Sunday, July 5, 2009

Festival express

On this day in 1969, Led Zeppelin played the first date of its third North American tour, one of a handful of festival appearances the group made that year.

Just a week after playing the Bath Festival and the Pop Proms on back-to-back nights in England, the band was now kicking off its next set of U.S. tour dates by playing a pair of festivals. This started in front of a crowd of 40,000 at the Atlanta Pop Festival on Saturday, July 5. After a travel of about 1,100 miles, Led Zeppelin closed out the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island on Sunday, July 6.

It was, of course, one month before Woodstock, and some of the bands sharing the bill with Led Zeppelin were synonymous with the festival scene. The Atlanta Pop Festival, held July 4 and 5, included the likes of Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blood Sweat and Tears, Sweetwater, the Butterfield Blues Band and Johnny Winter, all acts that appeared at Woodstock the following month. Also at the Atlanta Pop Festival were the bands Chicago Transit Authority, Grand Funk Railroad and Spirit, R&B acts the Staple Singers and Booker T & the MGs, and the jazz trio of pianist Dave Brubeck.

Brubeck, the only jazz act at the Atlanta Pop Festival, also performed during the four-day Newport Pop Festival, his part taking place on July 5, the same night as sets from Art Blakey Quintet, R&B act Sly and the Family Stone, and the female-fronted Danish progressive rock group the Savage Rose. Promoter George Wein, deciding to experiment with the festival in its 16th year running, had agreed to bring in several rock acts to diversify the billing. The Associated Press called it "an attempt to lure more youngsters to the festival."

Joshua White was the man who created the Joshua Light Show that was used as the stunning visual backdrop for bands performing at the Fillmore East. When the syndicated radio show "Get the Led Out" had the opportunity to interview White recently, he discussed how it was that his light show was brought into the Newport Jazz Festival 40 years ago, first laying a great description of the factors that came into play at the time. "The Newport Jazz Festival was an old, classic institution," said White, referencing its formation in 1955 -- "in this wonderful old-world social community. It was very modest. It was just, people got up and played in an enclosed area, but the Newport Jazz Festival was a perfect example of people and institutions caught up in the transitions of the time.

"And let's place that transition," White continued. "It's now 1969. It's already two years after the Summer of Love was announced on the cover of Time and Newsweek. It's already a year since the Fillmore opened, and the Fillmore and other establishments around the country made it possible for these very focused acts to perform. And so, it was decided by George Wein, and whoever his people were, that the Newport Jazz Festival -- classic old-world jazz festival -- had to acknowledge and accept and embrace the new music. And one of the things that they did was they booked serious rock 'n' roll acts onto their normal bill. So, side by side with Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, there was a rock act on.

"And to make it even better, they decided they really needed to put on a light show. So, the Joshua Light Show was invited in July of 1969 to perform at Newport, which we were very honored. I was not particularly old, but I was old enough to know what the Newport Jazz Festival meant. I took it as a great honor, and we went.

"So, it was very popular at that moment for a lot of these institutions to try to embrace the new. But, like everything else, they didn't necessarily know how to do it. They were kind of looking for the turn-key solution. The Joshua Light Show presented itself as a turn-key solution: You call Josh, you talk to him, I quote you a price, I show up, and don't worry. As long as you can give us the power, the room to change our clothes in, we'll be fine. And they booked several acts into the Newport Jazz Festival mixed in with the classic and establishment jazz. This moment in time was really not significantly different than the moment Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival."

Wein peppered a number of rock acts throughout the festival, most of them appearing after 8 p.m. on Friday, July 4, which was advertised as "An Evening of Jazz Rock." Sets that night came from Jeff Beck, Blood Sweat and Tears, Ten Years After and Jethro Tull. Some 25,000 people had showed up for these rock acts on Friday night, June Harris reported in the New Musical Express. Those who were unable to purchase tickets rioted, and crowds threatened to disturb the peace by crashing the gates and rushing in.

Joshua White picks up with further explanation of the atmosphere in Newport. "Now, the back story that people don't remember is the Newport Jazz Festival took place in basically what was a seaport, and it was actually staged by the water. ... There were a lot of sailors there. It was a port. And this is 1969, so people are having identity crises. Everything they knew doesn't exist anymore, or it's changing. Or, if you're over 30, you're out of it; if you have short hair you're a narc or a cop; if you have long hair, you're cool. Everything was very black and white. And what always had been a problem at Newport was that people liked to get drunk, and try to ... crash the festival, and get drunk. It was not unlike St. Patrick's Day in New York, where people come from somewhere else, put on green clothes, get really drunk, and throw up on your shoes, and that's what it was like.

"So, there was always this terror outside the gates," White continued, "more than we felt certainly at the Fillmore, more than we felt at Woodstock. There was always this sense that the heathen, drunken hordes who wanted to smash up the hippies and hated everything were just out there trying to make trouble. And who better to put into that mix than Led Zeppelin!"

As a result of the palpable tensions, Harris wrote, "local authorities ... demanded that Led Zeppelin be canceled from the final bill on Sunday." She quoted local authorities as saying this demand was supposedly made "in the interest of public safety." White added to his previous comments about Newport, saying, "I always considered Boston to be a particularly provincial place, and if Boston is difficult and a provincial place, then Newport, Rhode Island, was times ten. ... There [were] rumors in the air that there would be Armageddon. And at this point, Led Zeppelin had been on the scene for a year and had already made a few of these lifestyle and choice experiments, so Led Zeppelin was already notorious, so it was really pouring gasoline on the fire."

Wein, the promoter, decided he had to act, and in order to do so, he had to cancel Led Zeppelin's appearance. So, near the 8 p.m. start of the July 6 evening portion, he improvised an onstage announcement: One of the members of Led Zeppelin was sick, and so the group wouldn't be performing, he said. His announcement caused many thousands of younger fans to go home since they believed there would be no Led Zeppelin set. As the Associated Press put it, "many young rock fans ... packed their sleeping bags and guitars and left the city." The evening carried on with acts including B.B. King, the Willie Bobo Sextet, the Herbie Hancock Sextet and the Buddy Rich Orchestra.

However, Led Zeppelin showed up at Newport and refused to have its act canceled. Jimmy Page, furious about the cancellation, told the New Musical Express, "You don't blow a date like this one. Not after all that. The Newport Jazz Festival was far too important to us to just cancel out and I'm very upset at the whole thing. Wein should never have announced once of us was ill." Led Zeppelin's rescheduled set took place before a smaller audience than they were planning on performing to.

White said, "I remember standing on the stage and Led Zeppelin came on to perform and people started rioting outside the gates and they really weren't equipped to deal with this, and I remember just standing there next to George Wein and watching him try to deal with it. They got through their show, and we got through our show, but it was a very important social moment because the very next thing that would happen to us would be Woodstock, in which the audience would be unlimited. Anybody who showed up could basically be there, and it was so big that the scope of the event [over]shadowed the details."

The Associated Press described one Newport city council member, David Fenton, as "a supporter of the jazz and folk festival" but quoted him as saying, "I don't think there should be any more rock concerts here." In fact, the city voted to revoke its permit for the concert shortly thereafter that would have kicked off Blind Faith's U.S. tour.

After these two shows, Led Zeppelin would have four days off until the weekend, which would see the group playing another pair of festival dates in Maryland and Pennsylvania. More on those shows, and on the recording of the second Led Zeppelin album, to come in another special 40th anniversary edition of "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

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