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Thursday, March 17, 2011

GD19680902 - Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, Betty Nelson's Organic Raspberry Farm, Sultan, WA

Reader Dave T kindly sent along this beautiful scan of an account of the-amazing sounding Sky River Rock Festival, Betty Nelson's Organic Raspberry Farm, Sultan, WA, August 31-September 2, 1968 (1).


We are very fortunate to have a delightful Charlie Miller board tape of the Grateful Dead's set, which is pretty freaking ferocious, more the fire breathing dragon of May-August than the slightly more controlled unit of the following February. I sure would like to hear the New Lost City Ramblers' set too, though! (Greedy, I know.) Apparently it was a Really Good Time, a financial bust for the organizers (including a philosophy professor from UW, John Chambless, an interesting-sounding guy), and plans were announced to do it again the next year.

Anyway, for GD-oriented people this will be the point of greatest interest: "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." First, I don't know of any other Pigpen sit-ins off-hand ... are there others? Second, one certainly wonders whether the guitarist was Garcia. More like him than Weir, I'd wager, and though it doesn't say a GD guitarist the GD set preceded Big Mama Thornton's to close the festival. So I'd say it's likely Garcia was around (given that Pigpen and a drummer were).

There is certainly a ton more to say about this Festival. I am sure McNally has a lot to say, probably Jackson as well. Accounts are that "the Grateful Dead arrived unscheduled and unexpected" (2). I recall that there was lots of material in the Seattle Helix about the festival ... like page after page after page of reports, band profiles, pictures, art, etc. If I were to have time and inclination to investigate this festival further, that's where I'd start. Since I don't have the time, maybe some intrepid researcher wants to spin through the Helix on the Underground Newspaper microfilm collection. The Helix is a real masterpiece, though the b&w films somehow seem to project salt into the reader's eyes.

Anyway, as is my wont, I mostly wanted to post this great scan about a neat-sounding day. Thanks, Dave!

REFERENCES:
(1) Lowell Richards, "Blues Outclasses Rock At Sky River Festival," Downbeat, October 31, 1968, p. 11.
(2) "Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair opens a three-day run near Sultan, Washington, on August 30, 1968." HistoryLink.org Essay 5425. URL http://www.washington.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=5425, accessed 3/17/2011.

24 comments:

  1. John Chambless was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and while in school he was one of the principal organizers of the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1968 and before. He moved to UW and promptly helped organize Sky River. This accounts for the profusion of Berkeley and San Francisco bands, as Chambless already knew them and their agents.

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    1. John, I'm the Mayor of the City of Sultan. We are having a planning meeting for the festival....Nov 25 Monday at 6pm..we would love you to attend. Is that possible? Carolyn Eslick

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  2. Very interesting. Is he written about at any length anywhere?

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  3. Up to a point--try here

    http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.SexManiac

    Not a line of inquiry I'm planning to pursue.

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  4. I was a 16 year old runaway from San Diego, CA when I arrived in Seattle two weeks before 1st Sky River. Upon seeing a copy of the Helix asking for volunteers to work at the site, I immediately volunteered and, due to my experience working with sound and bands, I ended up becoming the de facto stage manager.

    It's surprising how much one actually misses when working at such an event (besides Sky River I, I also worked at Sky River 3, Seattle Pops, the first U. District Festival where Santana and others played on flatbed's across 45th and U. Ave. ...and many more).

    One would think that I, above everyone, ought to remember who - exactly - played, and yet I can't now and couldn't a week after the event. The experience of WORKING something like SR 1 is so completely tied to the details of the moment that, now and then, I had no real feeling for the overall event except that I/we were doing something monumental and unique.

    So much of this event was...improvised...that the actual presentation of the artists became our opportunity to hide all that and give people a great show.

    Regarding the Grateful Dead specifically, they wee a surprise act that had not been booked in advance but, rather, heard about the event - probably through many sources including Mccune Sound who did many Golden Gate Parks gigs, knew the Dead and were considered the best rock sound company of the time...and came up to do 1st Sky River...and for whom I unofficially worked as stage manager.

    This position meant I had basically two responsibilities: to send a microphone plan from the stage to the sound mixers out front (I won't bore you with how primitive this was) and to arrange which of the numerous guitar amplifiers, donated by Fender, that each amp wanted to use on stage.

    The most memorable exchange of the entire festival for me was with Steve Parish when I showed hon the available list of gear and asked "what do you want to use?" (I should mention that Fender brought up an entire 30 ft. trailer full of amps)...and Parish's eyes light up as he replied "We'll use it all!"

    No one else had come close to that request but we made it happen by completely filling the entire back line with gear.

