Jun 7, 2013

September 2, 1968: Sky River Rock Festival


"The best freaking scene ever," said one musician. The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Show was not dampened by the rain that fell over Labor Day weekend, but made creative use of it. And the proceeds went to an assortment of American Indian and Black organizations.
The Friends of American Indian Rights, the principal Indian beneficiary, the Central Area Committee for Peace and Improvement, and the Black Student Unions of the Pacific Northwest were the principal organizations for which the musicians gave their benefit performances. Some of the proceeds are also going to local institutions for alienated youth, such as the Open Door Clinic and the Seattle Free University.

The music started at 9:30 on Saturday morning and ran till after midnight. Sunday's show ran from nine in the morning till five on Monday and Monday's show was of necessity a little disorganized, but after giving everybody four hours to sleep, the festival wound up with one more eighteen-hour slug of music.
Some forty acts, rock, blues and folk, with a few theater acts such as the Congress of Wonders and the S.F. Mime Troupe, were on stage for the marathon event before an audience of around 15,000. Spectators had trooped in from all over to Betty Nelson's Organic Raspberry Farm in Sultan, Washington (pop. 960), fifty miles outside of Seattle, not to be disappointed.

On Saturday it started to rain. All the less reason to forbid the audience to set up their tents in the field of the natural amphitheater. Soon there was a vast modern-day replica of a Civil War encampment, and the clouds of smoke were immense. The police kept their distance, like decent, law-abiding, privacy-respecting public servants, and everybody was happy.
While the audience was gathered like a great camp meeting in the field, the musicans - all 175 of them - were quartered in the three floors of the Camlin Hotel. Musicians, it is well known, are musicians because they like to play music, and the concentration of musical trips was incredible.
And who was there? Santana, Dino Valenti, It's a Beautiful Day, James Cotton, the New Lost City Ramblers, Kaleidoscope, the Youngbloods, Country Joe and the Fish, Phoenix, John Fahey, Mark Spoelstra, H. P. Lovecraft, Big Mama Mae Thornton. The Grateful Dead played a magnificent set for their last appearance with the personnel of their recordings.

By Monday the field was soggy with rain, but spirits were high. A Mud Cult arose in the principal puddle, improvising Mud Rituals and Mud Dances. The baptism consisted of taking long run and belly-flopping (with your clothes on) in the mud, after which you would be covered with mud and embraced by other cultists.
The Mud People also made half a dozen Charges of the Mud Brigade through the Civil War Encampment. Their Mud Chant went something like, "mud (stomp) mud (stomp) we like mud." Mud was, like they say in ads, Happening, so a couple of dozen fans were swinging with it.
Continuity and saccharine rap between acts were provided by Buddha (not the B., you understand, but a San Francisco underground bartender and former KMPX strikebreaker who goes by the name). His longwindedness was one factor in the concerts' running overtime. Musicians got into the habit of telling each other when they were due on stage in terms such as, "We're on at 4:30-plus-Buddha-rap." "The only crummy ointment on the fly," said one.

The kind of festival it was, when a young man wearing nothing but beads got up on stage during Big Mama's set and started dancing in the lightshow, it was not thought strange. Except perhaps by Big Mama, who had registered dismay when she first saw the Encampment that was to be her audience.
As Big Mama turned to leave the stage, the young man found himself facing the microphone, and impulsively said, "Hey, you know what? I just had a real flash. We're all Jesus Christ," and everybody applauded. Then Big Mama came back to the mike and said, "Wow! Wasn't that weird! I'd heard about it, but I never thought I'd see it!"
There was also a great scheduled balloon ascent, and the balloon was lots of fun, everybody played with it the first day. Then on the second day, the balloon went ahead and ascended, but paying no heed to human schedules. And there was a pig, some sort of personage in the festival. He was already a Mud Cultist from in front.
Many a festival would have been ruined by rain, but not a perfect festival, a festival with lots of festival in it. That's what Sky River was, and Lighter Than Air, too. Many thanks to John Chambless, director, and his assistant Stan Maginnis. And especially to Betty Nelson and her organic berries.

