Butch Tardif shows off a Northeast Concerts T-shirt with whom he began his roadie career. Members of the Northeast Concerts stage crew, from left, are Tardif, Kenny Smotherman, Gary Bernier, seated, and Steve Pelletier. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON – Kenny Smotherman of Lewiston was 16 years old when he stumbled onto the opportunity of a lifetime.

Kenny Smotherman shows off a collection of backstage passes on a leather suitcase that he brought with him to many of the concerts he stage crewed. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In 1975, he and his friend heard that the J. Geils Band, well-known for the songs “Centerfold” and “Love Stinks,” would be performing at the Lewiston Armory at 65 Central Ave.

However, Smotherman said that neither of them had the $2.50 to pay for a ticket.

“We decided we were going to sneak in,” Smotherman said with a laugh.

They were standing behind the armory and looking for a way to get into the venue when they saw the crew for the J. Geils Band loading equipment into the building.

“We kind of blended in with them, so we just started helping them load the equipment,” Smotherman said.

The J. Geils Band crew were impressed with the work ethic of Smotherman and his friend and invited both of them to accompany the band to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and serve as roadies for the remainder of their tour.

“I mean, after hearing that, my life was laid out in front of me,” Smotherman said. “A professional roadie. It doesn’t get any better than that, unless you’re a rock star.

There was one thing standing in the way, he said.

“We were only 16,” Smotherman said. “When we told the crew that we were still in high school, they looked at us and said, ‘You can’t come with us!’”

After graduating high school, Smotherman officially became part of a crew, hired by concert promoters Northeast Concerts Inc., that built and tore down stages for world-renowned bands performing in Lewiston, Portland, Augusta and other Maine towns.

For a small stretch of time at the end of the 1970s, Smotherman said he and the crew were witness to some of Maine’s biggest shows, many of which took place in Lewiston.

“Back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, you didn’t go to Portland if you wanted to make it in the industry,” he said. “You went to Lewiston.”

Butch Tardif shows off a photo of himself as a young man giving a back rub to the drummer, “Sib” Hashian from the band Boston while on tour as a roadie. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Smotherman said that he laments the decline of live entertainment in the Lewiston-Auburn area and believes that bringing bands back to the cities will spur economic development.

“There was so much money being spent in Lewiston due to these shows, between the gas, food, beer, and lodging,” Smotherman said. “It was an economic engine for this community.”

Springsteen’s Jacket, Skynyrd’s Plane, and The Load Out Song

Over the several years Smotherman and the seven other people who made up the original Northeast Concerts crew had the opportunity to work backstage at more than 100 shows.

He said the eight people who made up the original crew “have an endless number of stories from working backstage.”

There was the time Smotherman got caught with Bruce Springsteen’s signature jean jacket in his bag.

Whenever a show was finished and the band cleared out, the first guy in the dressing room reaped the spoils of what was left behind,” Smotherman explained. “My friend thought the band had left, so he went in and found Springsteen’s jean jacket sitting right there on the table. He thought it’d be a good souvenir, so he took it and put it in my bag until he could tell me.”

About 10 minutes later, Smotherman said the show promoter approached Smotherman and the crew and said, “Springsteen’s jacket is missing.”

“Everyone was flipping out,” Smotherman said. “I wanted to show them it wasn’t me, so when they asked if they could look in my bag, I said yes. When they opened the bag and pulled out his jacket, I was gobsmacked. I was standing there, with eyes as big as saucers, swearing I didn’t take it.”

In 1977, Smotherman said he and some of the crew actually stood on the airplane that Lynyrd Skynyrd used to fly to tours that year.

“Me and my buddy got press badges to pick up the band at the airport and retrieve their personal effects, and we saw the plane sitting on the tarmac and thought, ‘You’ve got to be (kidding) me,” Smotherman said. “It was a junk airplane. While it was idling, there were literally five gallons of oil poured out onto the tarmac.”

Smotherman said he remembers telling his friend that he’d “never fly on that deathtrap.”

A small metal case is covered in backstage passes from shows held at the Lewiston Armory. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“A few months later, we heard that the same plane had crashed and killed some of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he added. “It was wild.”

Smotherman also insisted that Jackson Browne, a popular singer-songwriter in the 1970s, was influenced to write one of his hits after performing in Maine in 1976 and being around the roadies.

