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Concerts rouse a city on the Common 

The Paul McCartney and KISS concerts bring all the trappings of arena rock to the north end's public backyard. Not everyone is a fan.

They sacrificed a VirginFest last Saturday. When The Tragically Hip pulled out of the outdoor music festival due to a family crisis, concert promoters offered a free show instead. In a summer conspicuous for its abundance of both rain and big concerts, the free-ticket offering seemed sure to at least guarantee a full house. But still the fans weren't pleased. The festival hoped to sell 25,000 tickets to the Citadel Hill venue at $75 each. Actual attendance was somewhere from 9,000 (Chronicle-Herald estimate) to 18,000 (Virgin's number), all unpaid.

Power Promotional Events, which is putting on both this Saturday's Paul McCartney concert and next week's KISS show, has to be wondering whether the gruesome commercial death of Virgin Fest foretells their own future. The Common is a bigger and more controversial venue than the Citadel, and ticket sales are obviously slow. The "early-bird" price for McCartney is still in effect, and Ticket Atlantic says there will be plenty available at the door for walk-ups. Which means a lot depends on the weather gods.

Whatever the eventual crowd, a city of selling and songs is being built on the north Common to contain it. The massive stage is so close to Tony's Donair that Sir Paul will almost certainly salivate at the smell of our famous mystery meat. Soon he will belt out "Let it Be," bringing middle-age concert goers a hallucinogenic trip back to the past, and allowing their sons and daughters to get a taste of a time where life was better, where there was hope and there was music that would change the world. Remember...donairs will be there.

The city slowly forms. On the Saturday before, there are only strings of plastic pinnies delineating different staging areas with a few Source Security personnel keeping the area secure to announce the upcoming rock invasion. On Monday there is stadium seating and the beginnings of a gigantic stage. Each day the city grows and the time approaches.

The concert stage will be 25 metres wide, 18 metres deep and five metres high, with more than 100 tonnes of equipment. Baseball players and suntan enthusiasts will have to wait until July 22 to use the North Common again---it will be locked down from Cogswell to Cunard to North Park Streets. But during the brief pause between sweet-tongue McCartney and long-tongued KISS, paths will be opened up to restore some public access to the Common.

On concert days, those green fields will also host gigantic screens, to show the performers so that even the people furthest from the stage will "be able to count McCartney's nose hairs" according to Greg Cox of Power Promotions. "This takes a lot of work."

An army of workers from music technicians to the guy who sells the overpriced popcorn is needed to make a music metropolis. This will be a city with almost 400 guards, and potentially more than 100,000 fans spread out over the two concerts. There will be enough food, booze and clothing to survive a siege. Consumers are expected to pay an average of around $55 on merchandise alone.

One fan is particularly excited to see his idol in his own backyard. Peter MacDonald plays in Abbey Road, a Beatles cover band which has opened for the Beach Boys and toured Canada, playing his favourite childhood songs. To say he is a McCartney fan is an understatement.

"I have seen him four times now," says MacDonald on his cellphone at Stanfest, legs covered in mud, everything covered in mud. "I was in the Plains of Abraham last year watching with 250,000 people. It was mind-boggling. Each time I saw him was a new and cool experience. He knows how to be smart about his enormous musical catalogue, he plays the songs people want to hear. There isn't a better show to see in the world. His band is amazing too. Of all the live bands I have seen, he has dudes who he has been playing with for 10 years, who are probably better players than The Beatles were in their day. I think Halifax is going to be slammed by it. Totally a show worth going to."

The province has donated $300,000 to the cause and the city has donated $130,000 in services, providing ambulances and police to survey the scene. Mayor Peter Kelly and premier Darrell Dexter also posed in an embarrassing Abbey Road album cover re-creation to show their support. Events Halifax says the concerts will pump $12 million into the local economy.

"I don't think the same type of live show exists in the same way anywhere else in the world with the unfortunate passing of people like John Lennon and Michael Jackson," says Cox. "Paul McCartney came out of the UK in 1963 and changed the face of music forever. He is the largest-selling music musician of all time. Britney Spears, Eminem, Michael Jackson---all of that music can be traced back to when The Beatles broke out in 1963, coming out of Germany."

