The rock festivals of 40 years ago, Woodstock and Watkins Glen, as well as lesser-known regional festivals in places like Poynette, Wisconsin, and Wadena, Iowa, were born when a unique moment in cultural history coincided with the timeless desire to cash in. Promoters would find a field, book some bands, gather the tribes, and hope that the Aquarian spirit (or pure dumb luck) would result in good vibrations—and a big fat bankroll.
Three weeks before Woodstock, on the last weekend of July 1969, a festival in Milwaukee brought together an impressive list of legends-to-be. The first night of the three-day Midwest Rock Festival was headlined by Led Zeppelin. The newly formed Blind Faith was the star of Saturday, a day that was interrupted by rain. Christopher Hjort’s Strange Brew, a chronology of the British blues-rock boom of the 1960s, quotes a report from an underground newspaper published in Minneapolis the next week:
Dark clouds rolled in about 3PM. Rain was responsible for the cancellation of seven local groups. However, the show went on. Shag and SRC repeated their Friday night show. MC5 came on loud and strong, Ireland’s Taste trio proved very refreshing, and the rain gushed as John Mayall took the stage. Thousands sat receptively in the cool summer rain. Mystically, the clouds parted at 9:00PM, [and] everything fell into place like an act of Providence as Blind Faith played. Eric Clapton’s guitar mastery and Ginger Baker’s superb drumming pressed the crowd into frenzied enthusiasm. After the performance, Ginger Baker admitted that his 20-minute drum solo had been the very best he had ever done. Both Blind Faith and the dazed audience agreed: it was a classic. The night was capped with Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” and a “Sunshine of Your Love” curtain call.
(The Zeppelin and Blind Faith sets from Milwaukee have been bootlegged, and you can probably find ’em online if you want ’em. There’s no video of the show, but you can watch Blind Faith at Hyde Park the month before doing “Presence of the Lord” right here.)
Other sources indicate that rain continued Sunday, causing the curtailing or cancellation of sets by acts including Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, the Bob Seger System, and Johnny Winter. Delaney and Bonnie were also scheduled to appear at some point during the weekend, along with the usual glut of local bands.
As with future festivals in many places, controversy erupted afterward. The festival had been held at State Fair Park in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. The state assemblyman representing the area, Robert Huber, complained that Fair Park officials had not notified West Allis officials of the festival in advance, and he decried the way that Greenfield Avenue, a street adjacent to the Fair Park, had turned into “a Haight-Ashbury district.” Assemblyman Huber said he did not “intend to sit idly by and allow the same street to be the show window of semi-sex orgies.” Yet while Huber, who had not been in the area during the festival, was criticizing the kids who had attended, local merchants praised the kids’ behavior.
Despite the assemblyman’s high dudgeon, controversy over the Milwaukee festival died down quickly. July turned to August, and the focus of the rock world turned to upstate New York. All these years later, the Midwest Rock Festival is nearly forgotten.
A question remains, however: Precisely what constitutes a “semi-sex orgy”?
(Revised from a post originally written for WNEW.com, a now-defunct website to which I contributed from 2008 to 2012.)