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350 workers needed to put on Moondance Jam

By Don Davis
Capitol Correspondent

Friday, July 16, 2004

WALKER - Kevin Abernathy worked backstage at Moondance Jam, making sure everything classic rock music performers needed was on stage, right down to the exact number of power cords.

Abernathy said that meeting big-name acts’ every need can be difficult: “We are in the middle of a cow pasture.”

A mile down a dusty road, Dusty Gjestvang stood in the music festival’s parking lot helping drivers find parking spots.

The dust and long days don’t bother the Moorhead 22-year-old: “It’s fun. It’s got good music. It’s got a good atmosphere.”

And in the Moondance campgrounds, Levi Pritchett held onto a map to make sure campers set up in the right place.

Pritchett, 16, of Park Rapids knows many campers are Moondance veterans: “I help them if they look like they are lost.”

The three are among 350 employees who make Minnesota’s largest classic rock festival possible.

Moondance, which Thursday completed the first half of its four-day run with the Allman Brothers Band, opened on a tragic note Wednesday night. A suburban Twin Cities man died after his band, Chain Lightning, performed.

An autopsy will be performed on the body of Charles Kenneth Worden, 48, of Forest Lake, but Sgt. Scott Thompson of the Cass County Sheriff’s Department said he appeared to have died from a heart attack. Worden and other members of the band were removing their equipment from the main stage when he collapsed.

Moondance officials said it was the first death in the festival’s 13 years.

Otherwise, Thompson reported the festival grounds were quiet with just three arrests by late Thursday afternoon.

“This is ‘Minnesota nice’ at its finest,” Thompson said

An opening-day record of 15,000 fans was set Wednesday, thanks in a large part to superstar headliner ZZ Top.

Today and Saturday are expected to be the festival’s busiest days, with up to 20,000 people a day.

All of those fans, and more than 30 bands in four days, are served by part-time employees. Moondance workers say founders and owners Bill and Kathy Bieloh make the workers feel like family, with many coming back year after year.

Part of that family feeling is letting workers into the concerts, Gjestvang said. Parking attendants usually can leave their posts for the concerts at about 9 p.m., and return before the final act is done between midnight and 1 a.m.

At 16, Pritchett is one of the Bieloh’s younger workers. While many do the work for fun, that’s not Pritchett’s motivation.

“I make more money here than I do at my job,” he said.

There is at least one fringe benefit, he said. “I personally like fair food.”

Abernathy said he doesn’t do the job for the money. That why he holds a computer-aided design job.

As assistant backstage manager, the Burnsville, Minn., man helps book acts. That goes on throughout the year. But during Moondance is where things get interesting.

“We call this our weird hobby,” he said.

The problem Abernathy often finds is the stars’ “upscale ego.”

Flying in Maine lobster for a performer at the last minute is out of the question. But if the Moondance crew knows early enough, it tries to accommodate every wish.

A few years ago, the Doobie Brothers insisted their dog be given a pass to allow it access to any part of the Moondance grounds.

Dealing with stars has proven “they are just people, too,” Abernathy said.

However, their lives are rough. Bands may be pulling into the rural Walker concert site after a 700-mile trip.

“They pull you up in a field,” Abernathy said.

Asphalt slabs and wooden walkways to help keep performers out of the mud, like encountered a year ago, are as important as the stars getting what they want, Abernathy said. “Environment can affect a performance.”

Performers provide Moondance with a list of everything they need – “down to the last bottle of beer,” he said.

The job creates memories, such as the time the crew was preparing for Joe Walsh’s performance. Someone told Abernathy someone was sleeping on the stage.

“He looked like a homeless guy,” Abernathy recalled.

So he made his way toward the man, when Walsh’s tour manager grabbed Abernathy and said: “That is Joe Walsh.”

Relaxing on stage was Walsh’s way of getting ready to perform.