The Laurel Pop Festival — “actually a rock festival,” as the Washington Evening Star’s John Segraves sniffed in his “After Dark” column — ran the evenings of July 11 and 12 at the horse track that was then called Laurel Race Course. The event — and its ignominious end — is the subject of a discussion Thursday evening at the North Laurel Community Center.
Baltimore music promoters Elzie Street and James Scott — along with George Wein, who’d had success with the Newport Jazz Festival — joined forces to promote the festival. In the summer of ’69, ads for the festival began appearing in Washington and Baltimore newspapers. Tickets started at $4.75. A box seat cost $10.
The D.C. area had seen its share of “heavy” music concerts at venues such as Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Ontario Theatre, but this promised to be different. A good festival was more than mere music. It was a scene.
“Pop fans like to get together with their brethren, to exchange news, views and sometimes girls,” wrote syndicated music columnist Ritchie York that summer. “There is a general feeling of grooviness, a lack of inhibition, a sort of one-weekend freedom which could perhaps never come again.
“The pop festival is truly utopia for the young music nut. He or she gets all the music he could possibly want, at ear-shattering sound levels, and all the time.”
Among the fans in the Laurel crowd the first night was a 19-year-old Mike Dolan.
“It’s the only event I’ve ever been to that approached those old cavalcade shows: band upon band upon band,” said Mike, now a magazine editor who lives in Northwest Washington. “Here’s Jethro Tull. Here’s Johnny Winter. The night ended with Led Zeppelin. They played a totally riveting set.”
The late D.C. musician Tommy Keene was there, too, with his brother and a friend. They ranged in age from 10 to 13 and had worn jackets and ties. “I distinctly remember some hippie dude coming up to me and offering me a hit of acid,” he told Magnet magazine in 2009. “Er, no thanks, man.”
In his review of the festival’s first night, the Star’s William Holland wrote: “The California of 1967 finally came to suburban Maryland. Most of the kids might still get bankrolled by Daddy and live at home, but the green haze of funny smoke and the no-retail clothes said something — I’m not sure what.”
Holland criticized Led Zeppelin for “a phony sexuality that they used to get their message across, or might I say, their albums sold.”
But Winter earned raves. Wrote Holland: “He not only brought the kids to their feet, but brought them crashing through or around the snow-fence restraints to come up close to dig his unbelievable performance.”
A young reporter named Carl Bernstein reviewed the festival’s opening night for The Washington Post. He faulted British acts like Led Zeppelin for their reliance on volume over texture, technique or tone. The guitarists, he wrote, “play fast intricate runs that seem to exist not as part of any purposeful musical framework, but simply as fretboard acrobatics.”
That was the Friday night show. Saturday dawned with foreboding skies.
Roadies scrambled to find rubber mats to put onstage to protect performers from getting electrocuted by their own equipment. There was a two-hour delay before the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, kicked off the show.
As the night went on, a few members of the chilly crowd got restless and started gathering the wooden folding chairs that had been set up in the infield. The green haze of funny smoke was soon joined by another odor: the bonfire smell of burning chairs.
“Local media characterized it as a riot,” said Kevin.
The hour was so late and the scene so chaotic that the plug was pulled at the end of Sly and the Family Stone’s set and the Savoy Brown Blues Band never went on.
And thus the first Laurel Pop Festival was also the last Laurel Pop Festival. After that, Kevin said, “The promoters washed their hands of it.”
But the rock festival itself was here to stay. In his July 1969 story on festivals, York wrote that music fans were eagerly anticipating a coming “pop extravaganza,” adding: “Crowds of 100,000 are expected on both days to see a mammoth lineup of talent.”
The name of that festival? The Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
The Laurel Pop Festival 50th anniversary event is Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the North Laurel Community Center, 9411 Whiskey Bottom Rd. Admission is $5 and includes a screening of Jeff Krulik’s documentary “Led Zeppelin Played Here.”