I am likely to live out the rest of my days forever fascinated and repelled by the idea that millions of young folks once trudged off to over-populated music festivals to hear various rock ‘n’ roll legends in conditions that ranged from beatific sunshine and starry nights to suffocating humidity and apocalyptic rainstorms yielding vast mud fields. Of course, they still do if you count pre-Covid gatherings like Coachella and Glastonbury.
I was a little too young for the original wave of iconic rock festivals and by the time I came of age the business model was superstar bands playing in sports arenas and second-tier groups gigging at theaters. I was never destined to be one of those peeps rising in unison to say, cheer on Richie Havens at Woodstock or to complain to a film crew that the authorities don’t like me because of my long hair or because “I smoke a little shit.” But then again, I never took an unwanted mud bath or had to thumb home two hundred miles because I was short on “bread.”
The Allman Bros. Band at Atlanta Pop
These contemplations took hold recently when I finally secured a copy of The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies fifty years after its 1971 release. As a young teen I eyed this whopping three-LP set the way a Little League pitcher may have seen Bob Gibson. It covered the summer-of-1970 Atlanta Pop Festival (sides 1 & 2) and the gargantuan Isle of Wight affair in the UK (sides 3-6). The names of the fourteen artists featured were center-aligned on the cover (Hendrix! Sly Stone! Allman Bros.!) but this was a little rich for my blood and my wallet at the time. Festival burnout was setting in post-Altamont and “First Great Rock Festivals” never came near the stature of the 3-LP Woodstock set (or even the double album follow-up Woodstock 2) and it came to be a curio relegated to the “Various Artists” used-record bins.
The second Atlanta Pop Festival was not in the city. After various official roadblocks (not least of all from Georgia’s then-governor, the infamous reactionary Lester Maddox) it was moved way out to pasture in the little town of Byron, where a couple of hundred thousand kids gathered in a sun-baked soybean field, for the 4th of July event where temps reached just over 100 degrees. The album kicks off with Johnny Winter doing “Mean Mistreater,” the sort of emphatic blooze-rock that was a key genre at the time and which is well represented on TFGRFOTS. But so to is the stylistic hop-scotching of these huge events. We get a couple of nice country-rock numbers by Poco (the romantic “Kind Woman” and the up-tempo instrumental “Grand Junction”) and the groovy soul of the Chambers Brothers. Next up are favorites sons the Allman Brothers. The Macon GA stalwarts do “Statesboro Blues” and the proverbial “Whippen Post” (sic) though neither version matches up to the ones on their landmark At Fillmore East, also released in ’71.
The real acid test (literally and figuratively) of this six-sided foray comes at the end of the Atlanta disc with the 19-minute indulgence that is Mountain’s take on the T-Bone Walker blues standard “Stormy Monday.” I love Leslie West and the gang but this is not their finest moment. Mountain may have preferred the steamroller method when it came to their decibel-cranking concerts, but they could be ingenious as well (just check out the multi-sectional joyride that is the 25-minute live side of their Flowers of Evil album). Here you get a pro-forma jam where the usual Leslie West/Felix Pappalardi guitar-bass interplay is pushed along by Corky Laing’s rat-a-tat drumming, but it never gets to that next level. The crowd seem to enjoy it and these lengthy excursions (both musical and geographical) were part of the scene then. To get a pair of eyes on the ’70 Atlanta Pop Festival, check out the 2015 concert doc Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church. It begins and ends with 10-15 minute segments about the event and in the middle you get an uninterrupted (and most excellent) one hour set of what amounts to a best-of-Hendrix show, complete with 4th of July fireworks.
Jimi would also appear at the Isle of Wight festival off the coast of southern England a month later. Despite the logistics (ferry-access only) some 600,000 made it to the island for the tumultuous five-day festival. There is a full documentary of this third annual Wight festival, Murray Lerner’s essential Message to Love, which due to money issues was not released until 1997. In my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey I wrote about how the film shows how a happening that was supposed to be an English Woodstock descended into “chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.” French anarchists and freeloading freaks unwilling or unable to pay the three pounds sterling entrance fee tried to knock down the corrugated fencing erected by the youngish promoters who thought they were onto a good thing but took a financial beating (hence the delay in the release of Lerner’s commissioned film).
I miss all the fun! Part of the crowd at the 1970 Isle of Wight.
Peter Goddard, in the Wight liner notes here, compared the festival to a “medieval joust up-dated and passed through a time loop. An interviewed fan in the film used a similar metaphor, describing a “feudal court scene” with the rock stars as royalty, the groupies as courtiers and the audience as serfs. When it boiled down to the music, though, there was a lot less to grouse about. Jimi Hendrix was headlining again and though people who were in the know at that time said it wasn’t his best show, there’s a lot to like in his 15-minute segment here, esp. his razor-edge soloing on “Power to Love” and a wild take on “Foxy Lady.” Ten Years After, not to be outdone by Mountain, offer up there own 19-minute warhorse with far better results. Anyone familiar with the group’s 1973 live album will recognize their version of Al Kooper’s “I Can’t Keep from Crying” with its extended speed-freak guitar workout by Alvin Lee and its little side excursions into “Cat’s Squirrel” and the “Peter Gunn” theme. Despite the pyrotechnics preceding it, Procol Harum’s stately “A Salty Dog” comes off well.
Great excerpt of TYA’s above-mentioned jam from the Murray Lerner film “Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970”
Sly and the Family Stone, who like TYA had a big boost from Woodstock film and record, do a morale-boosting medley of “Stand!” and “You Can Make it if You Try.” The restive crowd that is so evident in Lerner’s documentary spills into the record via the poorly-received appearance from Oxford-educated cowpoke Kris Kristofferson. Tensions between fans and promoters were peaking and seemingly taken out on cocky Kris, who tries to win back the crowd with the coy redneck parody “Blame it on the Stones.” In the film, he is seen waving dismissively while exiting before finishing “Me and Bobby McGee.” Faring better in the singer-songwriter department are David Bromberg with a tender “Mr. Bojangles” and Leonard Cohen. The bard of Montreal gives an unusually empathetic vocal on the jaunty “Tonight Will be Fine.”
That leaves Miles Davis to close out Side Six with a 17-minute bracing jazz-fusion outburst titled here as “Call it Anything.” That was probably Miles’ wily wit at work given the free-flowing improvisations of the trumpeting legend who was at a career peak and crossing over to a rock audience at the time. We know that from the 2011 CD release of Bitches Brew Live that this track compromises the last half of his allotted time (the whole 35-minute set is on the CD) and consists of a wired and inspired clutch of compositions centered around “Spanish Key.” His band consisted of both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Gary Bartz on sax, Dave Holland on bass, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moreira. Whew.
Peter Goddard, towards the end of his liner notes, opines that the age of the great rock festival was “kaput” despite the promise of the more to come in the title. I wouldn’t own The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies for many years to come although in 1972 I bought a discounted copy of Mar-y-Sol, a double LP from a Puerto Rican festival from the same year. Its line-up was typical of the eclectic roster of artists so typical of these outside multi-day events, which would continue, great or not. Everyone from Jonathan Edwards to the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Afro-rockers Osibisa were featured. And the age of the various-artist mega-rock album was not over either. By the end of 1971 we had George Harrison & Friends with the 3-LP benefit album Concert for Bangla-Desh. Other triple-deckers included 1972’s Fillmore: The Last Days, where the Bay Area’s finest congregated to mark the closing of Bill Graham’s fabled ballroom the Fillmore West, and the dreaded No Nukes from 1979. (John Hall, anyone?).
Gong’s side-filler from the Glastonbury Fayre triple album. You’re welcome!
There’s even a three-bagger form the 1971 Glastonbury Festival, called Glastonbury Fayre (an accompanying film of the same name is worth seeking out). This six-sider is rare and bound to test the patience of even the hardiest mega-rock aficionado. It boasted songs ranging from 16 to 23 minutes from Mighty Baby (“A Blanket in My Muesli’), The Pink Fairies (“Uncle Harry’s Last Freak-Out”), Edgar Broughton Band (“Out Demons Out” and Daevid Allen & Gong with the immortal “Glad Stoned Buried Fielding Flash and Fresh Fest Footprint in My Memory.” I don’t know if any of those works would have made much sense away from the Glastonbury grounds, where the pot was plentiful and there was plenty of room for twirly freeform dancing in the days before the event exploded in popularity.
But like they say nowadays, “Go big or go home.” Luckily, we can also go virtually exploring into the far-off fields of adventurous rock exploration. Go big and stay home, to save yourself the unwanted mud-caked blue jeans and acid hangover.
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