Laurel Pop Festival, Baltimore, Maryland, July 1969

Laurel Pop Festival, Baltimore, Maryland, July 1969
Authored By John Nicholson

The summer of 69 was dominated in festival history by Woodstock. It casts a long shadow and virtually defines that period of time in rock history. However, while Woodstock became a global event of cultural importance, lots of other festivals happened in USA that summer which, while never registering on the cultural richter scale, were nonetheless superb musical events. Laurel Pop Festival was one such.

Held in Maryland in July 1969, it was attended by 15,000 fans and offered two days of music from some of the biggest bands around at that time. The event ended in controversy as rain-soaked fans built bonfires with wooden folding chairs and refused to leave, as the concert rocked on into the early morning. But, considering some other festivals had attracted shootings, half-naked biker women, and various assaults, this was all relatively tame stuff.

The festival was the brainchild of two Baltimore concert promoters, Elzie Street and James Scott, who teamed up with nationally known music promoter George Wein for The Laurel Pop Festival. Wein was the creator of the legendary Newport Jazz and Pop festivals. Their commitment to Maryland's music scene extended to two other festivals they promoted in 1969, The Morgan State Jazz Festival and The Laurel Jazz Festival.

It was held at the Laurel Race Course. Local media, especially The Baltimore Sun, ran numerous articles reporting on the progress of the festival. "Exciting pop music is coming to Laurel Race Course", started one article in The Sun, which also discussed the acts scheduled to appear. "It is estimated that their combined output of single and LP recordings exceeds 25 million".

A week later, The Sun called the upcoming festival a really mixed bag, which all just goes to prove that there was no lexicon for rock music at the time. Festivals were often reported by straight people as though observing exhibits in a zoo.

The day before the concert, The Laurel News Leader reported that "advance ticket sales have assured the success of the first Laurel Pop Festival that features artists whose names read like a 'Who's Who' in the world of pop music." Yeah, groovy, daddio. Obviously, it wasn't pop music at all but anything which appealed to young people was still called pop. Rock had yet to be a definition widely used in the straight press.

Tickets were on sale at First National Bank (I bet they loved all the hippies coming in, eh?), Hutzlers, Montgomery Ward, Bum Steer (great name), the Record Rack, Slack Shack, Empire Music stores and other outlets. The festival ran for two days, Friday and Saturday nights, July 11 and 12. Box seats were $10, and reserved seats ranged from $6.75 to $4.75. 

The first night was kicked off by blues guitarist Buddy Guy, followed by the gospel group the Edwin Hawkins Singers, who were enjoying huge success with their single 'Oh, Happy Day'. The next act was Al Kooper, the ex-lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears. Then it was time for Jethro Tull and Johnny Winter. The latter was widely reported as having delivered a blistering set as he often did.

Finishing the first night's set was the headliner, Led Zeppelin, who were in the midst of their first world-wide tour, and had been the opening act for The Who a month earlier at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The second night's lineup was just as impressive, but the night got off to a bad start. Rain delayed the performances for two hours, which meant the fans waited in a cold downpour. The Guess Who opened up, followed by Savoy Brown, The Mothers Of Invention, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After and headlined by Jeff Beck. That was a killer day's music, if you ask me. It was 10 pm when the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, took the stage. They were on their fifth U.S. tour and scheduled to play at Woodstock, but the band broke up shortly after their performance at Laurel and cancelled. Talk about bad timing!

With only 15,000 present, no riots, no tearing down of fences and demanding the music be free, let alone anything worse, this was a festival which passed off without huge incident. This one was all about the music and every report you can find about the music says it was very, very good indeed.

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