The second half of the 1960s ushered in the era of music festivals — culminating with the granddaddy of them all, Woodstock, in August 1969. Other festivals that enjoyed huge attendance that year included pop festivals in Atlanta and Texas, 140,000 attendees each; the notorious Altamont Speedway Festival, 120,000; and the Newport Jazz Festival, 78,000.
Lost in the smoky haze of 1960s history is The Laurel Pop Festival held in July 1969, which was attended by 15,000 fans and offered an incredible lineup of some of the biggest pop performers of the year. Held just one month before Woodstock, The Laurel Pop Festival ended in controversy as rain-soaked fans built bonfires with wooden folding chairs and refused to leave as the concert dragged on into the early morning.
The festival was the brainchild of two Baltimore concert promoters, Elzie Street and James Scott, who teamed up with nationally known music promoter George Wein for The Laurel Pop Festival. Wein was the creator of the legendary Newport Jazz and Pop festivals. Their commitment to Maryland's music scene extended to two other festivals they promoted in 1969, The Morgan State Jazz Festival and The Laurel Jazz Festival, which also offered an incredible lineup of jazz musicians.
Laurel Park racetrack, known then as Laurel Race Course, was a natural venue for an event of this magnitude.
Local media, especially The Baltimore Sun, ran numerous articles reporting on the progress of the festival. "Exciting pop music is coming to Laurel Race Course," started one article in The Sun, which also discussed the acts scheduled to appear. "It is estimated that their combined output of single and LP recordings exceeds 25 million." A week later, The Sun called the upcoming festival "a really mixed bag."
The day before the concert, The Laurel News Leader reported that "advance ticket sales have assured the success of the first Laurel Pop Festival" that "features artists whose names read like a 'Who's Who' in the world of pop music."
In the pre-Internet age, tickets were on sale at First National Bank, Hutzlers, Montgomery Ward, Bum Steer, the Record Rack, Slack Shack, Empire Music stores and other outlets. The festival ran for two days, Friday and Saturday nights, July 11 and 12. Box seats were $10, and reserved seats ranged from $6.75 to $4.75.
The first night was kicked off by blues guitarist Buddy Guy, followed by the gospel group the Edwin Hawkins Singers, who were enjoying huge success with their single "Oh, Happy Day." The next act was Al Kooper, the ex-lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Jethro Tull, whose first album, "Stand Up," released a few months earlier was the top album in the United Kingdom, was next. They were followed by Johnny Winter, who would also perform the next month at Woodstock.
Finishing the first night's set was the headliner, Led Zeppelin, who were in the midst of their first world-wide tour, and had been the opening act for The Who a month earlier at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Members of Led Zeppelin and Buddy Guy were among the latest artists honored by the Kennedy Center.
Bruce Remer, who hosts the website BR's Classic Rock Photos (http://www.e-rockworld.com was a high school student from Montgomery County when he attended The Laurel Pop Festival. His recollections from the first night were that Johnny Winter "was incredible," and that "nobody really expected much from him but he blew us away."
But Led Zeppelin, he said, was the most exciting.
In some of the comments readers wrote on e-rockworld.com, those who attended the festival remember the power being cut off during Led Zeppelin's act, in mid-song, and that Robert Plant kept singing until the power was restored.
Led Zeppelin's website (http://www.ledzeppelin.com/show/july-11-1969 has a page devoted to their performance at the Laurel Pop Festival.
"That was the best year of my life," remembered Remer. "I went to the Laurel and Atlantic City festivals and then sat in the mud at Woodstock for four days."
There are various stories on Remer's website from attendees describing how they wandered backstage, with no security in sight, and mingled with the performers. Remer and his friend Tom Beech snapped away with Kodak Instamatics backstage.
Bad ending to a good show
The second night's lineup was just as impressive, but the night got off to a bad start. Rain delayed the performances for two hours, which meant the fans waited in a cold downpour. Finally, at 10 p.m., the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, took the stage. The Jeff Beck Group was on their fifth U.S. tour and scheduled to play at Woodstock, but the band broke up shortly after their performance at Laurel and canceled.
The next act was Ten Years After, another Woodstock performer, followed by The Guess Who, riding a huge popularity wave with their No. 1 single, "These Eyes." They were followed by The Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa. The Washington Post's review of the festival lauded Zappa's group: "Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention kept their freak show to a minimum (which is still hilarious) and concentrated on music-making that combines great rock, classical influences, jazz brass, and 12-tone dynamics into beautiful sound."
After Zappa, Sly and the Family Stone took the stage and brought the house down. Starting their set at 2 a.m., another e-rockworld reader remembers that the band was "awesome" and had "me and my friends up dancing."
But things went downhill as Sly's usual frenetic performance continued. The soaked fans were getting colder as nighttime wore on, and bonfires were started on the infield, using the wooden folding chairs as fuel. Promoters issued several warnings to the crowd, to no avail.
The Sun described the chaotic end: "The festival drew to an inglorious close as Sly and the Family Stone exited abruptly and the stage hands began clearing the stage. Someone heaved a chair at them and a girl stood forlornly shouting, 'We ain't leaving,' at the departing crowd."
Because of the commotion on the infield and the rain delay, The Savoy Brown Blues Band did not perform.
News footage of the Laurel Pop Festival characterized the bonfire as a "riot" and ran on Baltimore and Washington TV stations the next day. Promoter Street thought the whole thing was blown out of proportion. "There were only about 40 or 50 chairs burned," he said. "The way it appeared on TV, it looked like chaos. When we looked at the books, it didn't look that bad, maybe about $100 worth of damage." He also boasted that the festival "grossed about $85,000 and the talent cost them $55,000."
Although The Laurel Pop Festival was envisioned to be an annual event, with the concerts growing every year, Street's partner told The Sun they would not return the next year. "They can have it," said Scott.
The Washington Post did not have a full-time rock critic in 1969, so it used general assignment reporters to cover these events. The Laurel Pop Festival was covered by none other than Carl Bernstein, who three years later would cover the Watergate scandal with his partner, Bob Woodward. In a pompous and wordy review, Bernstein blasted everything from the performers to the then-current state of rock and roll.
"The weekend's Laurel Pop and Burn Festival … provided some demoralizing insights into the state of rock music today and the people who are producing it," he wrote. Bernstein did not try to hide his disdain for the performers, writing: "Of the 11 acts that appeared, only three — Johnny Winter, Al Kooper, and the Mothers of Invention — are first-rate artists. As for the other eight, perhaps one or two (Sly and the Family Stone and Led Zeppelin) were mildly interesting, if not musically original. … The groups — Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Ten Years After, and Led Zeppelin — all were wildly acclaimed by the audience and have best-selling albums, facts that make it unpleasant to contemplate where rock is going."
To Bernstein's credit, in an interview with the Washington City Paper in 2001, he admitted his mistake.
"I really missed it on Led Zeppelin," he said. "I get Led Zeppelin now. I love them. But, boy, did I not get that band then. I'm ashamed. But what can I say? You get to be wrong once in a while."
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Email Kevin Leonard at email@example.com.