I didn’t get this blog up and running in time for the 45th anniversary earlier this year, but better late than never: 1970 was my Rock Festival Spring and Summer. I worked at two Wisconsin music festivals that year — could have done a couple more — which meant a lot of live music, and some interesting experiences besides.
Before I get started on the rock fests, though, I’ll note that I saw a lot of other live music the spring and summer of that year, mostly in Madison. There were concerts at Broom Street Theatre and the Memorial Union, and venues like the Nitty Gritty regularly had bands. There was also an outdoor mini-festival at my junior college “alma mater,” the University of Wisconsin-Rock County Center.
The music was mostly by local and regional bands, but some of them were pretty good. Among them were Spectre, Captain Billy’s Whiz Band, Soup, Tayles, Oz, Tongue, the Bowery Boys, to name a few.
I did go to one arena concert, when Jimi Hendrix played at the Dane County Coliseum that May. It wasn’t easy to get there — Mad City was in partial lockdown because of the anti-war demonstrations — and I got in on a press pass (I was “working” for the local underground newspaper at the time), which got me obstructed-view seats. But I got to see one of rock’s legends, only three months or so before his untimely (but unsurprising), death-by-drugs.
That concert took place two weeks after Sound Storm, the first of the two festivals, blew into Wisconsin. This was eight months or so after Woodstock, and everybody in the Madison “counterculture” was pretty excited about the prospect of something similar happening here.
An acquaintance from my hometown, Janesville, recruited me to work the festival, which was to be held near Poynette, a half-hour or so from Mad City. Dale took me downtown to an upstairs office on State Street, just off the Square, where I was introduced to Pete Bobo — not his real name — the head of the company that was putting on the festival.
The only pay being offered was free admission to the festival, but it still sounded like a good deal to my significant other and me at the time. We went up for orientation the Wednesday before Sound Storm’s Friday opening, then returned to the site the following day to start work. Ronnie, and I worked on wiring the stage for power, but we must also have worked on electronics for the sound system — anyway, there was a photo on the front page of one of the Madison newspapers of the two of us, her friend Linda and another guy allegedly doing that.
(I don’t believe I ever saw that photo until nearly 40 years later, when a cousin found it in an online microfilm archive. How I missed it, I don’t know — my only job at the time was delivering that newspaper, and I don’t remember anybody at the International Co-op, where I lived at the time, mentioning it.)
The music was pretty good, although not many of the acts were nationally known. The biggest name was the Grateful Dead, but the bill also included Crow, Rotary Connection and Illinois Speed Press; Fuse became famous later, as Cheap Trick, and the Siegal-Schwall Band had some impact beyond its Chicago base. The area and regional bands padded out the two and a half-day lineup.
The act that made the biggest impression on me was Rotary Connection. I had heard the band through friends who had their albums; an experiment in psychedelia by the Chicago blues label Chess Records, they sounded a lot funkier, and bluesier, live.
We watched the Dead from our campsite, by the big Boy Scout wall tent halfway up the hill that overlooked the festival site. The sound system was so good that it was like they were playing right in front of us, but it was late Sunday afternoon, and it had been a long weekend, so I don’t remember much about their five-hour show.
My weekend wasn’t done, though, because I still had to work. I finished my duties by running one of the stage lights — one of those old-fashioned arc lights, where you had to keep adjusting the carbon rods. Besides that, and the amateur electrical thing, I also worked stage security on Friday evening — at 6-3 and 150 pounds, I wasn’t a very intimidating figure for that sort of activity.
Dale’s experience recruiting help for Sound Storm apparently convinced him that he could make some money providing workers and services to festival promoters. Ronnie worked the Kickapoo Creek festival in Illinois that Memorial Day weekend, but I couldn’t get off from my routes (I had taken on another one by then); still not sure how I got off for Sound Storm.
I had quit the routes by the time the Iola People’s Fair was scheduled, and Dale signed me up for his TransAmerika operation. The “work” that got me into that June 26-28 event was silk-screening t-shirts — color-coded to indicate what area the wearer worked in — for the festival workers, an all-night grind in a fume-laden attic room.
The lineup for the Iola fest included more nationally-known acts, among them the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Buffy Ste. Marie, Ravi Shankar, Brownsville Station and Chuck Berry. (There were also a bunch of famous no-shows — conspiracy theories were circulated that those acts were never signed up, and were just on the posters to move tickets — like Taj Mahal, Johnny Winter, the Steve Miller Band and Terry Reid.)
Iggy and Nugent were impressive, Buffy was kind of annoying; Berry was fun, but was backed by one of the area bands, and they seemed not to have rehearsed much; Shankar, native of sub-tropical India, brought the proceedings to a halt by insisting that a shelter be built to get him out of the sun.
The music was overshadowed by the sideshows, though, most notably the biker-hippie dustup that culminated in actual violence on the fest’s final day. It was foreshadowed for me during the Stooges set, when another of the Janesville guys was thrown off the stage; he was working security, and pulled a knife when some of the bikers — who were unimpressed — decided to join the musicians.
I spent most of the weekend in the fenced in compound behind the stage, and my first knowledge of the final dustup was on Sunday morning. Dale came running through our campsite, swinging a machete and yelling, “the bikers are coming!”
Dale tried to get us to work another fest later in the summer — the July 31-Aug. 2 Wadena, Iowa, get-together — but we declined. The Iola mess may have been a factor, but I was also moving out of my “counterculture” phase; in August, I got a real job (if you can use that term to describe driving cab).
It was an interesting spring and summer, but I never listened to that much live music again. And, after the small El Rancho event near Milton the following May — I took the photograph used with this blog there — I never attended another rock festival.