(Pictured: Leon Russell. The Getty Images caption says he’s at Wadena, Minnesota, but I’m certain that’s incorrect and this shot is from Wadena, Iowa.)
Fifty years ago this weekend, Iowa got its own Woodstock, when the Wadena Rock Fest attracted 40,000 people to a farm in Fayette County, in the northeastern part of the state. I researched the festival on its 40th anniversary, and that research made up part of the first episode of my podcast last summer. This summer, I tried to locate somebody/anybody who’d been at Wadena, in hopes of doing a podcast interview similar to the one I did with Steve Benton about Wisconsin’s Sound Storm and Iola festivals, but I struck out. It doesn’t look like the anniversary is getting much attention from Iowa media; a single piece from the Cedar Rapids Gazette is all that’s out so far, although I suppose there could be more this weekend.
At YouTube, there’s a 37-minute video focused on bands that played the show, interspersed with photos and newspaper clippings. Some of the bands on the bill were on practically every Midwestern bill during the festival era, such as Fuse, with Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson, future members of Cheap Trick, who had played both Sound Storm and Iola, and Illinois Speed Press, which included future Poco guitarist Paul Cotton. Local and regional bands were a feature of every festival everywhere: Wadena featured Enoch Smoky, from Iowa City, future members of the Iowa Rock Hall of Fame, who played a 25th-anniversary Wadena show in 1995; two Minnesota bands, White Lightning and Gypsy; and from Illinois, the as-yet-unrecorded REO Speedwagon, as well as Chicago-based Rotary Connection and the Shadows of Knight.
There were plenty of blues performers, including Chicken Shack,
with Christine Perfect, the future Christine McVie, on keyboards and vocals (see correction below–Ed.) plus Savoy Brown, Johnny Winter, Albert King, and Luther Allison. Savoy Brown and Chicken Shack were not the only British acts on the bill: so was Terry Reid, who turned down the chance to become Led Zeppelin’s lead singer the year before.
There were a couple of early rock ‘n’ roll legends: Little Richard and the Everly Brothers. There were folkies, including Tim Hardin and the duo Great Speckled Bird, to be known before long as Ian and Sylvia. And there was the rest of the lineup: Mason Proffit, the Youngbloods, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Lee Michaels, Leon Russell, the Chambers Brothers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Guess Who.
(Proviso: these bands were all mentioned in the initial publicity for the show. That doesn’t guarantee they actually played, although most if not all certainly did; some Wadena publicity said that the Who would be there, and they were not. That doesn’t mean there were no other acts who played and have gone unmentioned. Now-obscure regional acts likely performed too, such as the Wisconsin band Oz. Setlist.fm says that Hot Tuna, Joan Baez, and the Sons of Champlin were there. A random YouTube commenter says he remembers Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.)
The Gazette story includes about 13 minutes of silent film of the site from the concert weekend. The YouTuber who posted it says that his grandfather shot it; his farm was located about three miles away. (“[Grandpa] said he had people living in the woods for months afterward!”) Some of it was taken from an airplane; that footage gives you a good idea of the dimensions of the 200-acre site. A second, shorter, more colorful (but also silent) clip shows people groovin’ to a performance—possibly Leon Russell.
On one level, the films are almost completely mundane: people arriving and milling around, shots of the stage, lots of tents and lean-tos, cars and vans, people with backpacks and coolers, bikers flying a flag with a swastika on it, a guy lighting up a bong, a topless girl putting her shirt back on.
But on another level, the films are deeply evocative. The world of 1970 had plenty of troubles, and the people in the films—emissaries from a now-lost world—could have told you all about them. The people would be in their 60s, 70s, and 80s now, and some of them didn’t make it this far. But in those films, everything that happened to those people, and to us, in the last half-century (or in however much of the last half-century you happen to have been present for) hasn’t happened yet. They are innocent—without knowing that they are—and forever young. Would that we could be the same.