Promoter put Winnipeg on big-act concert map
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2017 (2035 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Bruce (Bones) Rathbone, a local concert promoter who brought huge acts such as David Bowie, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones to Winnipeg in the 1980s and ’90s, died Sunday. He was 70.
Raised in Elmwood, Rathbone got his start in the entertainment business after high school, managing bands throughout the city and writing a pop music column for the Winnipeg Tribune.
He quickly worked his way up, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Nite Out Entertainment — the company he ran with local businessman Sam Katz — dominated the local music promotion scene.
Katz, who served as mayor of Winnipeg from 2004 to 2014, remembered Rathbone as a wonderful, giving person with a passion for showmanship.
“Bruce was definitely the heart and soul of Nite Out, no question,” Katz said Tuesday. “Without him, Winnipeg wouldn’t be on the map (for major artists).”
Rathbone gave Kevin Donnelly, Winnipeg’s current concert czar, his start.
In the late 1970s, the then-16-year-old helped Rathbone set up a Bruce Cockburn show at the University of Regina. Donnelly’s sister worked for Rathbone in Winnipeg, so he became the promoter’s “poster putter-upper” in the Queen City.
“I worked about 15 hours and got paid about $60,” he said, adding some of that time was spent chauffering Cockburn and the rest of his band to The Keg restaurant in his mom’s station wagon. Nearly 40 years later, Donnelly is still working in entertainment, albeit with slightly different duties.
“Bruce saved me from working at McDonald’s,” said the senior vice-president of venues and entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment, adding he worked with Nite Out for 12 years.
“Every significant event had either his seal of approval or his signature on the cheque that paid the band,” Donnelly said.
Rathbone was instrumental in the execution of 1970 Man-Pop festival, a celebration of the province’s centennial anniversary at the Winnipeg Stadium featuring performances by Iron Butterfly, Chilliwack and, most notably, Led Zeppelin.
When one of Man-Pop’s producers got high on LSD and couldn’t do his job properly, Rathbone was tapped as his replacement. At 23, Rathbone was thrown into the mix with one of the biggest and most demanding rock bands in the world.
Then it started to rain. Rathbone saved the day and averted catastrophe by moving the Led Zeppelin show across the street to the Winnipeg Arena. The band, playing borrowed equipment, performed for thousands of appreciative fans until 3 a.m.
When Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant returned to the arena in 1988, Donnelly and Rathbone saw him walking down a hallway.
“Mr. Plant, this is Bruce Rathbone,” Donnelly said, explaining his mentor’s role in the 1970 show.
Rathbone remembered every detail, as did Plant.
“It was watching rock royalty and Bruce Rathbone go back and forth,” Donnelly said.
In 1983, Rathbone convinced Bowie’s management to bring his Serious Moonlight tour to Winnipeg, and later helped orchestrate another Bowie show in 1987, flanked by Duran Duran and the Georgia Satellites.
He and Nite Out organized Sunfest, a three-day music extravaganza at Gimli Motorsports Park in 1990 that became an annual event until 1995. The 1993 edition featured grunge superstars Pearl Jam.
Festival organizers had plans to end Pearl Jam’s set with fireworks, but the band didn’t like the idea. Rathbone convinced them “the kids would dig it,” and the colours of the pyrotechnics weaved into the clouds as lead singer Eddie Vedder left the stage.
Pearl Jam looked out, Donnelly recalled, and saw the fireworks and the crowd. They returned to the stage for an encore, playing a version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World.
The kids, as Rathbone predicted, dug it.
After a Sun Country Jamboree in 1993 proved somewhat of a flop, Rathbone told Free Press staff writer John Lyons it was a risk everyone in entertainment knew existed.
“You have to be half-nuts and half-stupid to be in this business in the first place,” he said.
Rathbone is survived by his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. He never married, nor had children.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, July 4, 2017 5:34 PM CDT: Full write through, adds photo