Whitebread Woodstock

Alpine Valley Music Theater is in Walworth County, Wisconsin, an hour from Madison, a half-hour from Milwaukee, and 90 minutes from Chicago. When it opened in 1977, there was little else like it. It was, for a time, the largest outdoor amphitheater in the country.

A Facebook group recently featured the picture you see here, of the Alpine Valley lineup for its inaugural season. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Boz Scaggs was the first headliner, on June 30, 1977. So this ad appeared not long after that. Reserved seats, inside the covered pavilion, were $10; general admission, on the enormous lawn that sloped upward from the stage, was generally $7 or $8. (In current dollars, that’s approximately $48 reserved and $36 on the lawn.) Service charge per ticket order: 25 cents. The 1977 lineup was skewed heavily toward adult-appealing acts: Roy Clark, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Bobby Vinton. The predominance of rock bands was not far off, however.

In 1979, my buds and I saw the Doobie Brothers there. We paid something like $13.50 a ticket ($53 today). It seemed like a lot, but we considered it well-spent as we sat in the pavilion maybe 20 rows back from the stage, passing a wineskin back and forth, feeling like kings.

In 1980, we saw the Eagles, with general admission tickets this time. I have written about this show before, and years ago I found what purports to be a bootleg of the very night we were there. Wineskins were banned by then; you had to pay $4 for a paper cup of Budweiser that would be warm by the time you got back to your spot on the lawn. (Four dollars in 1980 is equivalent to about $14 in 2023, about what places like Alpine Valley get for a beer nowadays.) You could bring in as much weed as you wanted, however, and we joked that next year, they’d be selling joints at the concession stands for $6 each.

A feature of the 1980 show was the worst traffic jam I have ever been in. People tended to trickle into the parking lots hours before the show (because this is Wisconsin, tailgating is just assumed), so getting in was not a problem. Getting out, however, was nightmarish. It took us hours to get to the exit. So when we went back for the Doobie Brothers in 1981, we were ready. We knew that after the show, it would be at least an hour before the car would move even one inch, so we tailgated afterward. And it turned out to be a good idea; on that night, we were told from the stage that it was the biggest crowd in Alpine Valley history. Based on that Wikipedia article, capacity would have been 37,000, although I am not sure the venue was that big at that time.

By 1982, I worked in a town 2 1/2 hours away, so getting to a show was more difficult. When Bruce Springsteen played there in 1984, we were momentarily tempted, but we were also five hours away by then. So I have never been back to Alpine Valley.

Alpine Valley continued to book a string of major shows every summer, including a three-night stand by the Rolling Stones in 1989. (Our friend Professor O’Kelly was there one night.) On August 26, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan and four other people were killed after a show when their helicopter crashed into a nearby ski hill. I could be completely wrong about this, but my sense is that the crash ended Alpine Valley’s heyday. In recent years, it’s been home mostly to jam bands—the Grateful Dead and its successor acts, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band. Jimmy Buffett has rarely missed a year at Alpine Valley since the middle of the 90s. But where Alpine Valley once hosted shows frequently, in most years now there’s only a couple, and in some years, even pre-COVID, there were none. This year, its lone booking is the Outlaw Music Festival, with Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, and Alison Krauss, in August. General admission for the Outlaw Music Festival is $35, which is pretty reasonable for 2023. But it’s equivalent to nearly $120 in 1980.

The days when you could sit on the lawn, smoke a joint, and see Kansas and Todd Rundgren for seven dollars are long gone. And in those days, the phrase “Alpine Valley Music Theatre” was magical. A concert at Alpine Valley was not just a show, it was an experience. My three nights loom large in memory still. A night at Alpine Valley, outdoors, on a hill, in a crowd of thousands, was as close as a whitebread Midwestern teenager such as I was going to get to Woodstock.

9 thoughts on “Whitebread Woodstock

  1. TimMoore

    Close as I got was Legend Valley ,just East of Columbus Ohio in the summer of 79…a great southern rock lineup of the Allman bros, Outlaws, Molly Hatchet and a couple others..a giant mud pit in the rolling hills…I wonder how many other mini woodstocks there are out there..

