Powder Ridge: The Rock Festival That Could Be Stopped (Sort Of)
Here is another article I penned for Crawdaddy!, this time from the year two thousand eight. Some days this feels like the best thing I’ve ever done.
Having spent the first 15 years of my life there, I can say with some authority that Connecticut is a state generally populated by fuddy-duds, buzzkills, and sticks in the mud. No one there over the age of 35 wants anyone under the age of 25 to have any fun at all. I could cite countless examples from my youth, including the time my mom threw away the totally real pair of nunchucks I found outside our apartment complex or the winter we weren’t allowed to have snowball fights because some geezer in the neighborhood was convinced one of us children would lose an eye. The greatest example of the Nutmeg State’s penchant for getting all “heavy” on “the kids,” though, is the 1970 Powder Ridge Rock Festival, better known as the Three Days of Groovy & Righteous Music Old People Totally Pissed All Over.
Scheduled from July 30 to August 2 of 1970, Powder Ridge would have been New England’s answer to Woodstock. Eric Burdon & War, Sly & the Family Stone, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Mountain, Janis Joplin, Grand Funk Railroad, and even Bloodrock were all lined up to perform at what was normally a ski retreat for uptight WASPs and their mistresses. At least one rumor suggests Led Zeppelin may have at one point been seriously considering the idea of thinking about discussing the possibility of making an appearance at Powder Ridge (no such gossip exists concerning the presence of that hippie favorite Sha Na Na). Truly, it would have been a monumental exposition of stuffed crotches, inane stage patter, and endless guitar solos.
Unfortunately, the citizens of sleepy little Middlefield, where the Powder Ridge resort is located, were just not having it. Fearing complete annihilation at the hands of shirtless, grubby youth types, townies banded together, visited a Middlefield Superior Court, and received a temporary injunction against the Powder Ridge Rock Festival and its promoters on July 28, a mere two days before the proposed start of the concert.
Normally, anyone slapped with a legal band-aid such as this could just rip it off via appeal or by merely paying whatever fines would be incurred. The ball doesn’t roll like that in Connecticut—appeals against temporary injunctions aren’t permitted in the state that gave us Christopher Lloyd (or at least they weren’t in 1970). Paying the fines wasn’t an option either. “The court ruled that the festival was a public nuisance,” a court official was quoted the day the injunction was granted. “That doesn’t mean it wants $110,000. That means it wants the festival stopped.” Proving Connecticut wasn’t just talking out its ass, State Superior Court Judge Aaron Palmer swatted down a request for a reversal the next day. He also tapped Middlesex County attorney Vincent Scamporino to be his muscle, ordering Scamporino to enforce the injunction by any means necessary.
Talk about harshing your mellow.
I want to single this tiny community out as the big party poopers, but they really aren’t unique. According to Wikipedia, the most accurate and reliable source of failed rock concert information in this day and age, 30 out of 48 planned major music festivals in 1970 were cancelled due to the complaints of cranky old people. That’s a staggering 63%. With statistics like that, it’s a wonder Jolson and Model Ts didn’t make a comeback. Powder Ridge stands out, though, because the idealistic youth who were so looking forward to watching Little Richard gesticulate in an open field would not go quietly into the Connecticut night.
Indeed, no court injunction was going to stop their party. The concertgoers descended upon Middlefield that weekend anyway, extending a figurative middle finger directly in the faces of the crotchety Establishment jerks who tried to ruin their fun. Not that it was all that hard to reach Powder Ridge once the injunction was handed down—“by any means necessary” in Connecticut apparently means putting up a handful of “FESTIVAL CANCELLED” signs and hoping everyone just goes away. Authorities waited until Friday, July 30, the first day of the festival, to close off all roads leading to Middlefield. By this time, several armies of music-hungry kids were already hanging around, waiting for something to happen.
