Happening just two weeks after Woodstock, the New Orleans Pop Festival 1969 is often called Louisiana’s Woodstock. But then many festivals around that time were keen to cast themselves in the counterculture glow of the upstate New York zeitgeist. Promoter Steve Kapelow said “we expect 15,000 – 20,000 in light of advance ticket sales, but we have prepared for double that.” Kapelow explained that their extra preparations were costing more money than was likely necessary, “but we’d rather do that then have the industry suffer another disaster,” referring to Woodstock where attendance was vastly greater than anticipated, and preparations were inadequate. Kapelow pointed out that he was confident in his attendance projections because the Louisiana population base was much smaller than that of the New York area, that there was another pop festival in the Dallas area on the same weekend that would compete for attendees, and that destruction from Hurricane Camille, which made its U.S. landfall on July 18 in the Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi area would likely reduce attendance from the Gulf Coast.
The stage was built in the straight of the race track on the opposite side of the infield to the grandstand, with capacities of 60,000 and 11,000 respectively. There was a double wide stage with two separate light and sound systems, making a large jam session with several groups possible and greatly reducing the intermission between performers.
Kapelow and fellow promoter Joe Kaplan attended several previous pop festivals to get an idea of what sort of preparations were necessary and that work resulted in what was reported as “an abundance of food and drink and other supplies.” Hundreds of portable toilets and 50-gallon drums of water were scattered around the race track, and limited showers were available to festival goers
The festival was originally planned for two days, but a free Saturday evening show was added. Sunday tickets went for $7.00 for advance tickets and $9.50 at the gate, while Monday prices were $8.00 in advance and $10.50 at the gate. Tickets for the entire cost $13.00 in advance and $16.00 at the gate.
Uniformed law enforcement restricted themselves to traffic control in the access roads. Although there were over 100 undercover narcotic officers, drug use was such that only 37 drug arrests were made, with the focus was on the sellers rather than the users. The programme included this warning notcie “In case you haven’t heard, narcotics are prohibited by federal and state law. Additionally, many people have become seriously ill at recent festivals because they purchased “bad” narcotics — improperly manufactured. We were told that one person died a few weeks ago at Woodstock due to improperly made acid purchased at the festival. Please do not consume narcotics at the festival; but, even more important, DO NOT BUY DRUGS — THEY MAY BE VERY DANGEROUS. Plainclothes detectives will be in the crowd. For your own safety, please avoid the obvious consumption of drugs.”
OK, dude, I guess, but we just wanna get high and see God. Is that too much to ask, man?
Promoters had arranged for several motorcycle clubs to handle internal security, and apparently did a good job (it had to happen once!) Local Sheriff H. M. Waguespack praised the behaviour of the crowd, saying that things were going much better than he had expected. Local towns were under a tight night curfew due to violence resulting from racial incidents because of the recent court-ordered integration of area schools, but the sheriff’s office declined to extend the curfew to the festival site. A medical team hired by the promoters handled a few cases of drug overdoses, but most cases were related to insect bites and cuts incurred by walking on broken glass. Ouch. That’d harsh your buzz, man.
Peak attendance occurred on Sunday when 30-35,000 turned up.
It kicked off on Saturday with lots of local bands. It’s A Beautiful Day were the last band on, following Tyrannosaurus Rex. This pattern was followed again on the Sunday with local bands getting things going. But then the big guns really kicked in. IABD played again, followed by Country Joe and the Fish, the Byrds, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, Janis and closing with Santana. Now that is as good a line-up as you’d have found anywhere at any festival in 69 with many of them coming off the back of Woodstock success.
But Monday was red hot too, with more from Santana and IABD and a triple header of Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the day was wrapped up by local voodoo merchant, Dr John.
Reviews of the music called It’s A Beautiful Day “one of the outstanding acts of the entire festival” and received calls for the first encore of the day. Canned Heat, was described as “the hit of the night” others loved Iron Butterfly.
This was one of the most peaceful festivals and good planning managed to make it relatively incident free. Interesting that the promoters were already learning from previous disasters and the more enlightened ones beginning to provide sufficient facilities to stop the whole site turning into a disaster zone. and the music – well – the cream of the west coast rocked Louisiana hard. Oh for a time machine. The New Orleans Pop Festival in 1969 would be one of the first places I’d want to visit.
*Written from wikipedia accounts and local newspaper reports.