Northern California Folk-Rock Festival, San Jose, California 1969

Northern California Folk-Rock Festival, San Jose, California 1969
Authored By John Nicholson

The Northern California Folk-Rock Festival was held at Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, California on May 23-25, 1969.

A year earlier, the first festival held here had ended in a drug-fuelled mess with 1000s of people out of their minds on industrial strength PCP. So it was lucky to get the go-ahead for an encore given how the authorities were so anti-freak getting their freak on.

Supposedly the promoter, Bob Blodgett rented the Fairgrounds on false pretences, and then started advertising Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, even though they had neither under contract at the time. Very naughty, though hardly unheard of in these wild west days of festival and rock and roll organisation.

The festival was well attended and without the drug issues of the previous gig, but the city and county made sure there wasn't any further events afterwards.

The Aquarian Family Festival, which I document here, sprung up across town, half-a-mile away, as a counter-weight to this festival, with many hippies feeling that the 2nd annual Northern Californian folk Festival was all about the bread and not about the heads and there could be no greater counterculture crime than to be not cool about dough, man. About 80,000 people are estimated to have attended the two festivals in total.

However, a brilliant array of heavyweights were put onto the bill - whether actually booked or not - and that included the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Santana, Spirit, Chuck Berry, the Steve Miller Band, Muddy Waters, Canned Heat and the Chambers Brothers, whose mind-expanding Time Has Come Today was a new psychedelic epic. It also offered up a chance to see one of the first-ever live shows by a budding super-group, formed from the ashes of England's Yardbirds called Led Zeppelin. 

Led Zeppelin: The Concert File (Dave Lewis and Simon Pallett, Omnibus Press 1997) quotes Peter Grant as saying that Led Zeppelin actually had a gig in Chicago all weekend, so they played Friday afternoon (May 23) and the promoter hired a Lear Jet to fly them to Chicago for their Friday Night show. At this time, their first album had just been released to enormous acclaim. So they were in the Windy City and not anywhere near Northern California. Zeppelin filed a lawsuit against Blodgett who then flew in Hendrix, and paid him $30,000 for a half hour set. 

At the time of this show, Santana was just another popular local band without an album, although their groundbreaking debut album would be released a few months later. It's also significant for one of the earliest gigs country rock innovators Poco ever played. 

It was a riotous weekend in Santa Clara with many thousands of hippies wandering between both shows, the Aquarian Festival being free meant this was easy to do.  Local retailers all cashed in and made a tone of money selling food and drink, and although this meant they had to put up with hippies getting it on in the streets and generally doing what came naturally, hey, it was only for a couple of days and this was your chance to sell off all that brown rice you'd had in the back for years that no-one had wanted to buy.

The full line up that actually played: AUM, Blues Image, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Canned Heat, Cat Mother, Chuck Berry, Doc Watson, Elvin Bishop, Eric Burdon & The Animals, Jefferson Airplane, Lee Michaels, Lynn County, Muddy Waters, New Lost City Ramblers, Noel Redding, People!, Poco, Santana, Spirit, Steve Miller Band, Sweet Linda Divine, Taj Mahal, The Chambers Brothers, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Loading Zone, The Youngbloods

Had this festival been filmed or recorded, then it would've had an important place in rock n roll history, just as Monterey and Woodstock did, but it wasn't and as such is really only remembered locally. 

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