Concertgoing in coronavirus times: Powder Ridge holds an anniversary of a festival that didn’t happen

Christopher Arnott, Hartford Courant

The 50th anniversary of a famous festival that “never happened” barely happened itself.

Sean Hayes, the CEO and president of Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort, said his Saturday night event — the largest he’s held since the COVID crisis began — was “50 years in the making.” It honored a legendary concert-that-almost-happened on the same site in 1970.

The historical significance of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival meant a 50th anniversary event in the same location could not be easily pushed aside, even by a raging pandemic. As it happened, the tribute show — with just two bands, and a crowd capped at 400, was the biggest gathering at Powder Ridge since March, and one of the largest outdoor concert events in the state during this socially distanced summer.

It was an orderly, sedentary affair, with very little shouting or dancing. Concertgoers took off their masks when they settled onto their blankets and lawn chairs, but donned them again when strangers approached.

Even the bands were subdued. The Ellington-based cover band The ’70s Project is usually a seven-piece, including a horn section, but due to coronavirus concerns within the band they were down to a trio of guitar, bass and bongos for this gig. This affected the set list, which leaned toward slower fare like Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”

At 5:45 p.m., midway through The ’70s Project’s set, around 200 people had turned up, with the rest of the crowd expected by the time the Led Zeppelin tribute band Presence CT began its hourslong set at 7 p.m.

Some came because they’d been at the original Powder Ridge Rock Festival in 1970, when the crowds came but the bands were kept away when a court injunction shut it down shortly before it was scheduled to start. This time, the concertgoers brought their children and grandchildren. Robert Magrath, who likes Foreigner and Led Zeppelin, was one of many young classic rock fans there. He’d come for the bands.

Rene Gagnon, who was 17 at the time of the original festival, made it up the road “in a little old Pontiac,”and “somehow managed to come back and forth all three days. They were blocking people off, intimidating people.” He recalls “lots of good camaraderie” among the festivalgoers. He was at the anniversary for some of the same reasons: “being outdoors, hearing good music,” but also because “we’ve COVID-stirred, stir-crazy.” A concertgoer all his life, he hadn’t been out to a show since the coronavirus crisis began.

Howard Crocker rowed a boat across a lake to crash the original festival in 1970. “We were just hanging out and drinking.” This year, it was about being outdoors with family.

For Dave Doebrick of New Britain, a Vietnam War veteran who went into the service in the ’70s, the only other concert he’d been to recently was a benefit for veterans at Restschler Field.

Tom Fladd of Cromwell was only 10 when the “festival that never happened” happened, but has memories of how the area was disrupted.

Steve Macholl and Hillary Marino of Branford had simply come to “hear live music, enjoy the sunshine.”

The original Powder Ridge Rock Festival, scheduled for July 31 through Aug. 2, 1970, had its permits pulled by the town of Middlefield the Monday before it was due to start, and the performers (including Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers and dozens of others) were told they’d be arrested if they played.

Fifty years later, local regulations were still a major issue. This time it was a public health matter.

Hayes and his business partner Kevin Cottle, who oversees the restaurant end of Powder Ridge, were personally ushering people to their seats (i.e., the lawn chairs they’d brought with them), careful to space them out across the spacious lawn behind the main ski resort building.

Powder Ridge has already been holding small outdoor Saturday night shows over the past few weeks, and plans to continue them all summer. “Concerts were always in our plans,” Hayes says, “changing from a wintertime ski park to a year-round facility.”

Powder Ridge had originally planned a much larger festival to mark the 50th anniversary of the biggest non-event in their history. Their tribute would have gone on for three days and included at least 10 bands, who were ready to cover songs by most the superstar acts who’d been expected in 1970. It would also have included a beer fest. It was planned that 5,000 people would attend. Due to the virus, “we canceled it,” Hayes said. “Then the governor came out with new reopening guidelines,” and Powder Ridge was able to plan a scaled-back anniversary with a few bands plus food trucks and vendors.

Then, Hayes says, “on Monday morning we got a call from the health department.” The food trucks and vendors classified the event as a “fair,” and fairs are still not allowed under state COVID guidelines. The event was allowed to go forward if it lost the trucks and vendors. A couple of concessions tables with burgers and sodas sufficed.

“History almost repeated,” Hayes said.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.

———

©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting.