From Monterey To Bonnaroo
(Above: Tery Anastasio conducts an orchestra during the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. Photo by Michael Weintraub.)
Ever since the utopian dreams of late-’60s tribal gatherings birthed the Mega Music Festival it’s been a furious rock ’n’ roller coaster—the brilliant peaks like Monterey Pop and Woodstock helping establish a generation’s very identity, and the deep, dark lows of Altamont and Woodstock ’99 holding an unforgivingly brutal mirror up to the pop-culture flaws of each respective era. There’s something powerful and occasionally frightening about the combustibility of packing 100,000 or more souls in front of a concert stage, but if treated properly, every so often there’s a possibility for transcendence—or at least an occasion to revel in life’s muddy bliss.—Steve LaBate
THE GOLDEN AGE of the Giant Outdoor Rock Festival
When Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, purists were shocked, but two years later and 3,000 miles away, 50,000 hairy youths swarmed the Monterey Pop Festival for a weekend of loud music from the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin—if there’d been a roof, these acts would’ve torn it off and ignited it with lighter fluid. Monterey Pop went off with nary a hitch—it was, after all, the Summer of Love.
In August 1969, hordes of music fans initiated a massive traffic jam in rural New York as they inched toward the Woodstock Music and Art Festival. Unlike earlier fests, Woodstock was a commercial venture concocted by a group of underground entrepreneurs who turned out to be really good promoters—maybe too good. The fences came down, the site was overrun and the organizers had no choice but to declare it a “free festival.” So more than 300,000 people got filthy, witnessed three days of inspired performances from the absolute cream of rock ’n’ roll and staggered away with something to tell their grandkids about.
During the early ’70s, enormous crowds continued to converge on festival sites as remote as Britain’s Isle of Wight, in 1970, and as incongruous as the Raceway at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1973, determined to be part of another Woodstock. The Watkins Glen Summer Jam—featuring the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and The Band—drew an estimated 600,000-plus, the largest mass of people ever to attend a festival before or since.
Perhaps Watkins Glen, with its interminable sets, overflowing porta-johns, requisite thunderstorm and endless traffic jam, proved to everyone that the Woodstock experience couldn’t be duplicated. But the end of the Golden Age probably had more to do with the Boomers becoming adults, and grown-up reality doesn’t lend itself well to tripping for three days in a field of slime.—Bud Scoppa
FLIRTIN’ with Disaster
Since the virtually flawless Monterey Pop, not all festivals have come off so swimmingly. The true bookends of utter concert chaos are categorically Woodstock and Woodstock ’99, the low point being, of course, the deadly Altamont.
It seems no one could’ve prepared for the million people descending on Max Yasgur’s farm for the original Woodstock. In comparison, approximately 150,000 people enjoyed Monterey Pop. Luckily, a little less than half actually made it to Woodstock, otherwise the fest wouldn’t have been remembered so kindly by history.
Unfortunately the lessons of Woodstock were never integrated into the poor planning of Altamont, or as Jerry Garcia once called it, “the living picture of hell on earth.” Yes, it was foolish to think hedonistic headliners The Rolling Stones would gel with the local hippie mores embraced by the other bands on the bill (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana). Yes, it was foolish for Mick Jagger to run his mouth, giving away the festival’s original Golden Gate Park location before he was supposed to, forcing the show to be moved, at the last minute, to the Motor Speedway where the audience could ignite hundreds of discarded tires, filling the air with acrid black smoke. And, yes, it was utterly ludicrous to have the brutal California chapter of the Hells Angel’s handle security. But the worst offense was having the stage only 18 inches off the ground. This cast a pall over the crowd, since none beyond the first 50 “rows” could see anything over the hulking “peacekeeping” barbarians. Then there was the death of Meredith Hunter, a young black man stabbed by the Angels (the murderous act infamously captured in Stones rockumentary Gimme Shelter). There were also three other deaths—two people run over in their sleeping bags and one drowning. Even Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin couldn’t escape harm. He was knocked unconscious by one of the Angels in a brawl near the stage. For many, Altamont was a bitter end to the ’60s dream.
Following Woodstock and Altamont, many local governments passed legislation restricting the size of events in their areas. But after the critical, logistical and financial success of major mid-’80s festivals like Live Aid, the organizers of Woodstock made an attempt at recouping losses from their original concert by cashing in on the festival’s 25th anniversary in 1994. Woodstock II had little to do with the Peace and Love vibe of its predecessor, but it was relatively harmless if overly commercial. But Woodstock ’99 was a different story. When it became apparent there was a lack of drinkable water, vendors jacked the already high prices. This combined with the world’s largest mud bath, 96-degree heat, no shade, a lack of showers and rampant drug use, resulted in looting, rioting, arson and gang rape. But even while such horrifying events unfolded, redemptive festival experiences were happening on other scenes, providing a hopeful contrast and a new model for future festivals.—Jay Sweet
THE PHISHY PATH to Rock Fest Redemption
In 1996, improvisational savants Phish rented a decommissioned Air Force base in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and built their own venue to stage a finale for the band’s summer tour. “The Clifford Ball,” as the festival was dubbed, ended up being much more.
Refusing to repeat the mistakes of festivals past, a production company, visual-design team, local artists and myriad regional vendors and businesses were brought onboard for months of imagining and planning before the actual execution.
Phish was the only band performing (three sets per day), though a specially assembled orchestra provided a symphonic backdrop for an afternoon air show. “The Ball Square,” an interactive installation, simulated a town square, mixing reality with fantasy. An actual working post office sat nearby a building that did nothing but emit foam; mail a letter home, then pop next door and slather your friends with bubbles. Attendees became active participants, creating personalized adventures while unwittingly contributing to a shared group experience.
Phish went on to throw six additional, equally unique festivals—from a millennium bash on an Indian reservation in the Florida Everglades to the band’s bittersweet farewell performance last summer in Coventry, Vt. The wild gatherings evolved over the years, incorporating everything from hot-air-balloon rides to massive bouts of band-encouraged glow-stick tossing—fans repeatedly hurling neon capsules into the air like mortar boards at high-school graduation—during the multi-part epic “Harry Hood.”
Though the band and these festivals are now history, they continue to influence, inform and inspire. In 2000, Superfly Productions hired some of the crew from Phish’s festivals and created the three-ring circus known as Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Now held annually on a farm in Manchester, Tenn., the smooth-running, tastefully eclectic Bonnaroo boasts three days of bands on multiple stages with lineups that consistently rival—perhaps even surpass—the original Woodstock. Not to mention the non-stop extracurriculars (stand-up comedy, yoga classes). Bonnaroo is currently the country’s largest recurring rock festival; a new breed that after a few years seems to have settled into an undisputed reign as World’s Greatest Music Festival.—Benjy Eisen