Nearly seven hours before Chicago rockers Wilco took the stage at the A&O Ball on May 11, Weinberg junior Gina Lee and Communication sophomore Katherine Hadley had groceries to unpack.
“How many types of water do you need?” asked Hadley, moving bottles of Evian from Wild Oats and Jewel-Osco bags to coolers. San Pellegrino and Smart Water already rested in the coolers, along with hummus, cheese, organic half-and-half and 7-Up — all items Wilco and opening band French Kicks requested be stocked at the venue when they arrived. A floor above the gymnasium where the bands would later play, Lee and Hadley were preparing a work-out room — complete with mirrored walls, bouncy exercise balls and beat-up couches — to be Wilco’s home base before, during and after their performance.
There may have been some items the bands wanted that weren’t in the bags, though. A&O Productions, the student group that booked Wilco and enlisted the help of students like Lee and Hadley, couldn’t provide alcohol because of Northwestern policy. For some of the big-name performers A&O brings to campus, no booze in the green room is a “deal breaker,” said Jude Cooper, A&O’s faculty adviser and assistant director of the Center for Student Involvement. But apparently Wilco didn’t mind.
Dry-campus restrictions are only one of the factors that make A&O a group which both mirrors and diverges from professional event organizers. In the early ’70s, ASG chartered Activities and Organizations, Northwestern’s sole student group at the time, said Medill sophomore Andrea Hart, A&O’s director of public relations. In addition to putting on concerts, A&O now holds weekly movie screenings and brings speakers to campus. While it interacts with “real world” entertainers and puts on professional-quality events, A&O also must navigate the issues of being a student group: negotiating campus politics, setting up campus venues and using student staffers.
In the morning
A&O staffers arrived at Patten Gymnasium around 7 a.m. the day of Wilco’s performance to start transforming the athletic facility into a concert venue, said Weinberg sophomore Senthil Selvaraj, the show’s co-producer. Though the total number of students on hand would eventually reach almost 40, Selvaraj said he was worried about a “lack of crew” toward the beginning of the day; classes and midterms kept some staffers from showing up on time.
Still, students were able to build a complete stage after two or three hours of assembling scaffolds, running wires and lugging around lights, Selvaraj said. For him, the stage setup was one of the final steps in preparing for the concert. He’d spent weeks coordinating with University Parking, Police, Athletics and Facilities Management to make Patten a viable performance space. He said the week before the event, his e-mail inbox was flooded with more than 300 messages related to the concert.
By early afternoon, the bands’ crews were setting up instruments on the stage. That’s when A&O gets out of the way — especially for a band like Wilco, Hart said.
“The best thing about this show is that these people [Wilco's crew] know what they’re doing,” she said. “If they have any pretentious attitude, it’s warranted. This band has more appreciation for instruments, and that filters through every aspect of their management, so we don’t want to mess with that.”
Instead, staffers hauled barricades to keep the crowd contained, set up merchandise booths and communicated with the bands’ managers in preparation for the sound check. Many staffers lounged in Patten’s lobby, playing foosball, eating Potbelly’s sandwiches and talking excitedly about the concert to come.
“It’s going to be insane,” said Medill senior Liz Korutz, outgoing director of concerts for A&O. “The whole campus is excited about this, our board even more so.”
More money, more critics
Some may have disputed, though, whether the “whole campus” really was excited. A&O sold all of the 1,200 tickets originally available, said A&O chairman Alex White, a SESP junior. In a May 10 letter to the Daily Northwestern, Associated Student Break program directors Paul Overmyer and Kate Whitney said “Nearly one-third of the Student Activities Fee will go to bands neither you nor I have likely ever heard of.” That jab partly referred to ASG’s recent allocation of $253,337 to A&O, the largest sum to any student group. White disputes that that money is poorly spent, though.
“What I’d say to people is, ‘Come to our events,’” he said. “I don’t think the 1,000 people who bought tickets the day they went on sale would say it’s a waste of money … Funding is based on the success of past events, and A&O have shown they’ve been successful for the past 35 years.”
