Ten years ago today, an obsessive fan shot and killed former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott in an incomprehensible rock-history tragedy that ranks alongside John Lennon’s murder, the Who’s 1979 Cincinnati concert stampede and the 2003 Great White nightclub fire. Abbott had been performing with his new band, Damageplan, when armed former Marine Nathan Gale stormed a side door, drew a handgun and fired at the guitarist. By the time the 250 people in the crowd figured out what was going on, Abbott, two crew members, a club employee and a fan were dead; a police officer later shot and killed Gale.
After the shock and grief receded, many in the concert business reassessed their security procedures and raised an ominous question: Could this happen again? “It could,” says Paul Wertheimer, a veteran concert-security consultant who runs Crowd Management Strategies. “Precautions have not really been taken in the industry, and artists are at risk. Little has changed in a business where the biggest stars playing the most expensive concerts get the best security while cash-strapped clubs must simply hope no crazy people walk in bearing arms.”
For a while after the tragedy, some musicians say, they noticed venues becoming more aggressive about security – searching customers, adding metal detectors and wands and hiring off-duty cops. But over the past decade, which encompassed an economic crisis that squeezed club budgets, safety has largely slipped back to its 2004 standards. “I remember us being fully concerned about it. There was beefed-up security and a little bit more patting down,” says Paul Mazurkiewicz, drummer for veteran death-metal band Cannibal Corpse. “But it seems to be more out of sight, out of mind, now – back to normal, in a sense.”
“I do feel that it has become lax again in some of the smaller venues,” adds Jeff George, a longtime hard-rock guitarist and old Dimebag Darrell friend who plays in a club band called We Are Harlot with Asking Alexandria vocalist Danny Worsnop. “It’s not cheap to keep an entire security staff up there. To a lot of clubs, it might be more important to have bartenders than security.”
Many in the concert business say the Columbus tragedy was an anomaly and didn’t lead them to change their security policies. For the past 20 years, Los Angeles’ Whisky a Go Go has hired between four and eight security guards for every show, and studied the track records of performers and their audiences to most effectively anticipate trouble. The Columbus tragedy had no impact, says Tisa Mylar, the club’s general manager. “We pat everybody. We check pockets. We check purses,” she says. “We are very meticulous about what we do. I always feel it’s better to have too much than not enough.”
In Columbus, police say local clubs have hired more off-duty policemen since the tragedy to moonlight as security guards. But Sergeant Rich Weiner, a division spokesman for the Columbus Police Department, wouldn’t provide numbers about how many such officers work at shows. “It all comes down to what the club feels their needs are,” he says.
By contrast, Chicago’s Empty Bottle rarely deals with security incidents, and owner Bruce Finkelman saw no reason to change post-Columbus – his staff posts large bouncers at the door and does little else. “We’ve always gone with ‘treat people how you’d want to be treated yourself,’ and that’s kept us in a safe situation,” he says.
Reps for the Alrosa Villa did not return e-mails, and nobody answered repeated calls to the phone numbers posted on the club’s website. A year after the tragedy, an attorney for Abbott’s family filed suit against the venue, alleging club security performed “horribly” and should have recognized Gale’s behavior long before he could get inside. The family and the venue settled in 2007 for undisclosed terms.
Insurance polices for bands, clubs, promoters and festivals haven’t changed much since the tragedy, either, says Peter Tempkins, managing director of Nashville’s Hub International Insurance, who specializes in the concert business. Artists with history of violence at their shows usually must pay higher rates. In general, Tempkins believes larger venues and festivals have effectively ramped up pat-downs and bag searches, but “most venues don’t have people walking through metal detectors.”
In Mazurkiewicz’s experience, club and festival security is wildly inconsistent. At big-time arena and stadium shows, he says, it is almost always top-notch. But at smaller festivals and clubs, security can be disturbingly lax – a Cannibal Corpse fan sneaked backstage during a recent European show and asked the drummer for a hallway photo. That scared Mazurkiewicz.
“Are you supposed to be worried, at any given moment, somebody’s going to do something to you? You can’t, ” he says, reflecting on the possibility of another tragedy taking place today. “But it is scary to think about how vulnerable we are up there.”