By Dean Johnson
For the Boston Herald
Music industry veterans say the use of pyrotechnics in The Station nightclub was a horrible blunder and will bring tough new restrictions on concert special effects.
“The idea of doing pyro in a facility like that is suicidal,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade magazine Pollstar.
Howie Cusack, head of Pretty Polly Productions, a Boston-based concert/booking agency, said, “You shouldn’t have any kind of pyrotechnic display in a place like that. That was a horrible, horrible thing. Pyrotechnics and inexperienced handlers is a recipe for disaster.”
Allman Brothers manager Bert Holman said, “This kind of thing is always a concern in the industry, especially when it gets to the smaller venue level.
“At a club level, with crowds close to the stage and a low ceiling, any one person can make an arbitrary decision . . . and not take into account the other things that will happen,” Holman added.
Dorothy Drewes, an editor at American Fireworks News, said it’s likely the pyrotechnic devices the band used at The Station were “gerbes” (pronounced jerbs).
They’re fairly popular and relatively simple contraptions, consisting of a powder charge inside a floor-mounted tube or pipe about an inch in diameter. The charge is usually ignited by an electric spark that is triggered by remote control, shooting a tower of flame into the air. A metal additive in the charge, such as titanium or tungsten, gives the flame a sparkler effect.
When used properly under the direction of a nationally mandated licensed pyrotechnician, they’re extremely safe devices, she said.
But in a club with a low ceiling such as The Station, Drewes said, “A licensed pyrotechnician wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. They would take one look and say, `No way I would use any kind of pyrotechnics that have an open flame.’ ”
If gerbes were used, “it wasn’t done legally,” she said, “and Rhode Island is pretty strict (with its fire code regulations).”
Massachusetts has even tougher laws in place, in part because of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire.
When Rob Zombie wanted to use pyrotechics during a recent show at the Palladium in Worcester, for example, John Peters of MassConcerts said strict regulations were followed.
“On the day of the show, they have to do a full demonstration, they have to do exactly what they’re going to do in the show, and you have a fire detail there. We have four firefighters at the side of the stage, just in case,” Peters said.
“That fire would never happen in Massachusetts,” said Al Dotoli, a veteran Massachusetts stage/production manager. “We all know better. We don’t light a firecracker at our shows unless the fire marshal OKs it.”
The Middle East club in Cambridge doesn’t allow any pyrotechnics, said owner Nabil Sater. Still, “every single square inch has sprinklers,” though it isn’t required by law.
“It’s an expense,” Sater said. “But which one is better, spending the money or having people dying in your place? We choose the safety of the people.”
Yet even with stringent fire laws, incidents happen.
“I had a close call, an extremely dangerous situation, with the artist Pink at Smith College in Northampton not too long ago,” Cusack said.
“One of her band members lit a sparkler and handed it to an audience member. Those things burn at 400 degrees and are incendiary devices,” Cusack said. “The fire marshal detained that band member after the show and lectured her for 15 minutes.”
Industry sources all agreed the tragedy will have long-term effects on live music performances, especially at the club level.
“Fire departments are going to start looking closer at what clubs are doing, and I think a lot of clubs are going to become a lot more conscious about what happens on their stages,” Bongiovanni said.
“I think the local fire marshals will really clamp down at the club level, with tighter inspections, surprise inspections, maybe even make clubs actually have a fireman on site when the club is open,” Holman said.
Cusack added, “I absolutely guarantee you that fire marshals will be present at every show, all over the place, checking any kind of pyro from now on.”
Sarah Rodman contributed to this report.