Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pop festivals

On this day in 1969, Led Zeppelin continued its third North American tour with a performance at the Laurel Pop Festival in Maryland, followed the next day with another at the Spectrum Pop Festival. While Led Zeppelin was continuing to amaze young American audiences with sets including "Train Kept a Rollin'," expanded versions of material from the debut album, and medleys of blues songs, an external torment was taking place within the company producing these festivals.

Both festivals were produced by the same company that had just pulled off the 16th annual Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. That meant Led Zeppelin was again working for promoter George Wein, who'd been pressured into canceling Led Zeppelin's appearance -- a cancellation that didn't stick when the band performed anyway.

Wein, in his autobiography "Myself Among Others: A Life in Music," writes that he "was thoroughly fed up with the rock world" following the experimentation at Newport that drew record crowds but which he still deemed a failure. He was probably just beginning to realize the implications of producing festivals with rock acts. "Jazz -- the music I loved -- was being poisoned and stamped out," writes Wein, "and I had served as an unwitting, but willing, accomplice in the murder."

Wein believes he could have pioneered rock concerts in the Northeast if only his heart had been in it. He said the rock scene "had nothing to do with my passion as a promoter or as a musician." Nevertheless, the famous jazz promoter still had a pair of two-day "pop" festivals going on this weekend, 100 miles apart.

Because it was the same company producing both festivals, there were several similarities, beginning first with the acts that were billed to appear, many of which, like Led Zeppelin, were themselves holdovers from the Newport Jazz Festival's more experimental billing of rock and R&B acts. Led Zeppelin headlined Friday night, July 11, at the Laurel Pop Festival, appearing with Johnny Winter, Jethro Tull, Al Kooper and Buddy Guy. The same lineup appeared the following night at the Spectrum Pop Festival. The groups performing the alternate dates were Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Jeff Beck, the Mothers of Invention, and the Savoy Brown Blues Band. In addition, the Guess Who played the Laurel Pop Festival on Saturday.

Although he was not yet a groundbreaking political reporter, the Washington Post's Carl Bernstein was on assignment at the two-day festival held at what was then known as the Laurel Race Course, located about halfway between Baltimore and the nation's capital. The 25-year-old part-time music critic deemed most of the groups at the Laurel Pop Festival unmusical, claiming their guitarists were merely "capable of laying down a few good riffs but each usually unable to resolve his fretwork into real music synthesis."

Bernstein did find Led Zeppelin to be "mildly interesting, if not musically original." (He also said the same of Sly and the Family Stone, but his highest praise was reserved for Johnny Winter, Al Kooper and the Mothers of Invention; only those acts, he said, could be considered "first-rate artists.") Almost nothing is noted about Led Zeppelin's set, except one can only assume Bernstein had Jimmy Page in mind for at least part of Bernstein's sentence that criticized the guitarists who "abandon picking with their fingers and instead use handkerchiefs, violin bows, drumsticks, microphones and other artifacts that have less to do with music than with theatrics."

No recordings exist of either Led Zeppelin performance 40 years ago this weekend, but Led Zeppelin's official Web site says the set lists for both shows likely included "Train Kept a Rollin'," "I Can't Quit You Baby," "Dazed and Confused," "You Shook Me," "How Many More Times" and "Communication Breakdown."

One Laurel attendee, Tommy Keene, recently published his remembrances of Led Zeppelin at the Laurel Pop Festival. Keene had just turned 12 years old a few days before that concert, which was his second time seeing Led Zeppelin near his home town in as many months. The first had been at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on May 25, when Zeppelin was opening for the Who. At the Laurel Pop Festival, Keene remembers the band opening not with "Train Kept a Rollin'" but with the Ben E. King song "We're Gonna Groove." Keene also recalls "What Is and What Should Never Be," one of the songs that had been recorded for Led Zeppelin II and would be mixed the following month.

It's not absurd to think he could be right about either song being played that night. "We're Gonna Groove" became Zep's concert staple the following year, and the rendition of it on Jan. 9, 1970, was ultimately destined for the posthumous Led Zeppelin album Coda and the 2003 DVD release. As for "What Is and What Should Never Be," the song is not known to have been performed live until after the release of Led Zeppelin II in October 1969, but it had been part of the band's BBC studio repertoire twice in June. An early rendition is not unthinkable, especially considering bits of "The Lemon Song" had become a near-nightly occurrence during renditions of "How Many More Times" by the time of this third American tour.

A bit older than Keene were two 17-year-old pals who now go by the names B.R. and Tom B. They've also posted their concert memories and photographs online. Through their Web page, they have also attracted others who were in attendance to write in about the concerts. One guy, Mike Dolan, wrote in to say, "The era being what it was, it made perfect sense to be drenched in so much live excellent music for such a pittance. I still remember vividly Led Zeppelin leaving the stage at the end of their set and, from behind the amplifier bank, starting 'Communication Breakdown' as an encore, with Plant leaping like a superhero over the Marshalls, only to have someone cut the power at mid-verse."

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