Not everyone feels the same about McCartney. A person using the cyber username expatboy left this comment on the CBC website:

"While I support anybody's right to choose to see this guy in concert, I am disgusted that HRM is stealing my taxes to offset the bill. This guy is a billionaire! And what does it say about our municipal governence when a convicted dope smuggler who trys [sic] to destroy the lives of thousands of maritimers is welcomed with open arms. Anyone who goes to this concert is supporting terrorism. He belongs to the most dangerous of animal right organizations."

Other complaints are less ideological and more practical and, well, more reasonable. For one it will be a pretty penny: 60,000 general admission tickets will be available for $125 taxes in with a $11 service charge added on; 5,000 VIP tickets will also be available for $305. If you do the math that's a lot of money for Power Promotions, if this all works out.

The question on Peggy Cameron's mind is: What price will the people who use the Common pay?

Cameron, of Friends of the Halifax Commons, worries that the Common is being taken away from the people who use it and that the city is not respecting their citizens' right to greenspace. In March 2007, city council signed a Memorandum of Understanding which said that the Common must be used for the common good of a significant portion of the population. Cameron wonders how much of the actual public will be able to afford to go to this concert. The city says the Rolling Stones concert disrupted the Common for only three days. She argues it was more like six months.

"Why couldn't they do this on the parking lot next to Pier 21, why not the Garrison Grounds, some place there isn't a gigantic field of grass? The Commons was out of commission for four to six months after the Rolling Stones concert, because it happened late in the season, late September or October. Then it was really problematic to have the turf repaired, it was cordoned-off most of winter into spring time. Could they not have the repairs done in a shorter timeframe? The overall issue of the timing, in the MOU events would be held later in the season. By putting it in the middle of July, impacting recreational use of the Commons during the summer, that's what the Commons are for. The timing seems a bit odd because they are bookending the jazz festival with McCartney on the first Saturday and KISS on the second. You don't think that might affect their business? Shouldn't we be spending our arts money locally? There are a lot of artists in Halifax that have trouble making enough to eat," says Cameron.

Cox says he was unaware of any MOU that prevented Power Promotions from holding the concerts now. The MOU says that concerts should be planned for September and October, and that no concerts should take place in April, May or June. July is not specified. Cox wonders why anyone would want to hold a concert in September when weather starts to get colder. He also points out that most of the damage from last August's Keith Urban concert came from a particularly expensive mat the city purchased to protect the grass. This turf protection carpet cost $96,973.84 and was "less than effective" according to Cameron. This mat has been replaced by a pylon road.

"This has been done in a lot of other venues, put plywood down, drive a semi on it, you don't have tires sinking down into mud if the ground is wet. The distance that the trucks have to go is very short, after Cunard Street about 150 feet," says Cox.

Cameron worries that the concert will make the Common all but unusuable for the majority of the summer. She also questions why so much city funds was contributed to what is a private, for-profit event and so little has been given to making the Common a better place for the people of Halifax.

"We are giving millions to rock 'n' roll: $250,000 to the Rolling Stones, $300,000 to Keith Urban. Why is the Commons not a priority? Why not proper paths, water fountains, places where people can recycle? There is a high percentage of people in the north end who do not have yards, the Commons is their yard, their green space. There are supposed to be 20,000 more residents on the peninsula and there has been no effort on the city's behalf to keep existing green space. The city does not seem to be putting much value on what the Commons means to the common people. A lot of people cannot afford $125 tickets and aren't getting the greenspace their taxes pay for."

Cox says he is also a friend of the Common, though he had no idea of the group's existence. He also believes the damage to the Common from McCartney and KISS will be minimal, judging by the impact from the Rolling Stones.

"You hear people talk about damage to the Commons, and you go by the Commons now and you don't see the damage. That concert rained from the beginning to the end."

We'll know soon, because the city on the Common is about to fill with people and merchandise.

Tom Martin, operational director of Source Security, will be in charge of keeping up to 60,000 people of varied levels of intoxication safe, coordinating with the police, using his certified mediation skills to make sure that everyone has the best time possible. Martin will be taking me into the concert and I will be reporting from inside, to show how a concert like this really happens, how a city rises and falls in a week. I hope it doesn't rain.

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