Tuesday, June 28, 2005

35th anniversary of the Bath Festival 1970

On this day in 1970, John Paul Jones was almost late to one of the most important Led Zeppelin gigs of the year, a headlining appearance at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music.

The festival was a smashing success in its second year as 150,000 fans gathered to hear the main attraction perform some songs that would be included on the next Led Zeppelin album. Spread over two days, 19 other hot bands appeared over two days at the festival, the lineup featuring the Jefferson Airplane and its subgroup Hot Tuna, the Byrds, Santana, the Moody Blues, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Dr. John, and Country Joe.

Exactly one year earlier, on June 28, 1969, Led Zeppelin appeared fourth on the bill of 19 bands crammed into what was then a one-day event called the Bath Festival of Blues. At the event's inaugural year in 1969, Zep shared the stage with blues groups Taste, Fleetwood Mac and Ten Years After, and festival attendance was somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000.

But for 1970, promoter Freddy Bannister expanded the festival to two days so that each act could play longer a longer set. He also tacked on the phrase "And Progressive Music" to allow a naturally wider range of acts to perform. The first day of the 1970 festival included repeat performances from two 1969 acts -- John Mayall and Keef Hartley -- in addition to newcomers Canned Heat, Pink Floyd, Steppenwolf, Johnny Winter, Fairport Convention, Colosseum, It's a Beautiful Day and Maynard Ferguson's Big Band.

However, many of the 150,000 fans there at the end of the festival had arrived just in time to see the headlining act, Led Zeppelin. The attendance in 1970 was at least 500 percent of the previous year's, aided by the fact that it was being held at the Shepton Mallet, more favorable in size than the smaller Bath recreation ground used for the 1969 festival.

One of the people who arrived dangerously close to Led Zeppelin's set was the group's own bassist, John Paul Jones. The members of Led Zeppelin hated arriving at festivals long in advance, just to wait around while other bands played. And apparently, because so many fans chose to arrive to the festival just before Led Zeppelin's set, the roads to the Shepton Mallet were packed with stopped traffic.

"You couldn't get near the festival," John Paul Jones said in my interview with him for LZ History on Dec. 10, 2001. "I think Peter Grant spent nine hours in a car getting down there. At Denham Airport, 10 minutes away, ... I looked in the yellow pages. 'Can you get a helicopter?' It was like some decently cheap price too -- cheaper than a hired car, for some reason. We got in there, and then they said, 'The problem will be landing.' 'Cause I think for every thousand feet you have to be a thousand feet away. I said something, and they said, 'Don't worry, we'll fix you a transport when we get there.'

"So we ended up, we landed in a field ... There's nobody about. ... But suddenly, all these bikes just rolled up. ... 'Oh, wait a minute,' you know. And all these Hells Angels appeared in the field on their bikes, and said, 'We're your transport.' And so, ... we got on the back of a bike and just rolled straight through to the stage. It was a great entrance, I have to say. I was carrying a mandolin. I had a cowboy hat on -- Peter Fonda!"

Jones showed up, sporting a leather jacket assumed to be given to him by the Hells Angels. He told me, though, that it wasn't given to him. "I remember the jacket," he said. "It was this silly, shiny thing with picks and tapes, real hippie stuff. It was great."

No sooner did Jones turn up than the group started playing. To present the best possible outdoor show, Zeppelin manager Peter Grant imagined that his group should begin its set at dusk, stressing the band's theme of light and shade. That was the intention, but thanks to delays in the festival's proceedings earlier in the day, a band called Flock was still onstage when the sun began to set in the British sky. Grant bounded onto the stage during the act's performance and began to remove the group's equipment to make room for Led Zeppelin to begin against the backdrop of the sunset.

Present for Zeppelin's set at the festival was visionary filmmaker Joe Massot, who had directed the psychedelic-era film Wonderwall, released in 1967, and also provided the screenplay for 1970's Zachariah. At the Bath festival, Massot watched Led Zeppelin's performance first from backstage and eventually earned a first-person perspective from onstage. "With the sun setting behind Robert [Plant]'s hair, the whole gig took on another dimension," Massot once commented. (He later became the original director of Led Zeppelin's first feature film, The Song Remains the Same, released in 1976.)

The band kicked things off immediately with new material -- a hard, driving riff from the guitar, bass and drums shortly met by wailing vocals that sound like a Norseman about to overtake some townspeople. In reality, it was Led Zeppelin, about to take over England with the first performance of a song called "Immigrant Song" in the country. A writer for Disc Magazine stated, "As soon as Zeppelin ripped into their first number the living field of people exploded."

"Heartbreaker" was next, and then "Dazed and Confused" made it early on in the set. "Bring it on Home" was juxtaposed with another blues attraction, the band's new "Since I've Been Loving You." With Jones on a Hammond organ, he was featured in a solo before leading the band in for "Thank You."

Jones admitted after the show that the band members did have butterflies in their stomachs before playing. "I always feel uneasy," he confessed, "particularly on British gigs like this."

However, as Jimmy Page switched over from the electric guitar he used on "Thank You" to an acoustic guitar for the next song, the four band members' tension eased a bit. The four band members lined up on stools at the front of the stage to get a bit more personal.

"I think we weren't really into it until the acoustic number when we all had a chance to sit down and take a look around," Plant later said. "Then it was like clockwork; we looked at each other, and we heard it was sounding good. And we looked down, and everybody else was grooving too."

The acoustic number was the third and final new song of the night, a pretty ditty with the working title "The Boy Next Door." Led Zeppelin followed it up with a pair of tracks from its second album, "What is and What Should Never Be" and "Moby Dick."

After this, Page played a bit of "Rice Pudding," a track from the Jeff Beck Group's year-old album Beck-Ola. Soon, it changed into the familiar riff from "How Many More Times," and Plant introduced the individual members of Led Zeppelin as usual. "For anyone who doesn't know Led Zeppelin," he began, addressing any of the 150,000 who might not have an inkling of who was onstage.

"How Many More Times" extended into a 27-minute medley featuring quotes from Neil Young's "Down by the River" and blues verses from such songs as Muddy Waters' "Honey Bee" and "Long Distance Call" and Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago."

Short renditions of "Whole Lotta Love" and "Communication Breakdown" followed, and after each, a thunderous round of applause demanded more. "The crowd just wouldn't let them leave the stage," wrote the reviewer from Disc. "They could have played all week, and most people would have stayed."

Receiving a standing ovation from 150,000 fans, the band played a straightforward medley of rock 'n' roll covers and finally drew the festival to an official close. Led Zeppelin finished with Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," Gene Vincent's "Say Mama" and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right, Mama."

The name of the game that night was light and shade. It referred to the sunset that accompanied the band and even more to Led Zeppelin's music, which ranged from hard rock to acoustic folk. The band that thrilled with "Dazed and Confused" and its violin bow solo was also quite capable of a soft, moving moment. The new acoustic song played tonight hinted toward one of many musical directions the band pursued in its future, come what may.

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