    I may be exaggerating to say that this was the first time the Dead had a chance to have speakers and amps for every member distributed across the entire stage so that they all could be heard - loudly - by every other member, but this was clearly the approach the Dead took and magnified, as they could afford it, in later years.

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    1. Hello, I am the Mayor for the City of Sultan. We are having a planning meeting for the Sky River Festival on Monday Nov 25 at 6pm We would love having you there at the Sky Valley Chamber Visitors Center on Main St. Mayor Eslick

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  5. I've got posters and a Helix cover for this fest at http://www.deadlists.com/posters/1960s/19680902.html. Also, there's a great article about it at http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=5425

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  6. I don't know who this guy Bill Stevens is but I was the stage manager at Sky River. At least that is what I was told when I was hired, when I worked for a month preparing the grounds, and when I worked tor almost the entire three days of the festival. Still have my stage pass. Yeah the Dead were a surprise. The "guitarist" was James Cotton but there were several more people in the jam session. Nobody has mentioned Richard Pryor doing his 15 minute "joint" skit (that was when the nude guy got on stage). Anyway I was surprised about the second stage manager. Where were you hiding? Fender issued me four 50 watt amplifiers and four standells which were state of the art in that day. There were a couple of monitor speakers as well and these were all hauled by a truck from Harry McCune's studio. Chambliss did not drag the bands in, Stan "Hawk" McGuiness did. He floated between SF and LA and first contacted me in LA. Can't believe I quit my job and went to Sultan just for the hell of it. Also in Seattle around that time was Little Richard, Pink Floyd, The Electric Flag (last set), and Jimmy Hendrix. On second thought, maybe going to Seattle was not such a bad idea after all....
    C. Niel Manson from the Straight Theater in SF.

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    1. C Niel Manson
      We are planning a meeting for a Sky River Festival...would love for you to come...Monday Nov 25 at 6pm at the Sky Valley Visitors Center in Sultan ...on Main Street...please come and share your experience.

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  7. Thank you very much for sharing your recollections. Sounds like you made a good choice!

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  8. I too am surprised to see C. Neil Manson's post. I'm not going to dispute his post as I only showed up a couple days before the event and did a bit of site preparation. I can't remember who, directed my efforts there...lots of staff folks spent most of the time during the actual show high, screwing or schmoozing.
    I know I wasn't doing any drugs at the show except some speed someone gave me after the first 48 hours of working straight...and the fact that someone in the Dead crew dosed everyone on stage, including the band, with LSD or something. I heard this was the first time in a while they'd done this to the band.

    At any rate, I know what I did and for who (more or less). One of those things was to assist Harry McCune and Harry Jr. build a makeshift mixing area and to assemble a psuedo-console out of the 19" rack "Green" Altec mic mixers they brought. We made a wood frame so these could be mounted at about a 45 degree angle so as to not have to use them in the stand up 19" rack. I think they had three of these each with 4 mic inputs as well as two similar units which had one bass and one treble tone control. When getting the mic set-up list from the bands, one of the question I'd ask them was which two mics they wanted EQ on. These had to then be hard-wired into the appropriate channel input by laying on your back (in the dark often).

    The rest of the gear was Altec amps and speakers...A-7's for mains and monitors I think and something I'd never seen before which were I think called A-5's...15" speaker only cabinets.

    I also know I was pretty much the only "authority figure" on stage a lot of the time. This resulted in one noteworthy/infamous event during the Dead's set. Someone came running up on stage and told me there was a fire across the road and all the "monitors" - non-stage staff for the event - were immediately required to assist there. So...right in the middle of a song/jam, I walked onto the stage and waved the Dead to stop playing so I could make an announcement (remember I'd been dosed along with pretty much everyone else on stage). When I finished, they started again but numerous people gave me a huge ration of shit for interrupting a song. Only one person, I don't know who, came over and said "Screw them...you did the right thing".

    Maybe this was C. Neil Manson, I don't know except that I seem to recall it was someone I'd been taking some direction from and it mellowed me out.

    Bill Stevens

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  9. Oh...regarding the amps Fender provided. they were all Fenders and more than 4...the larger amps were "Silver Face" Dual Showman amps with 2x15" speaker cabonets. these might be mistaken for Standels by by their appearance as they were both tall with silver grill cloth. Being a lifelong gearhead and having moved those amps innumerable times during sky River, I know the difference. For the Dead, we had to manufacture, on-site and in a hurry, some extra long phone to phone cables as Parrish wanted everyone in the band to have amps and speakers on both sides of the drums....not something I or he had ever done or seen before but he'd had an epiphany....

