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Sound Storm – Wisconsin’s Woodstock

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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 alwyers 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.

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. 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 the better-known band Cheap Trick, also played. The main event, however, was Sunday’s five-hour performance by the Grateful Dead, with whom Pete 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. Medical students staffed first aid and “bad trips” tents, volunteers from the Hog Farm 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? Those officers can’t have been very undercover then, can they? Fans frolicked – and who doesn’t lovde 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

Related t-shirt JERRY GARCIA
*Created from WisconsinHistory.org

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