Friday, January 15, 2010

West Fest

West Fest

If the spirit of the Sixties still survives anywhere, it had to be in Golden Gate Park on October 25, 2009. West Fest was a celebration of the Fortieth Anniversary of Woodstock. There had been events commemorating the epic counter culture event across the country in 2009. There was an event on the exact anniversary dates at Bethel, New York, the site of Yasgur’s farm.

In August the media had gone nuts on Woodstock. During the week of the anniversary there was a Woodstock story in every newspaper and nightly features on TV. Remember the couple wrapped up in a blanket that were on the cover of the Woodstock album? NBC tracked them down. They were a local couple who got married shortly after Woodstock, and still live there. It seemed every angle was covered.

Now it was October. This should be the last commemoration. It was a good excuse to have a gathering in the Park. There have been some legal battles over having music events, or any big events, in the Park. The locals hate the disruption. Outside Lands, a huge music festival that charges admission, was held in August. The San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks got about two million dollars from the promoters. One argument is that if you live in the City, you’ve got to expect events like this to happen near your neighborhood.

The Chet Helms Tribute and the celebration of the Fortieth Anniversary of the Summer of Love had both been held at this time of year. Both events had been extremely lucky with the weather, and it happened again. It was a beautiful day in the Park. There’s got to be some kind of Hippie good Karma at work here. It was sunny and clear, almost a perfect day.

B21 records and Boots Hughston would be running the event. They did a great job running the Chet Helms tribute and the Fortieth Anniversary of the Summer of Love. Posters said that the event would be dedicated to the memory of Jimi Hendrix.

The event opened with various incantations and prayers. I had heard it would be streamed online for free. We were still at home, so I checked it out. There was a $15 fee to see it live. There would probably be free footage online later.

Narada Michael Walden was leading an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. They were trying to get a record number of guitars to play “Purple Haze.” Jimi Hendrix’ brother Leon was there to add some familial legitimacy to the event. The attempt at the record was originally planned to close West Fest. They expected 3,000 guitar players to join in. They encouraged players to register on the B21 Records web site. They must have figured out there wouldn’t be as many guitar players as expected or needed for the record, so it was held earlier in the morning. Sounds like it was a bust.

We got there about 11:30 a.m. We parked and hiked in. Loud psychedelic music was coming from Speedway Meadows. We could smell weed on the way there. There was a huge crowd at Speedway Meadows already. It was filling up. This is where many of the big free shows were held in the Sixties. We spread a blanket far from the stage. There was another stage at the other end of the meadows. (Where the Banjo Stage was, for you Hardly Strictly Bluegrass fans.) Eventually the crowd filled Speedway Meadows and reached all the way to the “East Stage.”

We were far enough away that the people onstage were dots. Maybe it’s better not to see these guys? There were two big video screens on each side of the stage, and that was a help, but it was still hard to see what was happening onstage. The screens also flashed psychedelic light show patterns and designs like the old light shows.

We arrived to hear most of Barry “The Fish” Melton. “Love Machine” “I’ve Got a Love.” I’m not sure of the song titles. The band had a rougher, Rockier sound than I remember The Fish having.

The MC for this portion is Paul “The Lobster” Welles. There was the first of several “Don’t take the brown acid!” jokes that would be heard today. I didn’t see or hear Wavy Gravy all day. He has been having health problems. It would have been great to have heard him onstage: “New York State Freeway is closed, man!”

The Nick Gravenites Band is announced next. Gravenites is on the list of performers who will appear today, but he’s not on the schedule that has been handed out. It’s our first hint that the printed schedule probably won’t mean much today. Many musicians will be shuffled on and off the two stages.

Gravenites is seated through the set. He’s been in bad shape physically for some time. He did a song about his home town, Occidental, Ca. “When the Gas Station Left Town.” “Hamilton Camp wrote this one,” Gravenites growls before, “Pride of Man.” It’s one of the first recognizable classics from the Sixties played today. Some of the crowd rises up and does some Hippie dancing.

