Wednesday, April 29, 2009

City of Ottawa Caps the Volume on KISS

Kiss to perform at the 2009 Bluesfest.  Left to right Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley in concert at  at the former Corel Centre.

Can KISS really play that quietly?
By Lynn Saxberg, The Ottawa Citizen
Photograph by: John Major, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA - Forget about lawnchairs. Volume could be the biggest point of contention at Bluesfest this year, potentially polarizing those who like it loud — Kiss fans, for example — and nearby residents.

A full slate of big-name artists, including Kiss, one of the loudest bands in the world, are headed to Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest between July 8 and 19, but the commotion of the last two years of the festival, held on the spacious grounds of the Canadian War Museum at LeBreton Flats, is still fresh in the minds of nearby residents.

Retired public servant Michel Gauvin used to live on nearby Albert Street.

“Although I was a kilometre away I could hear the noise in my kitchen,” Gauvin said this week. “I never filed a complaint, but I thought they were going overboard. It’s excessive. You don’t need that much noise to listen to music.”

Now he’s even closer to the festival, one of more than 100 owners living in the new condo building overlooking the festival site. Because Gauvin’s unit is on the far side of the building, he’s hoping it will be bearable.

In fact, thanks to a new stipulation in the site-rental agreement with the National Capital Commission, he should be able to hear himself think this summer. The NCC, which manages the LeBreton Flats site, has made it a requirement for Bluesfest to implement a decibel limit in their contracts with artists. The new clause requires artists to adhere to a limit of 90 dB.

Alain Nantel, the NCC official who negotiates site rentals, said the number was determined after analysing decibel readings taken by municipal bylaw officers during last year’s festival. After complaints from nearby residents, the city sent bylaw officers armed with decibel meters out to gather data. They were dispatched to neighbourhoods in Ottawa and Gatineau and measured levels at the festival’s five outdoor stages.

Bluesfest boss Mark Monahan said they were able to tell what the level was at the stage when the noise exceeded the allowable limit of 65 dB in nearby neighbourhoods.

“We took different days we had complaints,” Monahan said, “and were able to pinpoint fairly conclusively who was playing at that time and what was the dB level, and what was interesting was we were able to measure the dB level in the park at the same time as what it was in the neighbourhood.”

Along with other special events, Bluesfest is granted an exemption from the city’s usual noise bylaw of 55 dB, but must keep it within 65 dB outside festival grounds. According to the NCC’s Marc Corriveau, the highest level measured last year was 67.5 dB in a complainant’s home at Booth and Albert streets, while the level at the mainstage sound board was generally in the upper 90s. The festival was not fined, but city councillor Diane Holmes, who represents Somerset Ward, was reported to be reconsidering her approval of the festival’s exemption. To help her understand the attraction of Bluesfest, this Citizen reporter zipped around the various stages with Holmes one night last summer.

Holmes is delighted that a decibel limit is being written into most of the contracts.

“That may well solve the problem of so much noise in some of the neighbouring communities, depending on the direction of the noise and the wind,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea. It still allows an exciting, good quality concert with certainly sufficient volume to be heard, and yet may well decrease the spillover between the stages and into the neighbourhood.”

A cap on decibels might be just what the festival needs to curb the soundbleed between stages. Last year, several quieter acts, including Richard Thompson and Joan Armatrading, were drowned out by louder bands on other stages. In a related effort to avoid that problem, Monahan said the programming team has been paying close attention to potential conflicts as they slot the acts.

Still, will 90 dB be enough to convey the power of a band like KISS, the hard-rock monsters known for songs such as I Love it Loud and Shout it Out Loud? Veteran sound engineer Ken Friesen doubts it.

“When I’m mixing a rock show, I usually come in just about 100, with peaks at about 105. That’s like a full-on, hitting-you impact level,” said the Almonte-based producer.

“At 90, the crowd would be yelling things like, ‘Turn it on.’ A show like KISS is about the rock onslaught and the overload of everything — pyro, lights, sound. At 90 dB, you’re not going to overwhelm anybody.”

Beyond audience expectations, many rock musicians like to play loud, especially when they’re on a big outdoor stage.

“It’s fun as a musician to play loud, just the feeling of something physically going through your body,” notes Peter MacKenzie Hammond of the Ottawa-area band Loudlove, which will make its Bluesfest debut on July 16. “And there’s lots of things you can do tonally with a pumped-up amp that you can’t do with a quiet amp.”

Partly because of his band’s name, the rock-reggae outfit has become accustomed to being told to turn it down. They’re not going to have a problem with the festival’s limit.

“When you’ve tried to get into Bluesfest for seven years, the last thing you want to do is go up there and say I’m bringing in three Marshall stacks and go for it,” says Hammond, laughing. He doesn’t think Gene Simmons, KISS’s maverick bassist, will be so easy to get along with.

“I think Gene Simmons does what Gene Simmons wants to do and not very many people are going to tell that man what to do.”