Jul 12, 2018

July 3, 1970: free festival, Prince's Island Park, Calgary


Speaking over the guitars and drums of the band on stage, high school student-cum rock festival organizer Gerry Sylvan is ecstatic.
"We were pretty optimistic about this festival," he said towards the end of the day, "but what happened has surpassed our optimism."
What happened was a free rock festival on Prince's Island Friday which drew together one of the larger gatherings of young people Calgary has seen. About 3,000 were on the island to listen to nine local bands and one from Montreal make their kind of music.
Some were from Calgary, and licence plates in the island's parking lot indicated others came from all northwestern states in the United States as well as Missouri and Maryland.
Prince's Island was, in the vernacular, liberated. And in the minds of many people in the audience, Calgary's image was changed drastically - for the better.
"I feel free," said Rick Smith of the Blue Jay, one of the Calgary bands that played at the free festival. "It's the first time I've ever felt free in Calgary."
And the new arrivals who came onto the island, pitched their tents, unrolled their sleeping bags, and settled down to take in the music, shared the feeling.
"It's probably the best campground in Canada tonight," agreed one girl, glancing, while the music played incessantly, at the campfires and 35-40 tents pitched by nightfall at the island park's west end.
Coming the day before the Festival Express show in McMahon Stadium, Friday's free festival was a tremendous scoop.
"This is the real festival," said organizer Sylvan, emphasizing the term "real" and echoing words often heard during the ten-hour musical happening.
"It's not big business," he said. "We're not herding people into a stadium, giving them a bit of music, and herding them out again."
Gerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, one of the bands in the Festival Express line-up, agreed: "This is more of a festival than tomorrow's is going to be," he said, visiting the site late in the evening. "Tomorrow is just going to be a gig - another concert."
It's difficult to see the atmosphere of McMahon Stadium outdoing that at the Prince's Island free festival in approaching the spirit of the immortal Woodstock holiday, although the Festival Express entertainment line-up is more star-studded.
(Perhaps taking off from the Woodstock (the film) idea, two film companies - one from Calgary and one from Rome, Italy - had camera teams on the island for the festival action.)
Not only was the entertainment free on Friday, but the food which was distributed to first-takers during the festival was bought with pennies, nickels and dimes collected from the participants. Apples and oranges were passed out as well as a hot meal of rice and vegetables.
And, before the crowds arrived, one fellow from Victoria, B.C., had taken up a collection from the approximately 200 overnighters in the park. After one hour, he had enough to buy bread and hot dogs to feed the campers a midnight snack. Another person was walking about with a trayful of soft drinks, passing them out to thirsty neighbors free of charge.
Many of the people wandered into the Bow River for a cool, quick swim in the hot afternoon. No bathing suits, they swam stripped to the jeans, or even fully clothed, and a very few young children went into the water au naturel.
(Some bandaged feet later in the day testified to the odd piece of sharp pollution lurking on the river bed.)
In a more lazy mood, those who weren't swimming or dancing to the music or running around with the dog population at the festival, just relaxed by their tents. Chatting quietly among themselves, snoozing, strumming on a handy guitar, or reading off and on from the Georgia Straight, they passed a tranquil day.
The tents - from pup tents to eight-sleepers to makeshift plastic over wooden frame concoctions - popped up continuously throughout the day. And by nightfall, between the tents, many had just unrolled their bedrolls to sleep under the stars and battle with mosquitoes.
(Permission has been granted by the city to camp on Prince's Island throughout the weekend festival.)
Many travellers had tales of being stopped and searched by RCMP and border officials. One Denver, Colorado, man said his toothpaste and peanut butter was searched at the border for "no-no's."
Arranging to get the bands who played in Friday's festival was done in three days, say those who had a hand in it - a loose body of about 30 high school students who make up the "Pooh Free School." A permit to use the park was granted by the city free of charge.
Publicity of the event was, of course, unwittingly given by promoters of the McMahon stadium rock festival. Out-of-town music fans came for the bigger two-day festival: some said they have or will buy tickets, others mentioned gate-crashing.
(The Pooh Free School - who've rented a house at 518 Eau Claire Ave. as a meeting and study place - suggested Friday in a circular distributed at the island that instead of gate crashing, people should bring whistles and any other instruments they have to a spot on the east side of McMahon stadium. Then they will "astonish all those straight pop-freaks with our unamplified improvs," the circular reads.)
Reaction from older people who had wandered down to the island for a look at the gathering ranged from "It's great" to "I don't think much of it." One woman who straightforwardly termed herself "a bit prejudiced" against what was happening said she had come down to try and understand what the young people are up to.
They seem very well behaved, she judged after glancing around. She added it would be "a real feather in Calgary's hat" if everything stayed peaceful throughout Calgary's two rock festivals.
There was not a hint of trouble at Friday's festival. Only two security guards were on the site and they were chatting amiably with members of the young audience.
"We've had no problems," said one of the guards who has been on the island since it opened officially last Wednesday.
"They know me," he said.
Meanwhile, sitting among a group of people, the Denver man spots a twelve-string guitar and before picking it up to play, asks who owns it.
"Nobody owns it," comes the reply from a Montreal girl in the circle.
That's freedom.

(by Peter Leney, from the Calgary Herald, 4 July 1970)

* * *


"This is more of a festival than tomorrow is going to be. This is festive. Tomorrow is just going to be a gig. Another concert."
Jerry Garcia, spiritual founder of the Grateful Dead, fresh from a press reception, was slapping mosquitoes and the hand that feeds him - the Festival Express show that has arrived in Calgary after a sometime-troubled tour across Canada in a chartered train.
Surrounded by the thousands of young people under the stars on Prince's Island, Friday, he was opening up in a way he refused to when he was facing the reporters.
"It's a drag seeing 2,000 people standing outside the gates and wanting to go in and not being able to. They are really asking too much bread for what it (the Festival Express) is.
"I was really expecting something to happen in Toronto. But it was gentle, really. Something like that happens in the states and there are deaths."
In Toronto, reacting with young people to the $14 to $16 price of admission to the Festival Express show, the Dead and other groups played free to provide entertainment for those unable to pay.
They didn't play on Prince's Island Friday, mainly, Garcia explained, because their equipment was in a truck that couldn't get through a locked gate to the stage.
"But it doesn't need us," Garcia commented of the effects of the day-long free festival on the island.
"It's really great. A real success. People are dancing and laughing and having a good time. It's okay."
"The star thing is nonsense. It's not essential at all. The people here are having a really good time with local bands."
Which is the message the young people on Prince's Island set out to teach the promoters. And the message the promoters are getting in the slow tick through the turnstiles at McMahon Stadium today.

(by John Gibbs, from the Calgary Herald, 4 July 1970) 

Thanks to Dave Davis.

1 comment:

  1. Although the Dead didn't play this free event, I included this partly because of the short interview with Garcia remarking on it. (He rather implausibly explains that the Dead didn't play because their equipment truck didn't have access.) It's also notable to find Garcia, on a day off, attending a local free festival and criticizing the Festival Express!