The same day as the ASB letter to the Daily, PLAY pop columnist Jeremy Gordon, wrote about A&O events as well: “I’m a little disappointed with the bands coming to Northwestern in the next week … This is to say nothing of A&O Productions’ impressive ability to book two somewhat high-profile bands, but I wish they had gotten someone more interesting…”
Korutz said she takes issue with those who second-guess A&O’s concert lineup. She said the process of bringing a band to campus is more complicated than simply choosing a group and then paying them. A&O sends out a number of query letters to bands in their price range for each event they plan, but only a few respond and even fewer can actually accept A&O’s offer.
“I think people say a lot of things, but they don’t have any concept of how things work,” she said. “No concept of budget. No concept of routing a tour.”
Still, A&O leaders said they know their relatively large ASG funding isn’t automatically granted. Hart said that at the latest ASG funding meeting, representatives from other groups left early but A&O representatives sat through the whole meeting out of “respect” for the process.
“That’s why it’s so weird when we hear people being negative about A&O,” Hart said. “We’re really trying to bring the campus together.”
Professional gym gawking
While a few fans started to line up outside the closed doors of Patten around 2:45 p.m., A&O staffers started to crowd around the open doors from the lobby to the gymnasium around 4 p.m. By then, Wilco was playing their sound check: They were testing the sonic setup of the stage in the gym and the tuning of their instruments by performing songs. But only people affiliated with the band were allowed in the gym.
So, since A&O staffers couldn’t gawk in front of the stage, they gawked through the door behind the band. They fidgeted and bobbed their heads while watching the back of lead singer Jeff Tweedy as he sang “Either Way.”
Then welcome news came: Wilco’s manager said staffers could enter the gym and watch the last twenty minutes of the sound check, as long as they stood at the end of the room opposite the stage. So they ran down the side hall and came out at the back of the gym while Wilco broke into “Shake it Off.” Some sat down and watched the band play; others danced to the beat and mouthed the words. When Wilco finished “Pot Kettle Black,” one of the staffers let out a single clap. That got other staffers to shoot him embarrassed glances, as if to say, “Keep it professional.”
Misplaced claps aside, A&O rarely seems like a group of amateurs, Cooper said. As A&O’s faculty adviser, Cooper is the only non-student affiliated with A&O. Her main role is to handle legal issues and make sure A&O doesn’t violate Northwestern policy. She said she’s worked with similar groups at other schools in the past.
“This group is so professional,” Cooper said. “The students do most of the work, compared to other universities.”
Many A&O students go on to work for major music and movie promotion companies after graduation, she said. In fact, A&O alum Ben Levin (Communication ‘03) is Wilco’s manager.
“I’m just always thinking that I’m going to bump into an A&O person [when working with bands],” Cooper said. “It’s cool to think they’re out there affecting the music industry.”
But no matter how professional they acted, A&O had one detail they couldn’t change: Their concert was in a gym.
“It’s very… gymnasium-y,” said Stan Doty, Wilco’s front of house engineer. “Sound bounces around, what you gonna do? Just have to make sure you don’t get too loud.”
At their two-hour show that night, though, Wilco didn’t seem to mind the venue. Tweedy poked fun at the crowd’s appearance (“You look like crap!”), Northwestern’s non-Ivy status and fans requesting “Free Bird.” He didn’t, however, say anything about playing in a gym.
Even so, A&O staffers tried to minimize the “gymnasium-y” experience. A few hours before doors opened around 7 p.m., they strung Christmas lights in the lobby and decorated the hallways with posters of past A&O events. Hart said A&O originally wanted to take down the basketball hoops and move the stage against one of the gym’s long walls to make the space in front of it feel more intimate. But neither of those plans panned out.
“We wanted to make it more of a concert atmosphere than a gym,” Hart said. She paused and sighed. “As much as this is an adult situation, it’s times like this when you realize, ‘Fuck, this is a school.’”