(from Rolling Stone, October 12 1968)

* * *


Thirty-five rock bands, numerous blues and folk artists and a jazz group, several acres of mud, two dramatic units, 15,000 young people, and an indefinable air of freedom remain in the memory after Labor Day weekend at Sultan, Wash.
The occasion was the Sky River Rock Festival, held Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 on Betty Nelson's Organic Raspberry Farm, 40 miles northeast of Seattle in the foothills of the Cascade mountains.
The comments most often heard backstage were "We never played a better set" or "They never grooved more." This was said of or by Kaleidoscope, Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, the New Lost City Ramblers, the Floating Bridge, It's a Beautiful Day, and the Byron Pope Ensemble - to name a few.
The festival elicited the interest of Time and local newspapers, who concentrated on the thousands of turned-on spectators doing whatever they liked. While this was an obvious feature of the three-day event, perhaps the musical side could also have been described. In fact, the two aspects were intimately connected. There was a degree of interaction between audience and performers too often lacking in the big halls or in the jazz clubs.

The pinnacle of the festival was reached in a soulful blues session led by Big Mama Thornton, accompanied by James Cotton on mouth harp, Ron (Pigpen) McKernan (of the Grateful Dead) on organ, one of the Dead's two drummers, and a guitarist. The session, late in the afternoon of the final day, seemed to define blues playing in a way that many of the rock groups had only been able to approach.
The Grateful Dead, who preceded Big Mama and were very, very good in their usual bag, sounded square by comparison. Behind Miss Thornton, Pigpen comped and comped and comped - almost no solos.
The scene was loose. A young man who earlier in the day had discarded his clothes jumped on the stand during the session and stood by the singer, who told the audience, "He's doing his thing, and I dig him doing it."

Saturday, Aug. 31, opened with sunshine and about 10,000 admissions, some through the woods but most through the gate. In addition to the large bandstand with 1,000 clean watts of amplification, there was a smaller nearby stand for folk singers and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. A large arts and crafts sale area was set up, along with the usual food stands, a soul food booth, and an Indian salmon barbecue. Wet ground was soon trampled into mud, and many listeners set up camps in the upper meadow and hillside. The scene was reminiscent of Civil War photographs.

A summary of the most outstanding events of various types follows:
Rock: Country Joe and the Fish (wild performance with conflicts between drummer Chicken Hirsch and others that were resolved dramatically and musically); Kaleidoscope (mixed bag of straight blues, Near East pieces with great oud playing, and flamenco numbers); Floating Bridge (the best local group, playing hard blues, with lead guitarist Rich Dangle); Country Weather (a very groovy Bay Area rock band, better than many on record); Anonymous Artists of America (another good Bay Area rock unit); Juggernaut (Seattle blues-rock quartet with some soul); It's a Beautiful Day (closed the festival at 3 a.m. Tuesday; great electric violinist).
Blues: The James Cotton Blues Band from Chicago; in a class by itself, at least at this festival. Other blues groups included Santana and the Frumious Bandersnatch, both from California.
Jazz: The Byron Pope Ensemble was the only jazz unit, as the term is loosely defined. Altoist-piccoloist - composer Pope came from Canada and is beginning a year's term as Visiting Lecturer in Music at the University of Washington. In his quartet, which projected his avant garde jazz competently, were pianist Gwint Coleman, bassist Alphonse LaRue Wynn, and drummer Steve Solder.
Folk: Alice Stuart Thomas (country blues); Mark Spoelstra; Dr. Humbead's New Tranquility String Band (traditional country); New Lost City Ramblers (good bluegrass); All Men Joy; Billy Roberts; Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
Other bags: A new San Francisco drama group, the Congress of Wonders, blew some minds. Three young hippies in street clothes, they presented a different play each day in a way that made the Mime Troupe appear old-fashioned.
Saturday night the rains came, and Sunday dawned deep in mud. But the atmosphere was established, and some of the best performances happened that night. Monday dawned clear and everyone dried out. Monday evening was damp and foggy, but nobody cared by then. There was just too much happening.

