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On Sunday, May 24, 1970, up to 40,000 long hairs, students and freaky deaks arrived at a muddy field at Michigan State University’s Old College Field for a one-day festival that was inevitably later dubbed ‘the mini Woodstock.’ The movie was now playing at local theaters, so everything was viewed through that lens.
The Open Air Celebration, held just three weeks after the Kent State killings which CSNY wrote Ohio about, was a break from weeks of student demos, fear of the draft and general political heaviosity. Classes were ostensibly over, despite no formal action by the administration.
"Oh wow, I love balloons, they're so...balloony"
Tickets were $5. They sold about 28,000, and around 12,000 more just wandered in anyway. The line-up was Jefferson Airplane, John Sebastian, Rotary Connection (who had been the backing band on Muddy Waters Electric Mud album and featured Mini Ripperton on vocals), Mountain (who stepped in replace Delaney & Bonnie), Small Faces (this wasn’t the Small Faces at all but The Faces. There was a confusing period when their first album was credited on the sleeve to the Small Faces and not The Faces. Basically, this was Rod Stewart’s band not, Steve Marriott’s) and Chicago.
There were problems with the sound equipment of course there were. Local reports suggest consumption of booze, dope and acid was widespread. Wha?! I can’t believe it. Hippie students at rock fest taking drugs?!! Whatever next?
"Hey chanting "no rain" actually worked, dude"
The concert was the largest ever on campus. ASMSU, the student governing body, stumped up the bread for the event. The bands were paid a total of $60,000. Airplane copped $20k, Chicago $12,500, Mountain $8,000, The Faces, $5k, John Sebastian a cool $4,500, Rotary Connection $2,500. The booking agent got $5k. That all sounds like really good money to me. I mean, JS picking up 4.5k for singing a few Spoonful songs and generally being groovy and painting rainbows over all our dreams, seems a fine reward. You can tie-dye a lot of clothes for $4.5k.
By the time toilets, security and stage and sound equipment rental had been paid for, the total cost was about $115,000, with receipts being around $140,000, a tidy $25,000 profit was made, a slice of which was given to the athletic department for their help in hosting it. Extra jock straps all round!
The gates opened at 8am kicked off and everyone piled in loaded up with blankets, coats, booze and food. The ground was soaked after heavy rain but hey, that was the way it was supposed to be, post-Woodstock, wasn’t it? Rain showers kept on coming but when you’re 8 miles high, it’s all just nature being beautiful, right? However, the rain eased off just as the music started. See, man? God loves hippies.
Psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection opened the gig at 12.30 just as the rain abated, but the amps kept cutting out. Mountain stepped up to the plate and blasted a loud set - as only Mountain could, including a version of River Deep Mountain High, which sounds amazing. I’d love to hear that.
John Sebastian was next and he was revisiting his Woodstock set, no doubt wearing tie-dyed everything.
Veterans of the festival circuit and to playing to wet hairy stoned people, Jefferson Airplane delivered a loud and well-received set, opening with Volunteers, a powerful number with great resonance for students in 1970 also playing “White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love,” and “(Won't You Try)Saturday Afternoon.”
Chicago were due on next, but the sound system wasn’t up to hosting a 7-piece band and large parts of the set was inaudible. They managed only 3 songs before the amplification went boom. It must’ve been a helluva job being the person who had to fix such problems with everyone relying on you.
Then some Hare Krishna types took the stage - as they were prone to do back then - and began chanting. It was 1970, this was how things went. They were offering “free spiritual food” and who doesn’t enjoy a large bowl of that?
The Faces closed the show and around 100 people got up onto the stage to better get their groove on, while the boys ran through their early new material as well as cover of The Stones version of It’s All Over Now and McCartney’s newly written Maybe I’m Amazed.
The Open Air Concert would remain the largest concert at MSU until 1994, when The Rolling Stones brought its show to Spartan Stadium.