News & Politics

Woodstock Hangover: The New York Pop Festival Doesn’t Measure Up


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July 23, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 30

A study in mistrust
By Carman Moore

Imagine packing a picnic lunch, taking a few of your friends out to the country, and hiring a few musicians you like a lot to make it all magical (maybe the musicians decide to split their bread with your and their favorite charity). Now, if you will, imagine a whole office full of producers, working for months to get the municipal government to okay a three-day gathering of 150,000 people in the largest music city in the world, played for by 15 top ensembles who ask five figures each and whom the producers know won’t all show up. Add to that 18 radical political groups who are to help at the gathering and who expect these concessions: 1) a portion of the ticket sales will go to worthy causes; and 2) everybody will be let in free. Add to all this the growing number of rock festival goers the nation over who have come to expect free entrances anyway by now (don’t forget that Woodstock was free).

Instance One above — the picnic with music — is only a happy fantasy, but it’s all that’s going to work outdoors anymore. Instance Two — the New York Pop Festival — is what happened the other day, except that I forgot to add that Delaney and Bonnie, Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Tony Williams Lifetime with Miles and Clapton, Joe Cocker, and Cocker’s replacement Sly didn’t show up because there was no money with which to fulfill their contracts. What might have by slim luck and very realistic planning resulted in a modest but cultural groovy set on the grass turned up lemonade with no sugar. I bore you with business, but I am compelled to go on.

What I thought last week to be an amicable joint effort by white radicals, Young Lords, and the Brave New World producers turned out to be a study in mistrust (mistrust, perhaps, with good reason). Brave New always probably knew that even after the festival — whether it was a gate success or not — thre was a chance for them to make some money (e.g., movie and/or record) if only the radicals could be kept appeased and off their backs. Though they complained of gate crashers and the radicals’ bad faith in letting everybody in free, Brave New had said explicitly before the festival that all tickets were to be by advance sale. The white radicals said they wanted money for causes, but they were obviously more interested in the free ticket concept than in selling tickets to bring that money in. Since bringing down capitalism in all its forms is one of their main credos, they stood to lose nothing either way. Only the Lords seemed genuinely interested in money for the communities, but neither did they seem to work very hard to make a financial success of the festival.

I know very little about money, but in this instance money created a bummer for both the people and for the music. The astronomical fees that rock bands demand now must be dealt with in some future article. At any rate, the radicals’ idea to start each day’s concert with performances by unrecognized-but-deserving community bands worked out half well. Some of the best singing of the festival was provided by a black singer by the name of John Burks who sang with Redding intensity in a low, growling voice. The feature singer on that same Sunday set, one Johnny Robinson, was also excellent. Boffalongo, another community-sponsored group, turned in moments far superior to their recording now in circulation. “Power to the People,” their composition performed on Friday, was an intense, minor mode rocker. With a more able drummer and a little more complexity to their rhythm they could amount to a fine group.

Of the feature bands that showed, not much happened but noise. And the noise was no fat of sound man Bill Hanley — amplification was crystal clear almost all the way. It wasn’t the fault of the weather: full moon, clear breezes, clean air on Friday at least. Could it be money? Grand Funk was creative about their noise for a tune or two, but they just aren’t into very much musically. John Sebastian was boring and in lackluster voice. Steppenwolf, which had so much promise a couple years ago, leveled off at self-hype commonplace some time ago and remained there for the Randall’s Island show. Cactus, a new group containing Vanilla Fudge remnants, got off a hopeful set on Saturday. Hard rocking and blues orientation kept them interesting. A blues about the evils of cocaine was especially cool and probably fell on deaf ears. Bassist Bogart turned in a creditable job most of the way. Ten Years After was tight, professional, and boring. No discovery implicit in their performance. What was supposed to stand for improvisation came off most of the time as well rehearsed licks. The New York Rock Ensemble, called out of their beds to fill in for no-show bands, started to get it on but was cut short after 20 minutes by the producers because the buses were waiting. I can’t go on. Without extra-musical prejudice, I think that a top soul band or two would have torn the place apart — can you imagine Pickett or the Tempts or Sly (oops!).

The upshot: somebody has to prove to me that the festival idea is over and above the picnic I previously mentioned can ever become an institution in the rock world. Producers acting like they have more money than they really have, rock bands asking more money than they’re really worth, and radical organizations trying to rip off money without studying how you really get that money all add up to some kind of death knell for the Woodstock promise. That’s cool by me, but it is sort of a shame. Powder Ridge looms ahead. The producers says, don’t come without a ticket. Maybe I should amend it to “don’t come at all.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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