Gravenites tells the story of the next song. He wrote it for Janis Joplin. She had called him asking him to write her a song. He came up with “Buried Alive in the Blues.” She died the night before she was going to record it.

There were short speeches during the equipment changes. It sounded a little like the old days, but the speeches were shorter. With all the acts scheduled, there wasn’t enough time for too much ranting and raving. Rabbi Joseph Langer prayed for peace. Robert Perela from United Light spoke.

Artie Cornfield comes onstage. He was one of the promoters of Woodstock. He’s seen in the Woodstock movie looking extremely chemically altered and giddy, even though he’s just learned the festival is a financial disaster. The young promoters are ruined, but they don’t look too concerned in that old reckless Sixties way. Cornfield still makes some money off Woodstock. He’s asked if he ever thought the festival would still be celebrated forty years later. “I can’t believe it!” he says. They never imagined the spirit of that weekend would last for forty years. They didn’t expect anything to last for forty years.

West Fest is not as massive as the Bluegrass festival held here a couple of weeks ago, but it’s still a huge crowd. There is great sound all day. There wasn’t long delays between acts, an accomplishment in itself with all the musicians and equipment moving around. I noticed a few more police in attendance than the Bluegrass festival, but that may have been because they weren’t spread out all over the Park. They did keep a low profile.

We could see many people in the backstage area, especially where it came close to the stage. Through the day, people crowded close for a great view and became part of the backdrop.

Country Joe McDonald is next. “Are You Ready.” They did the song: “Entertainment Is My Business” with some hand clapping participation by the crowd. Country Joe leads the F cheer and then sings “Fixing to Die Rag.” That one always gets the crowd going. They play an odd combination of the music from the Donovan song “Season of the Witch” but with the lyrics of “For What It’s Worth.”

The guy next to us has a tarp spread out with a cart on it. He’s got long gray hair and a beard and looks like an old traveler. When Country Joe comes onstage he starts yelling, “Look how old he is!” He keeps yelling about how old Country Joe is. This guy yelling looked like he could have been seventy. Country Joe didn’t look as old as he did. It made me wonder what the guy expected.

You’ve got to expect some smoking at this event, and for the first time I see an attempt at enforcement of the ban on smoking in San Francisco parks. Some women next to us are burning about a cord of sage. A woman in a Park Ranger uniform came by and made them put it out. She threatened other evil doers with a ticket, “No smoking of ANYTHING in the Park!” Park Rangers do have some authority in the Golden Gate Park, but it was still a little weird. She wandered away and after she left and half the crowd she passed through lit up.

Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek brought their combination of music and spoken word. Manzarek played great keyboards while McClure recited his poetry. I had to think that if Morrison was alive, this might be what he’d be doing. McClure sounded like Morrison at times, but he is a Beat Poet, not a Rock Idol. The last poem ended with a line that he repeated a couple of times, “Silver and Blackishness .... Silver and Blackishness ...” Who would have thought, Michael McClure, a Raider fan?

We went for a walk. At the other end of Speedway Meadows there was a smaller stage, The East Stage. We passed the army of vendors who were set up in long rows of booths. This must be the big one. If you sell Sixties stuff you have to make an appearance at this event, even if it’s just for the advertising and word of mouth. The possibility of future events could depend on if the vendors make money. Just about anything Peace and Love related is for sale. There are the usual trinkets: jewelry, beads, clothes. Many booths offer posters. There are at least twenty posters for today’s event. The Leather and Lace booth offers an interesting diversion. Stanley Mouse is autographing posters at one booth.

The scene at the East stage is much different from “the big stage.” It’s easy to walk up close to the stage. There is a smaller, more laid back crowd here. There aren’t too many big names appearing on this stage, but it would have made a good event by itself.

The group onstage has an interesting sound. There is a guitar player, a bass, drums and a cello. It’s Mitchell Holman from It’s a Beautiful Day. The cello player uses his bow on the cello like Jimmy Page. After a spacey jam, Holman tells us his two sons are with him onstage today.

