Sunday, August 16, 2009

At Woodstock, Led Zeppelin was never booked to play, says festival organizer Michael Lang

Forty years ago, the Woodstock Festival of Arts and Music took place on Max Yazgur's farm in Bethel, N.Y. As we know, Led Zeppelin did not play at Woodstock. But it is seldom understood why this was the case.

It is often printed that Led Zeppelin was at one time booked to play Woodstock but later opted out. This is not the case, says Woodstock organizer Michael Lang. Led Zeppelin was never booked to perform at the festival.

In a conversation with Lemon Squeezings last week, Lang remembered talking with Led Zeppelin's manager, Peter Grant, in 1969 about booking the band for Woodstock but was unable to obtain a commitment. "Their manager [Peter Grant] said he didn't want them to be just another band on the bill," Lang recalled.

It's an odd explanation, given that Led Zeppelin played similar festivals near Seattle and Austin two weeks before and after Woodstock, alongside many of the same acts that were at Woodstock. But when it came time for the three days of peace and music, Led Zeppelin took its serving of "Whole Lotta Love" elsewhere.

Woodstock was the second gig for a supergroup called Crosby, Stills & Nash. It was the breakthrough gig for a San Francisco band called Santana. Jimi Hendrix made an iconic appearance, turning the Star-Spangled Banner into an expression of how an abandoned generation felt about the war and the establishment. The Who played its genre-bending rock opera "Tommy."

Led Zeppelin, meanwhile, chose to play four gigs over the weekend Woodstock was taking place.
  • The first was a headlining gig over Jethro Tull and Sweet Smoke on Friday, Aug. 15, at the Hemisfair Arena in San Antonio, Texas.
  • The other three, however, were a short driving distance from Woodstock.
  • Two on Saturday, Aug. 16, took place at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, N.J., with Led Zeppelin headlining over Woodstock act Joe Cocker.
  • The weekend closed with a Sunday night performance at the Oakdale Musical Theatre in Wallingford, Conn. Led Zeppelin was the only band on the bill that day.
By the time of Woodstock's second anniversary, a Premier Talent agent told Billboard magazine why Led Zeppelin didn't perform at Woodstock: "There's a misconception in the business that from a monetary point of view festivals are successful. At the time of Woodstock, Led Zeppelin played five dates around the area at triple the money. The festival audience usually travels from 200-300 miles to make the festival scene, which usually means a "barring clause" goes up against working the area. Zeppelin would not have been able to play those five dates if they had done Woodstock. The same is true today. I advise my acts against festivals."

Peter Grant addressed the subject in one of the final interviews he gave before his death. What he told Dave Lewis in 1993 indicated Grant's own personal preference for having Led Zeppelin be the only band on a concert bill, rather than one in a multitude. This explanation obviously gels with the one Michael Lang now cites. Lang's remarks to Lemon Squeezings on Aug. 10 followed a panel discussion and screening of "Woodstock: Now & Then," a new documentary directed by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple.

Lang served as executive producer of the film and is also featured prominently in it, as is fellow Woodstock organizer Artie Kornfeld, who also took part in the panel discussion after the screening. Also joining the discussion was singer Grace Potter, who was a generation younger than the others present. She said her dad skipped out on attending Woodstock because he preferred to see Led Zeppelin at one of the weekend concerts.

The documentary airs, in edited form, on the History Channel tomorrow night, Aug. 17, at 8 p.m. Eastern / 7 p.m. Central.

1 comment:

  1. I was 50 miles away from the Woodstock site of Bethel/White lake NY. I was only 13 and was dying to go. However if I had tried I might not have made it to 14. LOL. The reason most of the bands the didn't show was because of EGO. Lets face it.
    There were bands there that became household names and some who just fizzled out like Sweetwater. Sure it was a crap shoot where some made more money than others with a cap of $15,000. It's history now but and no way to go back in time.

    "The festival audience usually travels from 200-300 miles to make the festival scene, which usually means a "barring clause" goes up against working the area."

    This was not totally true. I started in the business in 1971 in NYC and the rule back then was more like 50 miles withtin the same state. For years I worked shows at the NY Academy of Music on 14 St and we went back and forth with the Capitol Theatre in Passaic NJ having the same bands a day ahead or after the played. So the 200-300 mile barring clause was a crock.


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