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Woodstock 50 officially canceled despite Merriweather Post Pavilion’s willingness to host troubled festival

Woodstock 50 officially canceled despite Merriweather Post Pavilion’s willingness to host troubled festival
Hip hop recording artist Common (left), with Michael Lang, co-founder of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, was one of the artists set to perform at the now canceled Woodstock 50. (Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Despite a hail-Mary proposal that would have moved it to Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Woodstock 50 has been cancelled.

The beleaguered musical celebration of a half-century since 1969′s Woodstock festival, an all-star concert that once boasted a lineup including Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, The Lumineers, Common and others, was officially canceled Wednesday afternoon.

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A last-minute attempt to move the concert from upstate New York to Merriweather had been met with resistance from many of the scheduled performers. Almost as soon as the proposed move was announced last Thursday, acts started dropping out and saying they would not play a relocated festival.

“We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the Festival we imagined with the great line-up we had booked and the social engagement we were anticipating,” said Michael Lang, co-founder of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, in a statement released Wednesday.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, who called a press conference last Thursday night to announce that the county was working with Woodstock 50 organizers and Merriweather Post officials to bring the celebration to Columbia, took the bad news in stride.

“Initially, when this festival was in search of a new home, we saw an opportunity to bring a piece of American history to our storied stage,” he said in a statement released Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the festival promoters were unable to fulfill their obligation and Woodstock 50 will no longer be taking place at Merriweather Post Pavilion.”

The original Woodstock Music & Arts Fair, which brought an estimated million people to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm near Bethel, N.Y., ran from Aug. 15-18, 1969. The festival, billed as “3 Days of Peace & Music,” became a touchstone for a generation, with music from a lineup that included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Sly and the Family Stone. Much of it was captured in an Oscar-winning documentary film released in 1970.

Woodstock 50, as announced back in March, would have brought dozens of performers, including Santana and several others who played the original Woodstock, and thousands of fans for a three-day celebration in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Aug. 16-18, near the upstate New York site where the original Woodstock played out. But business and other disputes, including a decision by a principal investor to pull out and the inability of organizers to obtain the necessary permits, plagued the festival over the ensuing months.

After losing potential upstate New York sites in Watkins Glen and Vernon, about 100 miles away, organizers made a last-ditch effort to save the concert by moving it to Columbia. Although details were never officially released, press reports had the festival reduced from one to three days, and tickets possibly being handed out for free. Acts that had signed to play the festival were released from any obligation to play at a different location.

But artists scheduled for Woodstock 50, including Jay-Z and John Fogerty, who had played the original Woodstock as the leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, quickly announced that they would not be playing at a relocated festival. Within days, two more Woodstock vets, John Sebastian (of the Lovin’ Spoonful) and Country Joe McDonald, said they would not be making the move. Recent media reports had more acts following suit, including Santana, the Lumineers, Miley Cyrus, Pussy Riot and others.

“We worked hard to find a way to produce a proper tribute — and some great artists came aboard over the last week to support Woodstock 50 — but time simply ran short,” Woodstock 50 Principal Greg Brock said in the statement announcing the cancellation.

While Woodstock 50 may be canceled, a separate commemoration of Woodstock’s 50th anniversary remains scheduled for Aug. 16 in Bethel, N.Y., where the original festival took place. Baltimore-based artist Bob Hieronimus, who painted the Light Volkswagen Bus that was photographed at Woodstock in 1969, will recreate its journey from Baltimore to Bethel this summer. Locals still interested in commemorating Woodstock but not in driving to upstate New York can visit the American Visionary Art Museum on Aug. 12 for a kickoff event featuring the re-created bus.

Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, said he learned early last week that Woodstock organizers were interested in using Merriweather as a venue. But the festival’s arrival in Columbia threatened the nonprofit’s plan to host a Merriweather screening of the Academy Award-winning “Woodstock” documentary at 6 p.m. Aug. 16.

“My little movie idea suddenly became in jeopardy of not happening,” said Kennedy, who leads the nonprofit that owns the land where Merriweather sits.

As people scrambled to move Woodstock 50 to Columbia, Kennedy said he acted as a community liaison of sorts, working with county officials, adjacent property owners and prospective vendors.

“It would’ve been great if Merriweather hosted something as iconic as the 50th anniversary of Woodstock,” he said.

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The screening of “Woodstock” for the 16th will go on as scheduled, he said.

In announcing Woodstock 50′s cancellation, Lang said he had hoped to pull off a “smaller” event by relocating the festival to Columbia, with “voluntary” participation by some of the artists who had signed on for Woodstock 50. The event would have raised funds for HeadCount, a New York-based get-out-the-vote organization, and “certain NGOs involved in fighting climate change.”

Some acts, including Sebastian, already had shows scheduled in the area around the same time and would have been unable to perform at Columbia; other performers “passed for their own reasons,” Lang said. Noting that all performers and agents “have been fully paid,” he urged them to donate 10 percent of their fees to HeadCount “or causes of their choice in the spirit of peace.”

Although a concert featuring Smashing Pumpkins was scheduled for Merriweather on Aug. 17, officials at I.M.P., which operates the pavilion, consistently had said they would put on a show if Woodstock 50 organizers could come up with a lineup.

“While we were able to quickly eliminate the venue portion of the challenge to present Woodstock, it was just too late in the game,” I.M.P. chairman Seth Hurwitz said in a statement. “Hopefully, with plenty of time to prepare, Merriweather will become the site of a future festival that captures the original vibe. A lot of people clearly wanted it to happen.”

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