The figures on just how many people showed up to this non-event fluctuate: one source will say the Powder Ridge crowds didn’t surge beyond 10 or 20,000, while others claim over 50,000 breezed into Middlefield on that faithful 1970 weekend. I paid a visit to Middlefield last year, and while the rolling, picturesque hillsides of the ski resort looked to offer enough space for any number between the aforementioned guesstimates, the town itself seemed to bristle at the arrival of three extra bodies. Children shot icy glares from their seats inside the cozy diner as my friends and I passed by. Adults quickly turned their backs as we came upon the general store. I can see how the looming threat of a giant rock festival would send the residents of this peaceful burg into a complete tizzy. But by early Friday afternoon, it was too late for them to do anything. A small country of rock fans had arrived, ready to shake their groove thangs and get down. It looked like this thing was happened whether they wanted it to or not. Had the kids actually triumphed? Would the musicians actually show up, emboldened by the positive attitude and optimism of several thousand rock fans, and put on the greatest concert of the pre-US Festival era?
Hell no. The bands stayed home. I guess they were all up on their New England permit laws. A few unannounced local acts turned up to provide spontaneous entertainment over the course of the three days (including Fairfield’s Goodwill and New Haven rockers the Mustard Family), but the only scheduled performer who showed up to Powder Ridge was irrepressible folk singer Melanie. “I said, ‘I just got a feeling the court injunction will be lifted and everybody’s gonna have a concert,’” the plucky songstress remarked in a 1978 radio interview, probably echoing most ticket holders’ thoughts at the time. “’Cause how can they do that, you know, after they take the money, and the people are there already anyway, I mean, why bother?”
Any artist who attempted to take the main stage at Powder Ridge supposedly faced the threat of arrest. Undeterred, Melanie snuck in with a local news team and commandeered a Mister Softee ice cream truck to power her as she warbled for assorted pockets of the crowd on various hilltops. It was truly a moment that epitomized the can-do spirit of this particular generation, not to mention a testament to the versatility of ice cream trucks.
According to comedian Lewis Black in his book Nothing’s Sacred, scheduled super group Rhinoceros also performed at Powder Ridge that weekend. I’m not sure how true that is, mainly because I found no verification of it anywhere else, but also because Black makes no mention of the concert being a complete wash in his tome—it’s just the backdrop for a funny story about screwing up a parking attendant job. It wouldn’t shock me if Black’s memory of this event has become clouded or confused with another.
The handful of artists I contacted regarding Powder Ridge, including Ten Years After, Grand Funk, and the almighty Bloodrock, didn’t remember the festival at all. Granted, it was a long time ago, and none of them were actually there, but come on, this was a defining moment in rock n’ roll history. It was the music festival the kids went to but the bands bailed on. How disillusioning! You could tack it on the list of “Moments We, The Hippie Youth Culture, Knew the ’60s Were Over” (ever notice how most of those moments didn’t even occur in the ’60s?). Doesn’t Bloodrock keyboardist Stevie Hill feel any remorse for leaving his peeps hanging high in the almost-mountains of Connecticut? No, he doesn’t. The words “Powder Ridge” are no more meaningful to him than “toaster oven” or “Bud Bundy.”
Ironically, the hard-nosed Establishment seemed to care more about the kids at Powder Ridge than any of the bands who supposedly embodied love, free spirit, and revolution. Scamporino knew calling in the cops or National Guard to disperse the surging crowds would probably result in brutal, unnecessary violence. He decided to pull a Herbert Hoover and do nothing. The concert goers would eventually figure out the concert wasn’t on, pick up their love beads, and go the heck home. The Zemel brothers, owners of the ski resort, were a little more proactive. One of them took to the main stage with a bullhorn as the sun was setting Friday evening to try and politely convince the masses it was time to leave. The crowds weren’t having it. They had come this far. No dope with a bullhorn was gonna ruin their festival, man.
But with no Janis, no Fleetwood, and not even one Allman Brother to help kick out the jams, what were all these kids going to do for the next three days? Drugs, of course, as many as they needed to forget the fact they were stuck on the crowded grounds of a New England ski resort in the middle of August without food, shelter, entertainment, or running water. Hallucinogens began circulating early; eventually, to meet the staggering demand, dealers began dumping their wares (including LSD, mescaline, speed, mushrooms, and STP) into open barrels of water around the festival site.
This “electric water,” as it was known, created what physician William Abruzzi called a full-blown “drug crisis” by the second day. The doctor was treating up to 50 patients an hour at Powder Ridge who were experiencing bad trips. With the only amplification / electricity coming from ice cream trucks, it was tough to get the word out that most of the drugs on site were low quality and giant purple fire-breathing frog inducing. A nearby middle school was turned into a makeshift infirmary to help treat the increasing number of freak outs.
