Everyone remembers Woodstock. More than 50 years later, the music festival a couple of hours from here remains the poster child for peace and love (and sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll).
Who remembers the Powder Ridge Festival the next year, though?
Scheduled for 50 years ago this summer — July 31 to August 2, at the ski area of the same name just an hour away — it too promised an outstanding lineup of musicians.
Eric Burdon & War, Sly & the Family Stone, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers, Little Richard, Van Morrison, Jethro Tull, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Grand Funk Railroad, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Ten Years After — all were advertised as appearing.
And tickets were just $20.
So why haven’t you heard of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival? Think of a more recent event: The Frye Festival.
Neighbors in Middlefield — worried about the impact of such a big event on their small town — got a preventive injunction days before it began.
A crowd of 30,000 arrived anyway. They found no food, no plumbing, dozens of drug dealers — but no entertainment.
They stayed anyway. The results were predictable.
Westporter Leigh Henry was there.
“Basically without any food or music (with the exception of Melanie and a couple of local bands playing off the generator from a Mister Softee truck), there was nothing else to do but get high,” he recalls.
“It didn’t help that dealers had brought enough drugs for 500,000 people.”
“There were a lot of bad trips, he says. “And a lot of bad vibes.” That includes hostility toward the owner of Powder Ridge, Lou Zemel.
Who just happened to be Leigh’s stepfather.
Because the promoters had skipped town — “with whatever little money was in the kitty” — Zemel was the target of festival-goers’ anger.
That was although he had risked jail himself to defy the state injunction, Leigh says. “Think 1970 — he was ‘The Man’ that everyone was ‘sticking it to.'”
The hostility and frustration eventually led to a confrontation between Zemel and a group of New Haven Black Panthers who appointed themselves spokespersons for other angry attendees.
Fortunately, Leigh — who was there with his mother and sister — says that they reached an agreement. He thinks that Zemel offered Powder Ridge to the Panthers for meetings and rallies, and gave a speech to the crowd that “defused what could have become a violent outcome.”
“Eventually people ran out of drugs, patience and whatever food and fluid they had brought,” and left Leigh says — though it took a few days to flush out the final stragglers.
He spent the next week picking up a colossal amount of trash.
“That put a little dent in my 19-year-old hippie naivete,” he notes. “I was struck by how these presumably love-they-brother festival-goers did not seem to love their planet, or respect their brothers’ property.”
Fellow Staples High School grad Peter Gambaccini — fresh off seeing The Who and Jethro Tull at Tanglewood, and Jimi Hendrix and Mountain at Randall’s Island earlier in the month — headed to Powder Ridge with classmate Scott Beasley.
They’d heard it would “probably” be canceled, but figured something would happen.
What they found was an acid — not marijuana — scene. “Without music, people seemed bleak and dazed,” Peter recalls.
“Honestly, all of them. I don’t remember seeing a smile. It seemed “grim and post-apocalyptic.”
They found Leigh in the ski lodge. Then they headed out to watch Melanie play, plugged into that ice cream truck.
Peter could not see her face. But, he says, “on that very quiet site on a summer night, she was what everybody needed.” She was “the hero of Powder Ridge.”
He had a lot less trouble finding his car than he did at Woodstock. He was happy to head home, and sleep in his own bed.
“Powder Ridge was supposed to be historic,” Peter says. “It was, I suppose, but not in the way it was intended.
“Did it mark the end of a chapter of American musical history? Perhaps. But I didn’t think about it much. I was going to London in the fall, and all I could think of was what I’d be able to see and hear at Royal Albert Hall and the Marquee.
“Which turned out to be plenty, including acts I didn’t get to see at Powder Ridge.”