People are crowded on top of a couple of buses on the road to stage right. One of the buses has “Furthur’ on the bus’s destination sign above the windshield. People are dancing on top of the bus. It really does look like a scene from the Sixties.

We thought of staying for Peter Kaukonen, but there was some kind of delay or schedule mixup onstage. The MC made odd threats that if any in the crowd left, “You’ll be zapped by bolts of Sixties energy.” Well, isn’t that what we came here for? Then he promised us “a lot of percussion” would be coming up with Soul Medic. We started wandering back. The percussionists did sound good. They were a professional group that sounded much better than the impromptu groups that hang out at Hippie Hill.

We headed back to the main stage. There is an odd combination of musicians onstage. We could hear the surviving Chambers Brother, Lester, belting out “Time Has Come Today.” Ronnie Montrose came out for “Bad Motor Scooter” and then led a version of “Child In Time,” a song from the Deep Purple In Rock album. It’s one of my favorites, but the music did seem to stray from the Woodstock theme as the day went on.

David and Linda LaFlamme were among the group onstage and played “White Bird” another anthem from the bygone era. LaFlamme’s violin soared during another highlight of the day.

Again, the schedule means nothing, but it’s strange. The acts are not running behind schedule, everything is happening ahead of schedule!

David Hilliard of the Black Panther Party speaks. He says the Black Panthers were at Woodstock. Most of the political speakers point out that things look worse than forty years ago. Now there are two wars that people don’t want. There’s unemployment, and the effects of the economic meltdown. “But we did elect Obama.” Maybe it’s the start of better things, Hilliard says.

Harvey Mandel and the Snake Band. He plays two greasy Blues instrumentals and then “Wade in the Water.” The set brings a bit of edge to the event.

Between acts Bettina Aptheker speaks. She is a radical feminist from Santa Cruz. She spoke at our daughter Anita’s graduation. It’s hard to hear her. It’s one of the few times the sound gives out today.

“Kantner and Family” will represent the Jefferson Airplane sound today. It’s another group whose name has been tied up in legal battles. They toured the country this summer in package groups celebrating the Woodstock anniversary.

They blast into “Somebody To Love” and sound like The Jefferson Airplane of old. Cathy Richardson sings and she does sound like Grace. (We had seen Richardson as Janis Joplin in the play “Janis.”) They keep the Airplane vibe going with “Three-fifths of a Mile in Ten Seconds.” There’s a Starship tune, “Jane” and then back to vintage Airplane with “The Other Side of This Life.”

They sound great, sharp. They’ve been touring so there are no cobwebs, there’s no struggling to get to know each other. Most of the crowd is standing and rocking. It’s hard to see what’s going on onstage, but I do spot David Freiberg. He’s been joining in throughout the day. (He was onstage during both Barry Melton and Country Joe.) Slick Aguilar is playing guitar. It’s another great appearance by the Airplane/Starship in Golden Gate Park. Speedway Meadow has always been their stage. Most acts get about twenty minutes stage time today. “Kantner and Family” gets double that.

They start “White Rabbit” and there’s that knowing recognition of the song from the crowd. Heads nod. This song always gets the psychedelic nostalgia going. “We’ll leave you dancing,” Kantner says and they rock “Volunteers.” We always depend on the Airplane/Starship or at least Kantner to put on the great Rock show in the Park, and they don’t let us down. The crowd rocks out to the spirit of “Volunteers.”

“Kantner and Family” ends at about three. It’s early but some people do start leaving. I hear some people say, “That’s what we came for,” as they pick up. It’s getting a little windy but it’s still sunny in the Park.

I’ll quote the schedule for the next act: “Alameda All Stars (Gregg Allman’s Band) Denny Laine (of Paul McCartney, Wings, Moody Blues); Leslie West (Mountain)”

They do a version of “All Shook Up” followed by “a new song” called “Street Talking.” Denny Laine is announced. He sings “Go Now.”

