Fifty years ago This Week in Rock History, I was a part of Wisconsin’s first outdoor rock festival.
The Sound Storm event took place April 24-26, 1970, on a farm near Poynette, about a half-hour from Madison. But I spent more than three days there, being part — albeit the unpaid part — of the workforce that put on the festival.
Sound Storm happened eight months or so after the legendary Woodstock festival, and everybody in the “counterculture” of Madison, where I was living at the time, was pretty excited about the prospect of something similar happening in that area. An acquaintance from my hometown, Janesville, recruited me to work the festival.
The only pay being offered was free admission to the festival, but it still sounded like a good deal to me and my significant other at the time. (Little did we know that many of those attending would sneak in for nothing, and not have to do any work in exchange.)
Ronnie and I went up for orientation — to find out what we were supposed to do, how and when — the Wednesday before Sound Storm’s Friday opening, then returned to the site the following day to start work. We wired 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 doing that, on the Friday morning.
Our assignment for Friday night was stage security. That allowed us to be up on stage with several acts — and gave me a chance to have some fun at the expense of my best friend from high school. He had come to the back of the stage looking for me and our other friends, hoping to get an announcement read, and was talking to Ronnie when I grabbed him from behind and started dragging him off the stage, yelling that he wasn’t supposed be there.
One of the groups that played while we were securing the stage was the Siegal-Schwall, a Chicago blues outfit that we had heard play in Madison. Many of the bands playing during the festival were, like them, local or regional acts that we had experienced. But lots of them were bands that I had never heard of, and wouldn’t hear of again.
Not many of the acts were nationally known, the biggest name being the Grateful Dead, who were scheduled to play late Sunday afternoon and evening. But the bill also included Baby Huey and the Babysitters, Crow, Rotary Connection and Illinois Speed Press; Fuse became famous later, as Cheap Trick, and Siegal-Schwall had some impact beyond its Chicago base.
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 “psychedelic soul” 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 had been a long weekend, so I don’t remember much about their show, which ran about five hours.
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. That evening, the PA announcer repeatedly asked for donations to pay for the generators that were powering the show. The festival promoters had run out of money — too many gatecrashers, too little income — or their stash of cash had been stolen, as was claimed for a time.
I spent some time today looking at the gallery of festival photographs that’s on the Wisconsin State Historical Society website. The photos were taken by one of the partners in the festival promotion company, who seemed to have been everywhere I was not, so many of the scenes were unfamiliar.
But it was fun to put myself back in that place and time, which looking up that front-page Capital Times photograph also did. And working in the yard today, it occurred to me that the weather this year was very much like that in late April 50 years ago, warm and dry — not something you can count on at this time of the year in Wisconsin.