Sound Storm Festival, Wisconsin April 1970

Sound Storm Festival, Wisconsin April 1970
Authored By John Nicholson

Sound Storm was Wisconsin's first outdoor rock festival. It was held April 24-26, 1970, on the hillside farm of Irene York, outside the village of Poynette in Columbia County. That sounds a long way from anywhere and quite close to nowhere.

The dude - and there's always a dude - behind Sound Storm was Pete Obranovich, better known at the time as Pete Bobo (of course he was), and his friends Sandy Nelson and Bob Pulling. Using the name Golden Freak Enterprises (was there ever a more counterculture company name than that?), Pete raised capital, signed three dozen bands, licensed vending and concession rights, hired a stage crew and sound engineers, and promoted Sound Storm coast to coast. Pretty good work from the Bobo dude.

The villains in this story - and there are always villains - were, as usual, The Man and his lawyers. There was the usual 'we don't want no freaky deaky, loop-de-loops or booby cats on our god-fearin' land, mister' business. However, Bobo be thinkin'. He hired Madison attorneys John Hanson, Roger Schnitzler and Jack Van Metre and they eventually triumphed over local government uptights who were determined to block the festival.

I often think the city fathers and others who always wanted to stop festivals at this time, totally underestimated the freaks' ability to fight their corner. Like many before and since, the straights thought a few stiff lawyers letters would put a stop to the hippies, but, as was so often the case, they were very wrong.

Bob Pulling, mindful that the Sound Storm rock festival would make Wisconsin musical history, documented the event photographically from start to finish. There are lots of his excellent photographs online. This is really important for a festival to live on in folklore. If there is little documentation, it quickly fades, but a decent archive of photos preserves it in the collective imagination and it becomes part of local culture.

Stage and sound crews began arriving on Wednesday, April 22, and 48 hours later more than 1,000 fans had set up tents and blankets on the York farm. Music began at dusk on Friday and continued almost non-stop until after dark on Sunday. Dean Jensen, from the Milwaukee Sentinel, April 27 1970, filed this report.

"Thousands who camped for the weekend in the kames and drumlins of a rolling wooded farmland near here began to leave after the Grateful Dead - a nationally popular rock group and the top billed band of the "Sound Storm" rock fest - left the stage.

"The sheriff's department estimated Sunday's crowd at 25,000. Another 25,000 were here Saturday and 12,000 on Sunday - many of them holdovers for the entire three day celebration.

"At 11 p.m., there were about 3,000 persons at the site and promoters said the bizarre bazaar probably would wind up about 3 a.m. Monday.

"Sunday's crowd climbed higher and higher as the sun made its ascent. Many persons in it were in states of delirium from the caterwauling guitars and the drugs and marijuana.

"One naked young man danced atop a U-Haul van beside the four tier stage.
An "Earth People Beach" was established beside a creek that meanders through the 660 acre wooded farmland two miles west of Poynette.

"Dozens of young men and women peeled off their clothes and frolicked in the water.
"One young woman in the teeming crowd, unabashed by the photographers who approached her, sun bathed nude save for her rose colored glasses.

"Donald K. Bobo, vice president of Golden Freak, Inc., of Madison, which promoted the festival, said Sunday night, 'we're wiped out, bankrupt, we've lost 25,000 bucks.'

"Bobo said that although crowds were large, thousands of persons entered the sprawling grounds without paying. He declined to say what the production costs were for such things as renting the land, hiring nearly 50 rock bands and more than 100 security guards.

"The workmen who manned the mobile electric generating plant for the stage lights and musical amplifiers complained late Sunday that they had not been paid. They threatened to pull the plug.

"Donations were then collected from the crowd to keep the beat going. At about 11 p.m., $500 had been collected - half the amount the workmen said they had been promised.

"A highlight Sunday, besides the appearance of the Grateful Dead, was a hippie wedding on stage. Barbara Swenson, 21, of Madison, a winsome bride with a garland of baby's breath flowers in her blond hair and wearing a floor-length cotton gown, gave this explanation for the fest wedding: 'All of these people are our friends and where could we find a church big enough for them?' The bridegroom, Robert Leslie, 22, of Oconomowoc, lead guitarist in the Northern Comfort, one of the performing groups, nodded agreement.

"Columbia County Sheriff Vearn Golz reported that only three arrests were made during the three days - two for littering and one for drunken driving.

'It's just amazing," Golz said. "If you had this many middle age people, drinking the way these kids are, you'd have no end of fights and trouble.'

"The major note of trouble of the festival was a fire which destroyed an abandoned farmhouse on the grounds and three cars parked nearby. About 20 volunteer firemen from the village of Poynette battled the blaze which leveled the two story building. There was no immediate estimate of damage in the fire, which authorities said was of unknown origin.

"A supervising nurse in a medical aid station reported that the 35 volunteer nurses and doctors had given medical attention to about 60 persons, two dozen of them for bad drug trips."

The story he tells here, of younger people all getting along fine despite the intoxication, was genuinely shocking to many. The straights couldn't really dig that these were people who had a different set of values and different ways of doing things. Imagine how shocking it was to tell everyone how terrible a festival would be, how all the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah would be visited upon an innocent town, only to find the exact opposite was true. That's a revolution.

Most performers were from the Midwest, such as Chicago's Rotary Connection and Baby Huey. Never heard of them? Me neither. Rockford's Fuse, which evolved into Cheap Trick, also played. The main event, however, was Sunday's five-hour performance by the Grateful Dead, with whom Mr Bobo had been friendly on the West Coast in the late '60s. Their set is well recorded and available from the usual sources. Lots of local bands played, but the only others ones I've heard of are Luther Allison and Illinois Speed Press. Reports suggest an early version of REO Speedwagon was also present.

About 30,000 people attended Sound Storm, the majority sneaking in through the woods without paying, the cheeky scamps. The Columbia County sheriff, who doubtless wore a very tight, largely polyester shirt, seeing his officers exponentially outnumbered by hippies and bikers, wisely decided to ignore misdemeanors such as nudity and drug use.

LSD and other psychedelic drugs were everywhere, along with marijuana and cheap, screw-top wine - mmmm delish. I used to drink gallon flagons of cheap wine when we lived in California. I've never been happier.

Medical students staffed first aid and bad trips tents, volunteers from the Hog Farm (they're like the wind, the Hog Farm: everywhere) commune in New Mexico helped as stage announcers, and Madison's Mifflin Street Co-op provided free food. I imagine Wavy Gravy was on hand to dispense good vibes too. This really was a mini Woodstock.

Throughout the weekend, ecstatic dancers whirled before the stage, getting their groove on. When undercover officers infiltrated the crowd, Pete dropped 10,000 fliers from a helicopter urging the audience not to harm them. Where did he get a helicopter from? How do you just get a helicopter like that? Only Bobo knows.

Those officers can't have been very undercover then, can they? Fans frolicked - and who doesn't love to frolick - in nearby Rowan Creek, even crowning their own Mud King, as you do when, you're higher than God on LSD. Two members of the band Northern Comfort even got married on stage. Only a handful of injuries or arrests were reported.

Good work Mr Bobo. Good work indeed. 

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