There’s a little introduction to the next song. “Forty years ago Joe Cocker appeared in front of that huge crowd and did this song.” “A Little Help From My Friends.” It’s not Joe Cocker singing, but it does have the Woodstock feel and spirit to it.

“How many of you were AT Woodstock?” the MC asks. There isn’t much of a response. Woodstock was really just a movie for most of us, or an album you could put on at parties. We didn’t slog in the mud or camp out for three nights, but we did have the three record set that livened up many a party in the Seventies. The Sly and the Family Stone songs were guaranteed to get people up dancing.

Our MC points out the synchronicity that Leslie WEST is appearing at WEST Fest. They do the old Freddie King song, “Down, Down, Down.” West has lost some weight. He doesn’t look as physically imposing as he used to with that big girth and over sized Afro, but he still rips on guitar. The band trades some great Blues licks, but they’re just warming up for the next one. There’s the cowbell count down, and then the opening riff blasts the crowd. “Mississippi Queen!” West rips on guitar and the crowd gets moving. It’s the Heavy Mental highlight of the day!

We decide to walk around again. There are so many vendors it’s worth another look. There are many causes, petitions and smoking accessories. Most of the petitions are for legalizing marijuana. Some of the cannabis activists have rented booths, but many wander the crowd or set up ironing boards or some other kind of table. It’s a worthy cause, but I assume most of the activists are getting paid to get signatures.

There’s a booth selling marijuana candy. There is “Kush” and “Sticky Icky, All Natural Medicated.” There is “Hot Buttered Pot Corn” “Chronic Candy” and “Hemp Iced Tea.” There sure are many ways to ingest marijuana.

People walked around like human billboards, proselyting their favorite cause. There was shopping bag guy. His costume was all shopping bags and statistics on shopping bag abuse. There were people carrying picket signs for many causes including one that said: “955 architects and engineers want new 9/11 investigations. Google A E 9/11” So many conspiracy theories, so little time. People walked around handing out free “California Condoms.” “Spare the Air” cards for free rides on BART were passed out.

One booth offered “Musical Rarities” CDs and DVDs of vintage live performances. The proprietor had some great stuff for sale in his booth, but business didn’t look too good. He was partying though. He was blasting the Rolling Stones appearance on The Hollywood Palace. It’s the one where Dean Martin roasts them during the introduction. Have to give this guy credit. He was determined to have a good time.

We passed two guys at a table getting signatures for the Legalize Marijuana Initiative. They were blatantly smoking a big joint. It looked like something out of Cheech and Chong. It must have been good. They were giggling and laughing it up.

It wasn’t all fun and games though: “Major Catastrophic Earthquake coming September 2010. Severe infrastructure damage to hit! Do not get trapped! Details on”

Hundreds of CDs were passed out free. “Celebrate the New Age of Earth. “An inspiring, Magical, Mystical, Musical Odyssey.”

There was the Alcatraz Conversion Project. Now was the time to convert the site of the cruel prison to “The Global Peace Center.” There were drawings of the future utopian institution.

A booth offered small ads that looked like U.S. Currency. The bills drew attention to the government’s complicity in 9/11. George W. Bush was on the face of the bill. “Unmask State Sponsored Terrorism.” Towers of Deception, New World Order. It’s all here.

The Eco Dome is a large geodesic dome set up a bit away from the main stage. It had room inside for small performances. There was some bell ringing and singing going on in the crowded Dome. Flyers were passed out: “Join us for Global Peace and Love Meditations at The Ecodome. “WITH SACRED HARMONIC INSTRUMENTS IN A CRYSTAL AMPLIFIED SETTING.” Outside the Eco Dome was The Bike Stage. It’s a smaller area for local younger bands. We passed through later in the day and people were rocking to a young group.

I usually lurk while Kathy shops. I spotted these guys setting up a small table in the aisle formed between the rows of vendors. They set up some portable pig nose amps and started blasting. It was some kind of guerilla musical attack. You could hear music from the other stages until these guys set up. They were loud, and they were terrible. (Even to my high tolerance.) I’m not sure what motivated these guys. We wandered off one way. They went the other.