“After Jackson Browne performed, we were tearing the stage down, and his tour manager came out and asked if we minded if Jackson played the piano while we worked,” Smotherman said. “While we were tearing the stage down, we were singing the song ‘Stay’ by Frankie Valli. We sang that song all day long.”

The following year, Smotherman said Jackson Browne released the song “The Load-Out,” and near the end of it, it transitions into the song “Stay” by Frankie Valli.

“It took about 20 years after the song came out to realize that we may have influenced it,” Smotherman said, adding that on Jackson Browne’s 1977 album “Running on Empty,” the song “Nothing but Time” starts with the lyric, “Rolling down 295 out of Portland, Maine.”

“He obviously had Maine on the mind when he was writing some of his songs,” Smotherman said.

The night Lewiston banned rock and roll

Smotherman said that while he and the Northeast Concerts crew worked in a variety of venues across New England, most of the shows they covered were in Lewiston.

Many of the popular bands from the 1960s and 1970s, including Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, and Boston, performed at either the Central Maine Youth Center, now named the Androscoggin Bank Colisee on Birch Street, or the Lewiston Armory on Central Avenue.

However, the city’s attitude toward rock ‘n’ roll concerts soured following a raucous concert on Oct. 17, 1976, at the Central Maine Youth Center featuring Blue Oyster Cult and Boston.

According to an Oct. 22, 1976, Lewiston Daily Sun article, the state’s code limited the number of people allowed in the Central Maine Youth Center at any time to 5,400.

However, during an emergency meeting of Lewiston’s Committee on Rock Concerts, concert promoter William Cloutier admitted that more than 6,000 people were allowed inside the venue.

Butch Tardif ‘s Boston tour jacket. Tardif went on the road with the band Boston after helping them with stage work at their Lewiston, Maine stop. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

At the same meeting, Police Commissioner Nunzio Aliberti told the committee there were “riot-like conditions” at the concert, including people threatening police officers.

In response, the committee voted to “ban all rock concerts in Lewiston,” despite an attorney warning the committee that such a vote would be viewed as “unconstitutional.”

Two months later, according to a Lewiston Daily Sun article, the Lewiston City Council received a written opinion by a Lisbon attorney that the city was powerless to ban all rock concerts in Lewiston but could “invoke certain regulations concerning the events.”

In Smotherman’s estimation, it was the city’s attempt to ban rock concerts that drove Northeast Concerts Inc., the main agency promoting shows in Lewiston, to Portland.

“After Lewiston pulled that stunt and tried to outlaw rock ‘n’ roll, Northeast Concerts did a few more shows in Lewiston, but Andrew Gosatvos, who was in charge of promoting for Northeast Concerts, decided to head down to Portland and do shows there,” Smotherman said.

Bring back the music

Several of the people who worked in the Northeast Concerts crew still live in the Lewiston-Auburn area, including Smotherman, Steve Pelletier, Gary Bernier and Butch Tardif.

Pelletier and Bernier, who worked in the crew from 1976 to 1979, moved into different types of work after their stint as roadies ended.

Pelletier said he began working for a digital equipment company in Massachusetts and that he works with computers to this day, though he still has a soft spot in his heart for music.

“I still play music at different places in Lewiston, and I do jam sessions with friends whenever I have free time,” Pelletier said.

Bernier said he began working as a machinist after 1979.

As for Tardif, he quickly left the Northeast Concerts crew and went on tour with the band Boston from 1976 to 1979.

After his years as a roadie, he worked a series of odd jobs, including working in a garage, driving tractor-trailer truck, maintenance, and serving as owner of an Augusta bar.

Smotherman stayed with Northeast Concerts until the early 1980s before leaving and working as an event manager.

All four of the former crew members are adamant that if Lewiston were to invest money into bringing big-name bands back, local businesses would see a boost.

“Back in the ’70s, you used to be able to walk from home to a big show,” Pelletier said. “Every day of the week, there was a band playing, whether it was a small or big one. It’s about time we brought the music back to Lewiston.”

As for Smotherman, he said that he’s continuing to reach out to the mayor and the city councilors in hopes that his plea to bring music to the city will be heard.

“I keep calling and emailing them, but I can’t do it alone,” Smotherman said. “I’m just hoping people realize that this city used to be the center of music in Maine. It’d be nice to have that again.”

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