Blind Faith performs at the Midwest Rock Festival at State Fair Park in 1969. The group featured Steve Winwood (left), Ginger Baker (at drums) and Eric Clapton (right). Credit: Mark Goff
Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Tom Tolan • Featured on liveauctioneers.com
Woodstock was not the only rock music festival with big-name acts during the summer of 1969.
Just three weeks before the huge gathering of young music fans in Bethel, N.Y., the three-day Midwest Rock Festival was staged at the racetrack at State Fair Park, with a total attendance of about 45,000.
There weren’t as many acts as played Woodstock, but there were some big ones that didn’t play the mega-festival: Led Zeppelin was there Friday night, and Blind Faith, the super-group that featured Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Steve Winwood, played one of its rare concerts on Saturday. Other acts included John Mayall, the First Edition (featuring Kenny Rogers) and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Bob Reitman, the Milwaukee radio personality who served as emcee for the festival, ranks the weekend — and another Midwest festival later that summer at County Stadium — among the top 10 concerts he’s witnessed in his years in Milwaukee.
Part of what made it memorable, he said, was the dramatic weather. There was heavy rain on Sunday. Musicians were playing on a stage made from a flatbed truck, and a makeshift plastic cover was put over it to keep the rain off them. During a performance by Joe Cocker, the plastic cover broke, and rainwater poured down on him while he sang. But Cocker kept on going — a bit of rain is nowt to a Sheffield lad, tha’ knows. There was some trepidation when blues-rocker Johnny Winter came on after Cocker. “There was a real concern that when Winter was going to plug himself in, a real concern by roadies, that he was going to get electrocuted,” Reitman says. Fortunately, only the music gave everyone a blast.
For some of those in attendance, the concert was a hometown substitute for the much anticipated Woodstock festival three weeks in the future. For others, it was a warm-up.
The scheduled list of bands was even longer than the number that actually played — Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck and the Bob Seger System were scheduled on Sunday, but rain cancelled many of that day’s performances. This festival saw Taste, with Rory Gallagher, make their United States debut.
Tommy Bolin’s first band Zephyr also played along with festival stalwarts, Pacific Gas & Electric, SRC and The Shag. Delaney & Bonnie and Friends were also there, MC5, Jim Schwall Blues Period and the Litter.
The coverage of the festival in newspapers mentioned widespread pot-smoking in the stands (well, duh!), and afterward a state legislator from West Allis, Robert Huber, took strong exception to that, saying the weekend “would make Haight-Ashbury blush.” Dude, you need to loosen up and get with the programme. For 3 days in the summer of 69 what made Milwaukee famous was not beer but kick ass rock ‘n’ roll.