    1. I haven’t been to Alpine Valley since 1991, but all of the shows I’ve seen there have been headline by heavyweights. In 1979, I saw Kansas with the Climax Blues Band. It rainwd all night and the concert was broadcast live on WLS. In 1980, I went to the show with you to see the Eagles. The opening act was Christopher Cross, in which some knucklehead in front of us spent the whole time yelling and streaming, “You Suck!” A highlight was a beautiful full moon rising above the stage as they played “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Little did we know that the Eagles all hated each other. In 1985, I saw Don Henley with The Hooters. In 1987, I saw Boston. It was a windy evening, which had an adverse effect on their sound, as they kept the volueme low. In 1991, I saw Don Henley again, with special gues Sting, and Susanna Hoffs (of the
      Bangles.) I swear the guitar she was playing was bigger than her, which was too bad, because she was great to look at.

  2. This post made me think of the outdoor shed where I used to see summer shows in high school and college, including a Santana show that remains the only concert I’ve ever left before the last note was played.
    I went to the venue’s website to see if they’re still holding shows there. They’ve got a reasonably full calendar this summer, starting with … Santana.
    (What remains of the Doobies will be there too.)

  3. David

    The equivalent to this when I was growing up in the mid-1990s outside of Nashville, TN, was the Starwood Amphitheatre (capacity 17,100), which was built in the mid-1980s and was demolished about 15 years ago. The same parking lot problems you described plagued it as well.

    I saw many great concerts there, including Ozzy Osborne/Alice in Chains, the H.O.R.D.E. Festival (which included The Allman Brothers, Blues Traveler, and a young Sheryl Crow), and the Smokin’ Blunts Tour (which included The Fugees, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest). My most memorable interaction there occurred with a security guard at a Jimmy Buffett concert, which followed these lines:

    Guard: “Son, you got any alcohol on you?”
    Underage Me: “No, sir. Wouldn’t dare do such a thing.”
    Guard: “Well, get some, dadgummit! This here is a Buffett show, for God’s sake!”

  4. Jim Cummings

    In 2008, my wife decided that we were going to the Montage Mountain Amphitheater to see Heart, Cheap Trick and Journey…..that night! With only lawn (no seats) tickets available, I reluctantly agreed. As a form of minor protest, I donned a giveaway t-shirt that had a caricature of Dwight Schrute saying “Hello, Rock 107, am I the 107th caller?”.
    The venue was jammed, beer expensive, and there wasn’t a spot to be had with a good view. Heart opened, and, during the second song, a man (who turned out to be the morning DJ) walked up to me, said “nice shirt!”, and handed me two front row tickets!
    Needless to say, it was the experience of a lifetime. I still have a few of Rick Nielsen’s guitar picks, as he had to throw hundreds into the audience.

  5. Now that my memory was refreshed, I recall two other shows at Alpine Valley. Both were in 1990, just a couple of weeks apart. I saw Heart, with opening act Giant. Giant had a hit at the time called, “I’ll See You in my Dreams.” I thought Giant would become a major act, but they disappeared soon after that. I also saw The Steve Miller Band with Lou Gramm (lead singer of Foreigner) opening. I’m sure on orders from The Steve Miller Band, Gramm played just six songs; “Midnight Blue” and “Ready or Not” from his first album, “Just Between You and Me” and “True Blue Love” from his second album. He did two Foreigner songs. At the time, Gramm and Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones were at odds with each other, so I have to believe he had to get special permission to perform Foreinger songs. He did “Inside Information” (the title track from Foreigner’s 6th album, and a song I happen to really like) and he closed with “Dirty White Boy.” That’s it. I’m sure Steve Miller told Lou Gramm, “You’ve got 45 minutes, then get the hell off the stage!”

  6. Incidentally, Newspapers dot com confirms that Boz Scaggs headlined the first show at Alpine Valley on June 30, 1977. It was a chilly night and he drew just 3,500 people, in part b/c he was competing with his old boss Steve Miller playing the same night at Summerfest in Milwaukee.

  7. My Alpine Valley was Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland. My most memorable moment was after watching Utopia’s set, a few crew members came onstage to sweep up, only to rip their uniforms off and be revealed as the band, ready for the encore!

    By the way, the aforementioned Giant’s vocalist Dann Huff became a very successful session guitarist and producer.

  8. The Bay Area equivalent was the “Day on the Green” concert series. They ran from 1973 to 1992. And they were essentially ended by an air disaster—the 1991 helicopter crash that killed promoter Bill Graham.

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