When the lights of the mainstage at Voodoo Fest dim and the first beat is played, it is that split second of realization that you are about to experience a live performance from your favorite artist. But without the men and women who build the stages, such things cannot exist. Let’s rewind several days to when the Pirates sailed into town and quietly hijacked City Park to understand a whole culture not seen, but without a doubt felt.
Be aware not to mistake this unique group of highly skilled professionals as Roadies. They are riggers and they call themselves Pirates. Upon discovering the fascinating world below the glitz of the stage, it is the pirates’ dedication to constructing and dismantling these massive stages they refer to as their “steel ship” that allows for wild, unimaginable, beautiful moments in time to occur. On Halloween weekend in a city rich with haunted stories, New Orleans set the perfect port for them to anchor.
While I sat at my local watering hole on a mundane Tuesday evening, this colorful shaggy-bearded Robert Downey Jr.-essence character crossed my path. He was wearing a Marvel Comics t-shirt and dark gray Dickies shorts with a carabiner clipped on the belt loop holding a chalk bag. It was difficult not to notice his wool striped socks–pulled high to his knees—and the one bandana wrapped around his wrist with another hanging from his back pocket.
He was with a friend dressed all in black with thick sideburns running down his face, black-rimmed glasses, and a baseball cap that hung low on his head. Jeff, the friend, was quiet and observant while Darby, referring to himself as a “ninjaneer,” was boisterous. There was also Neil, a pirate from Illinois who looked like a surfer from California, excitingly sharing pictures of himself ice climbing.
Unbeknownst to me, I was about to be introduced to a subculture that travels on the fringe of society. It was an enclave that harbored felonies, troubled teens who had left their teenage years behind, and a team of renegades who found an unconventional home together.
They openly shared that they worked with a dwarf and transgender. Many Pirates sold their homes, put their stuff in storage and hit the road—living out of their vehicles traveling like caravans traversing the continent. When Darby, hailing from the Appalachian Mountains, offered an invitation to spend the weekend shadowing him, I dove in with all my senses on high alert.
A day in the life of a rigger is by no means glamorous; however, it’s extremely intoxicating and exotic. To enter under the stage is like stepping into a magical labyrinth that requires one to walk in a hunched-over position ensuring you do not knock yourself out on the innumerable metal beams. This is where the Pirates call home for the duration of their dock. I sloshed through the mud in my rain boots and navigated around the equipment while Ozzy Osbourne raged above. String lights laced the underlay of the stage, illumining the rugged living conditions. Like cocoons hanging from the beams, the Pirates sleep in hammocks.
Rain or shine, the show goes on and the Pirates know how to stay comfortable in the worst conditions. With everything on-site, it is a self-contained community with little necessity to venture outside the festival grounds, save to explore the local culture. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are as easy as walking into the catering tent. Red Bull is passed around like currency; the Pirates use it to keep good relationships with all the other workers.
Between set changes most people venture off to either refuel or break for the restroom; however, it is then that one can catch a brief glimpse of the agility and strength, both physically and mentally, these Pirates possess. Climbing the grid structure to ensure all equipment is safely secured and correctly operating is a major component of their job. They are required to have experience in climbing and rappelling along with a keen understanding of mechanics, electricity, and engineering.
When they outfitted me with a carabiner, a towel, a water bottle, a Red Bull and an umbrella, I could not help but wonder if I was about to be put on the clock. I wasn’t.
I watched as they whizzed by on forklifts, scaled the scaffolding carrying heavy cables, and balanced on beams only inches wide high above the festival grounds. The rain proved to cause many headaches for the Pirates.
Pirates on the job
“I’ve worked a lot of shows this year, but this one takes the cake,” Jeff mumbled as he filled the flooded ruts made by the trucks with mulch. He reassured himself by following up that statement with, “It could always be worse.” I reflected, yes, absolutely, could be a hurricane.
For a parting gift, the Pirates gave me a beveled bottle of French gin forgotten from one of the after parties. But it was the surprise Darby had for me that literally took my breath away.
He plucked me from the crowd and said, “We’re goin’ up!”
Huh? What? Me? I thought.
We ascended the steps of the Main Stage to the balcony as Florence and the Machine played below, all the while gazing into a sea of music lovers. This was a moment and I understood why they felt it was necessary I experience it for myself. A bellowing wave charged with high-voltage energy rushed toward Florence as she reached her hands out toward the crowd. In that instant, I realized both why the Pirates are so content and how they facilitate those magical moments when artists and their fans connect.
Florence and the Machine
As quietly as they rolled into town, they left, leaving behind not a trace, only intangible memories and a bit of fairy dust—I’m not being poetic, Darby actually told me how, at the wrap of each successful festival, he glitter-bombs his mates. The Lost Boys and Tinkerbell do exist. So next time the Pirates sail into town, greet them with a smile and ask them what they are drinking.