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, to spell out its full name, was organized by New American Community Inc., with the idea that proceeds of the benefit would go to American Indian and black causes. However, because of planning that "got out of control," according to festival director John Chambless, bad weather, and infiltration through the woods, gate receipts didn't quite meet the nut.
Chambless, whose regular occupation is professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, said the festival was a musical and spiritual success, and will be repeated at a better location next year.
We've never heard so much good music in so short a time.

(by Lowell Richards, from Downbeat magazine, October 31 1968)

Thanks to http://jgmf.blogspot.com/2011/03/gd19680902-sky-river-rock-festival-and.html for the scan & some memories of the festival.
See also http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=5425 for another account of the festival, based on Walt Crowley's memoir.



  1. The Grateful Dead aren't mentioned that much in these articles, but I thought it was worth including two complete accounts of the festival. It sounds like a west-coast Woodstock, complete with mud...

    Of the Dead, the Rolling Stone article simply says, "The Grateful Dead played a magnificent set for their last appearance with the personnel of their recordings."
    Which is quite revealing, since someone must have told the reporter that Pigpen & Weir were leaving the band.

    The Downbeat article says the Dead "were very, very good in their usual bag, [but] sounded square by comparison" with Big Mama Thornton.
    It's notable that Pigpen was apparently quite at ease joining in on Big Mama's blues session, though there's an oblique comment on his organ style: he "comped and comped - almost no solos."
    Both the articles focus attention on the naked man who also decided to join Big Mama's session... The Dead, of course, were used to that kind of thing, though Big Mama may have raised an eyebrow.

    The Rolling Stone piece goes into surprisingly little detail about the music (other than listing some of the bands) - the Dead are, in fact, the only band whose set gets even a brief review.
    The Downbeat reviewer is more musically oriented. The headline, "Blues Outclasses Rock," may have been picked by an editor, since the writer sounds more balanced, other than his Dead/Big Mama comparison. In fact, traditional blues seems to have been little-represented (the writer even includes Santana & Frumious Bandersnatch among the "blues groups").
    Of course many of the rock groups, as mentioned, were also playing blues, but the Downbeat writer naturally felt that the James Cotton band was "in a class by itself" in comparison, and that the rock groups playing blues could only approach Big Mama's authenticity.
    Even the Dead played Death Don't at this show, which the writer may have had in mind when he said they sounded square next to Big Mama.
    But, for a Downbeat jazz/blues reviewer, he sounds quite open to other kinds of rock groups as well.

    The historylink.org essay says that on the last day, "the Grateful Dead arrived unscheduled and unexpected." This is true; they were not billed, but just showed up. Per McNally's book, "on the last day of August, Jon McIntire got a phone call from friends in the band It's A Beautiful Day, telling him that the scene at the Sky River Rock Festival was a groove, and the Dead should come on up... The festival management made them welcome, so off they went the next day. It was a delightful jaunt." (p.278)
    McNally also claims that both the Dead drummers & Garcia joined in Big Mama's blues session at various times.

  2. "someone must have told the reporter that Pigpen & Weir were leaving the band" -- an interesting little nugget there, for sure. Is there any chance it refers to TC's impending arrival, rather than the impending "firing" of the other guys?

    1. I doubt it. Not only is early September the exact period when we know Pigpen & Weir's position was the shakiest, TC wasn't to join the band til the end of November when he got out of the Air Force. The comment "their last appearance with the personnel of their recordings" couldn't mean that the band was to stop playing gigs for three months!

  3. Just as a brief note, I've noticed that sometimes Rolling Stone edits their articles a bit when they reprint them... For instance a couple pieces in the Garcia tribute book were altered from the original articles. And here, when the Sky River Festival piece was reprinted in their Rock & Roll Reader book (1974), a couple lines were omitted - including the sentence about the Grateful Dead.