The absence of music and circulation of suspect drugs didn’t dampen everyone’s spirit at Powder Ridge. According to local news reports from the time, plenty of attendees felt ample amounts of brotherhood and good vibes as they were forced to create their own happening. Some claimed they never wanted to leave this beautiful scene and were hoping the ski resort could become a new anti-establishment community where revolutionaries could live out their lives, exchange ideas, and continue to consume ridiculous amounts of drugs away from the weak bummer that was the real world. There were calls to elect a “Freak Mayor” of the aborted festival as early as Friday night. That never happened (everyone was probably too busy trying to figure out how to handle the bleeding rainbows they saw shooting out of each other’s eyes), but at least one flag was made to celebrate the possibility of an unprecedented Powder Ridge Nation. Cobbled together from dirty clothes and scraps of fabric, it naturally read “E Marijuana Unum.”
The scene at Powder Ridge. Photo by Jean-Pierre Laffont.
By the time the sun was setting on Sunday, August 2, however, everyone was starting to come down and slowly realizing the dream was over. A ski resort where they paid $20 for overflowing portajohns and acid-induced nightmares was no place for the first city founded by way out dudes and their old ladies. The kids all started to leave, wondering if they’d be able to get their money back. Refunds weren’t given initially as the promoters, known confusingly as Middleton Arts International, were intent on making this concert up at a more prestigious venue. Deals were attempted with both Yankee and RFK stadiums, but those fell through.
Around the same time, the IRS filed a large tax levy against Middleton Arts and indicted chief promoter Raymond Filiberti on perjury charges. There was an alleged mafia link in there somewhere. That might explain why nothing else ever happened. There was never a Powder Ridge make-up concert, none of the ticket holders ever got a refund, and no one was ever held responsible for ripping off upwards of 50,000 people. Plenty of attendees were arrested as they left Middlefield, though, for dealing drugs on the grounds of the ski resort.
It should come as no surprise there was a sharp decline in outdoor hippie music gatherings following Powder Ridge. “Festivals are really dead,” remarked Dr. Abruzzi shortly after what could be called the biggest disappointment in Connecticut history (aside from Charles Rocket’s unexpected suicide a couple of years ago). “Society can’t understand why kids want to do what they want to do, so they can’t find a way for them to do it.” That thought could apply to so many generational conflicts, from the flappers of the ’20s who just wanted to hang out in basements, drink, and do the Charleston to the skate punks of the ’80s who just wanted to hang out in parking lots, do whippits, and grind on some gnarly pavement to the hackers of today who just want to hang out on a LAN network, smoke crystal meth, and pwn n00bs. It’s a sick, never-ending cycle, a gap that not even Dr. Phil or the Grumpy Old Men movies could bridge.
The residents of Middlefield must have felt pretty smug when Powder Ridge went south and became one of the last nails in the ‘60s coffin. Finally, they could go back to their Mint Juleps and golf tournaments, confident in the fact they had stopped Joe Cocker from polluting their fresh colonial air with his raspy caterwauling and general stink. Connecticut was safe for everyone over 35 again. It would remain that way for many years to come. In fact, the only other serious threat these people had to face came in 2005, when a false emergency broadcast went out over the airwaves calling for the evacuation of the entire state (obviously the work of bored, horny teens jacked upon the good stuff).
At least the scene at Powder Ridge was groovy enough to see the birth of a love child. Dina Amoure, born to Peter and Shelley Rowland of New York City, popped out onto a grassy Connecticut knoll in the middle of that crazy, crazy weekend (the proud father passed around joints in lieu of cigars). Dina is the official Powder Ridge Baby, the human representation of not letting things become a total bummer, even if the suits are trying to bring you down and the water is all polluted and you’re gonna get busted by a pig the second you walk outta there, man. Hopefully Dina has grown into a wonderful flower loving enough to let her own kids keep whatever stray ninja equipment they find lying around their family’s apartment complex and have snowball fights whenever they please.
Here’s to you, Dina, where ever you are.