.

Thanks for sharing your volunteer tale with us, Joel. For the record, we’re also very sad that you didn’t get to ride a forklift (maybe next year, right?). Have any of you ever volunteered at Bluesfest or do you have any festival stories to share with us? Comment below!