Remembering Rockfest on Front Street
Author: Connie Carson
Connie is a well-known local story-teller and professional who has a passion for the history of the City of Belleville, in particular, the downtown streets.
Let’s step back in time to September 2006 when Empire Theatre owner Mark Rashotte arranges a concert. It is performed in his outdoor parking lot on Front Street in Downtown Belleville, bringing Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings together on stage to a sold-out crowd. This savvy business owner/promoter took his vision to the next level, and in 2007 the Empire Rockfest was formed!
From 2007 to 2018, this unassuming parking lot beside the beautifully restored Empire Theatre in Downtown Belleville, Ontario, is transformed into Eastern Ontario’s rock and roll hub each July. It is a crazy scene this writer has personally had the opportunity to witness every year.
It starts to unfold several days before each event when the lot is cleared of vehicles and big trucks come rolling in. The massive stage is set up, lighting installed, sound checks echoed across the lot, security fencing was erected, portable washrooms unloaded, and huge tents went up.
Food preparation was a monumental task as the performers, security staff, and volunteers ate in shifts. Many acts required different menus explicitly prepared for them. A well-trained staff controlled beverage, security, admission gates, ticket sales, merchandise, and health and safety.
Our group of 40 to 50 energetic volunteers organized the Rockfest Raffle for Shelter ticket sales, with proceeds going to local charities. Over the three to four-day event held every year, we raised a lot of money to help our community.
Some of the top acts in rock and roll have performed for rapt audiences of 3,500 or more as part of the Rockfest music series’ annual mid-summer Empire Rockfest. Legendary artists such as Peter Frampton, Slash, Styx, Boston, Lynryd Skynyrd, Sammy Hagar, Journey and Stone Temple Pilots have graced the stage. REO Speedwagon, Toto, Meatloaf, Alice Cooper, The Glorious Sons, The Beaches, The Sheepdogs, Steve Miller Band, and many other great acts have rocked Empire Square.
My personal favourite Rockfest year was The Great Canadian Empire Rockfest, and it was spectacular! It was hot, it was cold, it was soggy, it was loud, and it was SO much fun!
This 9th edition of Empire Rockfest was an experiment to brand the outdoor festival as a Canadian event, and it exceeded all expectations!.
Crowds of over 3,500 swarmed into the parking-lot-turned-rock-venue each night of the three-night shows to the sounds of roaring guitar riffs, loud vocals, and banging drums, all from Canadian acts.
The only glitch over the weekend was a pounding rainstorm on Saturday night that delayed the show by an hour. We were thrilled to huddle out of the rain under the volunteer tent with recording star Scott Helman entertaining us.
“Call it that Canadian thing; there were no rock stars, there were no divas. Everything was so down-home. Everyone was so wonderful.” – Andy Forgie, Empire Theatre Promotions Manager.
Hedley was the headline act on Thursday. The band’s frontman Jacob Hoggard energized the audience, and Scott Helman and Ria Mae opened the show.
On Friday, the seated area was a sell-out for performances by Alan Doyle and Blue Rodeo. Doyle, the former frontman of Great Big Sea, got the crowd on its feet before the legendary Canadian band Blue Rodeo went on stage to play some great hits that rocked the stage.
Beth Moore started the show with a short set under a blue sky on Saturday. Next, Big Sugar took the stage. The lead singer and guitarist Gordie Johnson closed the show with a heart-stopping patriotic electric version of O Canada.
The storm delayed the start of a short set by former Glass Tiger singer Alan Frew, but he continued on even as the rain started falling. By the time Tom Cochrane hit the stage, it was 10:30 p.m. His long set pushed the boundaries of the midnight noise curfew, but the crowd wasn’t ready to let him go.
Andy Forgie and Empire Theatre Owner Mark Rashotte joined Cochrane on stage toward the end for arguably his most famous song, Life Is A Highway. The three know each other well, from being involved in Canadian bands in the 1970s.
Cochrane, in fact, once sang vocals on a track recorded by Mark and Andy’s band, Photograph.
Rockfest will remain a memory to treasure as the Empire Square changes and possibly evolves into an even bigger Empire Summerfest that was previously announced in 2020. Whatever is in store for us music lovers, we can be confident that Mark Rashotte and Empire Square have our entertainment covered!
Video from Crowe Productions on The Making of Rockfest: