ComFest pulls plug on band's N.W.A. cover

Andy Downing

The BirdGetters generally aren’t ones to shy from controversy.

The group of jazz players billed their Saturday appearance at the Community Festival in Goodale Park as a “ComFest Offensive,” which musician Joey Gurwin described as an extension of their in-your-face musical philosophy. “The whole idea was to make jazz that could be dangerous again,” he said.

But even Gurwin couldn’t have foreseen the circumstances that befell the group beginning Saturday morning, when he received a phone call from a member of the ComFest entertainment committee expressing concern over a rumored “demonstration” being planned by the musicians.

“They said, ‘Hey, there’s this rumor going around that you guys are going to do … something that might incite a riot.’ I said, ‘No, no. If anything, we might do a cover song,’” said Gurwin, noting that the group discussed the idea of “possibly maybe considering” covering N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” “This was just something we briefly talked about. This was not a set list. We don’t plan these things. We throw ideas out, and then everything is just this stream-of-consciousness thing when we’re onstage.”

Somehow, via word-of-mouth, as it was explained to Gurwin, ComFest committee members heard about the potential performance, and steps were taken to prevent the BirdGetters from covering the tune.

In the hour before the band’s scheduled 7 p.m. start time, one of the Jazz Stage’s managers, working at the behest of the ComFest entertainment committee, approached Gurwin.

“The word ‘incite’ was used over and over again in this conversation, ad nauseum. ‘You guys will incite.’ ‘We don’t want incitement.’ ‘You can’t play this song because it will incite,’” Gurwin said. “The word ‘incite’ has serious legal ramifications, so what I’m hearing … is that we’re talking about a potential criminal act.”

Additionally, the sound crew informed the musicians it had orders to cut power to the stage if and when the band started to cover N.W.A. Organizers also explained the BirdGetters would be “permanently burning any bridges with ComFest” if it played the song, according to Gurwin.

“I said to [this person], very specifically, ‘I want you to say the words. I want you to say that ComFest is censoring a band on the Jazz Stage,’” Gurwin said. “And [they] said, ‘I would prefer to say that ComFest is asking a band on the Jazz Stage to self-censor.’ And I said, ‘No. What you’ve made is a demand, not a request. What you have said is you are censoring a band. I want you to say the words.’ And [they] said, ‘We are censoring a band on the Jazz Stage at ComFest.’”

“[The stage manager], you have to know, completely fell apart after that,” said Gail Burkholder, a longtime ComFest entertainment committee member who headed the Jazz Stage (Burkholder recused herself from the conversation with Gurwin and has since resigned from her ComFest post in protest).

Reached for comment, ComFest spokesperson Connie Everett issued a statement that read, “Internal miscommunication at Saturday’s Community Festival resulted in actions that prevented a band from playing a controversial song from one [of] its stages. ComFest regrets what occurred. It fully supports artistic freedom, and it does not preview or approve performer playlists.”

The statement also noted that the Columbus Division of Police and special-duty officers employed by ComFest were not involved in the incident in any way.

“Unfortunately, miscommunication occurs in large volunteer organizations,” the statement concluded. “ComFest is committed to learning from this situation and remains committed to producing an event totally staffed by volunteers, as it has for 45 years.”

In an internal ComFest entertainment committee e-mail obtained by Alive and dated Monday, June 26, however, one member wrote, “No one should be blaming or second guessing the stage head or EC (entertainment committee) members who have a difficult decision to make. Stage heads never interfere with bands’ setlists … but I think they had no choice.” The same e-mail noted, “Maybe [the BirdGetters] should sit out Comfest next year for stirring up all this shit.”

And that is precisely the type of situation Gurwin hopes to avoid amid the fallout.

“I love ComFest. That needs to be stated very clearly. This is not an us-versus-them situation. This is our festival. I don’t just perform music, I own a production studio. The music community is my livelihood. It’s everything to me,” said Gurwin, owner/producer at Oranjudio recording studio. “This is absolutely a knife in the heart. This is a ‘we’ thing. We need to do better. I want to make sure this never happens again. This is a very slippery slope, especially for an event like ComFest. If us this year, then what next year?”

Update: Darryl Mendelson, head of the ComFest entertainment committee, recently issued a personal statement regarding events. Here, unedited, is what he wrote:

I am the person that made the decision to stop the Chicken Hawk Bird Getters from performing "Fuck The Police" at ComFest on Saturday, June 24, 2017. Here is an explanation of what happened and why.

I am the head of the ComFest Entertainment Committee. The Jazz Stage Supervisor came to me saying that one of our police officers had informed him they were aware that the band Chicken Hawk Bird Getters was going to play the NWA song "Fuck the Police," possibly to incite the crowd. The police liaison did not tell the Stage Supervisor that ComFest needed to do anything, the officer was simply informing him of the situation. The Stage Supervisor consulted with me on what to do. I said to tell the band not to play the song or we would pull the plug, and not allow them to play ComFest again. I made that decision - not the police, not the Stage Supervisor, and not ComFest.

Unknown to myself and the Jazz Stage Supervisor, there had been a meeting with some ComFest organizers and the police - both those we hire and the on-duty officers - where the police informed ComFest they had received a call from a concerned citizen (their words) stating there would be an incident at the Jazz stage during the CHBG set that would call officers to the area, where protestors would be waiting with signs and saying, "fuck the police." After brief discussion with Chicken Hawk Bird Getters over the phone, it was clear that all the band planned to do was play the NWA cover, that was it. Officers said that was fine, and that they would not respond or interfere. They literally said, "We don't care about that." It was no big deal to them.

Here are some of the reasons why I reacted the way I did - it sounded like we were being set up. Why did the police know about it before anyone at ComFest? I thought it possible that some may have wanted to incite the crowd and provoke the police, potentially leading to something violent. It is unlikely that a ComFest crowd would riot, but even small outbursts of violence at large events can turn quickly. It was also possible that drunk people could do stupid, harmful stuff. I was foremost concerned about the safety of the artists and the crowd. I was also concerned that the State Liquor Agency is looking for ways to penalize ComFest, to the point where they seem out to get us.

I am not justifying or excusing my decisions. I think it was a poor choice, made out of fear, that could have been handled much better. I sincerely apologize to the Chicken Hawk Bird Getters, ComFest, and the community for my decision. I hope that we can learn from this experience, both as individuals and as an organization, so that this never happens again. ComFest has and will continue to support artists and their first amendment rights. This was a bad call - we will learn from it and do better.