Another interesting booth was the Daly City chapter of the Hell’s Angels. I don’t think they were actively recruiting, but they had paid for a booth and the privileges that come with that. It looked like it enabled them to bring in supplies easier.

The event was a big opportunity for many vendors. There were many who wandered the crowd without having to pay for booth space. People sold bongs, cookies, brownies and other baked goods. No beer or alcohol was sold at the event. This set up the giant BYO situation. Entrepreneurs wandered the crowd selling cans of beer.

Aaron “Pieman” Kay spoke from onstage. He was a member of the Yippies. He told us yes, he’s the guy who smashed cream pies in all those politicians faces in the Sixties! I vaguely remembered his antics, but I don’t think many in the crowd knew who this guy was.

We get to the East Stage to hear Joli Valenti sing the Hippie anthem, “Let’s Get Together.” The act is listed on the schedule as “Valenti and Tony Saunders.” The crowd is getting into the Peace and Love classic. “C’mon people now, smile on your brothers.” There were rare, almost quaint good vibes during the song. Maybe they should have been on the main stage.

The whole crowd was well behaved. I never saw anything close to a fight all day. Things were still a lot more relaxed at The East Stage. We could not only see, but we could walk up to the front.

There were still weirdos here. Every bohemian, beatnik, Hippie low life in the Bay Area had to be in Golden Gate Park today, wearing their strangest getups. Everybody is a star. Get your craziest tee shirt out of the closet. The crowd was mostly aging survivors of the Hippie era, but there were a good number of young people here too. It was good to see that the entire crowd was not all Baby Boomers.

Glitter Guy was walking around. He’s hitting these free events almost as often as Frank Chu. Glitter Guy is covered head to toe in a costume of silver and glitter. He has a metallic mask that makes him look like some hybrid of high tech and tribal. He speaks through a synthesizer that makes his voice robotic. What is he? A robot? An alien?

People take his picture and he wants donations for that. It is a great costume and it looks like he’s making some money. He’s arguing with a black guy. I’m not sure if the brother wants a picture for free or is suggesting some kind of collaboration. “I’m not about that,” says Glitter Guy.

A group had started a Peace Garden. They had supplied stones, flowers and other things to add to a big peace symbol. Kathy got into it and decorated a small part of the growing garden. It reminded me of the sand paintings Tibetan monks made. It was a nice, spontaneous piece of art that would have a short life.

There had been strange combinations of musicians playing onstage all day. Ronnie Montrose was joined by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads for “Candy” and “Bad Motor Scooter.” Not all the music today was from the Sixties. They did “Life During Wartime,” The Talking Heads song. “This ain’t no disco!” It’s another song the crowd really got into and sang along to.

Some young people have been handing out a small newspaper all day. It looks like another Woodstock tribute on the cover, but inside the articles point out how we lost the way. The Hippie dreams of Peace and Love had been subverted and perverted. We can learn more on their web site. “The Twelve Tribes of the Commonwealth” will show us the way back with our Lord and Savior. There’s an ad for a book in the paper about fighting “deprogrammers.” “Don’t be confused by the 'Cult Scare!'" “Call us toll-free, 24 hours a day!” It reminded me that ’69 was also the anniversary of the Manson murders.

“The Original Low Rider Band (with Lee Oskar)” Most of the original members of War are in this group. Another legal battle was lost, and they can’t bill themselves as “War.” The MC doesn’t care, “They can’t say it, but I can,” and he introduces them as “War!” “Cisco Kid” “Low Rider” “Why Can’t We Just Be Friends.” They get a great reception. Forget the Woodstock old Hippie stuff. It’s party time! Most of the crowd is up and dancing.

We knew there was more to come, but we left at about 5:00. It had been another great event in the Park run by Boots Hughston and the 2B1 Records people. Kantner and others have lobbied for a yearly event like this. The locals lobby against it, but free music in the Park is a part of San Francisco History.