Friday Flashback #200

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.

Some of the crowd at Powder Ridge.

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.”

Wasted in Middlefield.

“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.'”

An angry confrontation (though not, this time, with Lou Zemel).

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.”

Hanging out on top of a ski lift pole.

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.

(All photos/Leigh Henry)

“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.”

10 responses to “Friday Flashback #200

  1. That’s an impressive lineup in the poster. I did not remember that the festival was going to be that star-studded.

    And some wonderful photos by Leigh.

  2. Marc Bailin

    And that’s where I found Leigh a couple of months later when I (forming a country/blues band at Yale and in need of a drummer/singer) convinced him to move south to New Haven. And the birth of “Passage”. Hey, it could have been worse. For about ten seconds we considered calling the band……MOSS!!

    • Leigh Henry

      I know…what the HELL was I thinking with the name MOSS?! I could always blame that one on some bad drugs left over from the festival……

  3. Mark Bachmann

    I’d never heard this story before. Fascinating, albeit a little depressing. No doubt more fun to read about this event than it would have been to attend.

  4. Mike Joseph

    Great memories, and a side of the event I never experienced. I remember getting a lift there from friends of my parents a couple of days in advance, and being dropped off somewhere (?) along the boundary of the resort. I walked through the woods, past a painted VW micro bus and squatting ‘hippies’ in tents. Ended up at a communal food tent in the woods, drinking lots of cheap apple wine. I woke up the next morning in someone’s tent, hungover, and wondering where the hell I was. Fast forward a day, whereby I made my way to the main stage, and being a proto sound guy (courtesy of working with Westport teen bands and helping Brian Keane and friends at the Westport Coffee House), talked my way into the inner circle of the small on-site Hanley Sound team (they of Woodstock fame). Spent the rest of the event smoking pot and hanging with them, helping to mix sound for the occasional local band on the unofficial (and probably illegal) small platform set up in front of the big stage.
    Side note: The communal shower was located back stage; it was the first time this 17 y/o experienced co-ed nudity, en masse.
    The Powder Ridge Festival leftovers eventually just ran out of steam. When it became clear the event wouldn’t happen, Hanley Sound, et al, packed up and left. The politics and drama never trickled down to us tech guys at the stage. Still have Kodak Instamatic B&W pictures of the event.

  5. Great photos Leigh! I was there taking photos that ran in the then Bridgeport Post. Yes, it was the end of that era for sure.

    • Yes, Jon, I definitely remember you being on the scene. We were winging it – Lou, my mom and all of us just trying to get through one crisis at a time and get to the other side intact!

  6. Russell Gontar

    My friends and I ditched our car some distance away and walked up the back of the “mountain” and came down into the festival from the top. Festive it was not, and we escaped the next day. Don’t know what we ate, if anything. I held onto my ticket stub for a long time hoping to get a refund. That never happened.

  7. Wendy Newton

    I remember.