    Bill Stevens

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  10. Bill, thanks so much for sharing your recollections. I know the gear heads will be happy to hear about the technical stuff, too. Sounds like quite a scene!

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  11. Bill
    Your recollections are pretty much in line with mine. I was not strong on sound equipment but had a lot of experience in pushing band members on and off stage. In that confused atmosphere the line up kept changing. If one group was too stoned to go on then I had to find someone who could go on. If you were the guy sitting in the sound booth down front and working with the mics then "HI". The only disagreement we have is terminology. I worked stage equipment, you worked the mics and cables. I was told to guard the amps and speakers with my life and I did. I am sorry if I questioned your claim because your story rings true as I remember it. Down near where your sound booth was located, we had to dynamite a spring and channelize it. On the second day of the show, I was taking a smoke break in the tent that served as a Green Room along with Its A Beautiful Day. When I looked down at the box I was sitting on, I realized that it contained the rest of the unused dynamite. There were several panic filled minutes until the box was moved to a more secure location.
    I did not get dosed with acid. I had taken a lifetime of LSD in the Haight and actively avoided consuming snacks from strangers! Must admit that I did use a little Black Beauty to stay alert. Do you remember Pryors "Oh, wow" rap and the 12" joint that somebody gave him?
    I wish Janis could have been there for the James Cotton, Mama Thornton jam.
    Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll provided a lot of fun for those of us lucky to live through it.
    Is there a way to contact you? I would like to share memories.

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  12. By the way, the MC for the show was "The Budda From Muir Beach", and he did a pretty good job. On the second night he had everybody in the audience light a match. It was impressive to see all the lights stretching off into the woods. First time I ever saw that trick.

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  13. Bill and Neil, thank you so much for sharing your recollections! It sounds like quite an amazing gathering.

    The people jamming together at the end are listed in the article above as "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."

    Do either of you happen to know which drummer it was, and who the guitarist was? Were there any other players?

    Thanks again for sharing. It really brings this stuff alive.

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  14. These comments are a perfect example of why the internet is better than television, radio, magazines, and newspapers combined.

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  15. As I remember the Thornton/Cotton jam it started as just that, the two performers working together. It was getting late and any performers left around the show just sort of wandered up. Pretty soon there was no more room on the small stage and I went down front. It was one of the few acts that I saw from the audience. The set went on for a long time. Trying to pin down exactly who was on stage is problematic without a photo there were so many on stage(would love to have some from Sky River). Some did not have amps or mics and just sang for fun.

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  16. I dunno. All I remember is I was down front for her set. Yowza, she was great! I was also on stage with with the Phoenix, playing bass. Those who were there may recall there were three bands at Sky River featuring two drummers -- the Dead, Santana and us. In fact, it was our first public gig with Edward "Rick" Levin (formerly of Mt. Rushmore and Blue House Basement) on the second kit, and he was so nervous he kept dropping his sticks. I'd pick 'em up, smile and hand 'em back to him. I don't know if he was stoned or not, but he had that "deer in the headlights" look for at least part of the set. LOL.

    Btw, for a way scary shot of what me and my bass looked like back then...(loath as I am to send anyone to Facebook), there's a Michael Parrish pic from the Mid-Penninsula Free U gig in Palo Alto two weeks after Sky River posted here: http://tinyurl.com/84cyvu8

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    1. HI all,
      I think i want to this festival when I was 13. I went to school and wrote a 19 page report for my "what I did this summer" paper. What a crazy weekend. My story tells about Alice Cooper, Country Joe and the Fish, the Byrds, The Youngbloods and more. Is this the same festival?
      Rachel

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    2. Rachel, it's more likely that you attended the equally legendary "Sky River 2" Rock Festival, in Tenino, WA, just south of Olympia, from August 30-September 1, 1969. CJF and Youngbloods played. Alice Cooper were likely suspects (they played a lot of such shows), and The Flying Burrito Brothers featured a number of such shows.

      If you aren't sure, you were definitely there.

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  17. I was there - I was 18, saw it all also went to every Eagles Auditorium concert. Started as a black venue-Wilson Pickett. 4 Tops etc...Then the Fugs performed and a rock hall began every weekend. Some of the largest bands and some new. I was also surprised that my middle finger is just like J. Garcia. I enjoyed those days and I am glad to have survived them to enjoy the memories.
    glennames@centurylink.net

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  18. A side note to big Mama Mae Thornton's set was he reaction to a nude hippie guy who danced out onto the edge of stage right. she was clearly taken aback by this but did not drop a note or ask anyone to remove the guy.
    Bill Stevens...again and waiting for the 50th anniversary event! ;)
    Get on it Paul Dorpat!

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!Thank you for joining the conversation!