In the summer of 1969, State Fair Park in Milwaukee hosted the Midwest Rock Festival, which attracted 45,000 fans over a three-day weekend to see headliners including Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith, Johnny Winter, Delaney and Bonnie, the MC5, and Joe Cocker. Others scheduled to appear included Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, and the Bob Seger System, but many performances were wiped out by a Sunday afternoon rainstorm. Sounds a bit Woodstockian—although it took place on the last weekend in July, three weeks before that legendary festival.
In the wake of Woodstock, other people in other parts of the country wanted their own piece of the festival experience. They wanted it in other parts of Wisconsin, actually—and in the spring of 1970, plans were laid for an outdoor festival to be held in the Madison area during the last weekend in April. The Sound Storm Festival was originally set for a site just west of Madison near Cross Plains. When that site fell through, a woman in Columbia County, just north of Madison, offered to rent her 800-acre farm near Poynette. The festival was on.
The locals fought the festival, fearing marauding bands of hippies would entice their children to run away to California, or that they would loot the small towns nearby, or bring down some other apocalypse. The promoters planned to hire teaching assistants from the University of Wisconsin, idled by a strike at the time, as a security force—which prompted one local official to respond, “That’s just the type of person we don’t want here.” The local sheriff was confident that his men could control the crowd, although he also made plans—not revealed until after the festival—to rush plenty of heavy ordnance to the site if need be. But the festival came off smoothly, with only a couple of arrests. (The key was ignoring the rampant use of drugs and alcohol, and the public nudity.)
Apart from the elderly farmer who chose to rent her land to the kids, just as Max Yasgur had done at Woodstock, the Sound Storm Festival had other echoes of the more famous festival. Members of the Hog Farm Commune handled the stage announcements, and there was a “bad trips” tent, staffed by medical students from the UW. The food situation was a little better than Woodstock—the promoters contracted with vendors to provide food, and Madison’s Mifflin Street Co-op chipped in as well. The concert was headlined by the Grateful Dead, who performed on Sunday for less than their normal fee. (One of the promoters was a friend of Jerry Garcia’s.)
About 30 bands were featured in all, most but not all from the upper Midwest. Other top acts on the bill included Mason Proffit, Rotary Connection, and Illinois Speed Press. Also appearing: a Rockford, Illinois, band called Fuse, which featured a couple of then-anonymous musicians named Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson, and Soup, which would play the post-prom at my high school later in the 1970s. One band, Northern Comfort, held an onstage wedding between two of its members on Sunday afternoon.
A non-musical celebrity prominently featured in the publicity for the show was author Ken Kesey, but he didn’t appear. Something else that didn’t happen—although many who were there swear it did—was the dropping of LSD tabs by helicopter into the crowd. What was actually dropped by helicopter were leaflets aimed at encouraging the crowd to act peacefully in the wake of news that police undercover agents were among them.
About 30,000 people attended the festival over its three days, most of whom hadn’t bought tickets. When the festival ended on Sunday, the promoters got a shock—the weekend’s proceeds, about $100,000 in cash, had gone missing from its hiding place backstage. The good citizens of Columbia County were shocked as well by what had happened—all those drugs, all that nudity, all that music—but their aggrieved quotes in the local newspaper after the event added up to continued worry about what might have been if the thing had gone wrong, which it had not.
The peaceful, successful Sound Storm Festival didn’t make things any easier for similar festivals around the country, though. They would be scheduled for rural areas, and rural communities would fight them. But even when the festivals were stopped by law (as at the Powder Ridge Festival in Connecticut), the kids showed up anyhow, and the gatherings went on.
There’s more about the Sound Storm Festival in the current edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, which is where I got most of the information in this post. Jeff at AM, Then FM, wrote about the festival last summer and linked to many, many photos of the event. Get started with his post here.