Contact High

40 years ago, Cincinnati hosted its own mini-version of Woodstock

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The success of the Woodstock Festival in New York 40 years ago prompted dreams of hundreds of other mythic, idealistic Rock festivals in communities throughout the United States. Including Cincinnati.

As luck would have it, the city’s first major outdoor Rock festival — the Midwest Mini-Pop Festival — was scheduled for Sept. 6, 40 years ago this Sunday and just three weeks after the countercultural euphoria that was Woodstock. There was still a contact high in the air ... maybe not just contact.

The event, produced by Jim Tarbell, had scheduled one of Woodstock’s performers: Paul Butterfield Blues Band, including Howard “Buzzy” Feiten on lead guitar and the now-deceased Butterfield on blues harp and vocals. By a strange circumstance, it even had some of Woodstock’s sound system, which was shipped to Cincinnati for Tarbell’s soon-to-open Ludlow Garage club in Clifton.

And it even had some of Woodstock’s legendary torrential downpour, which resulted in a rain delay and people playing/sliding on a muddy hillside.

But there were a few — alright, more than a few — differences. It was in a zoo, for one: the Cincinnati Zoo in a locale near Forest Avenue then known as the old Bear Pits area. Concertgoers could hear the occasional zoo animal roar.

It was just one night, a Saturday, and drew about 8,000 people, modest by Woodstock standards. Besides Butterfield, the biggest names were Vanilla Fudge and Grand Funk Railroad, popular in their time but not of Woodstock-superstar stature.

According to Tarbell, Grand Funk even played before Lonnie Mack (pictured), the regional master of the Gibson Flying V electric guitar who had developed a national audience with several early-1960s hit instrumentals on Cincinnati’s Fraternity label, including “Memphis” and “Wham!”

“It was as close as most of that crowd got to Woodstock,” says David Little, a Clifton resident and political consultant who attended the event as a music-loving teenager. He bought a $5 ticket at the gate. “I do remember the rain, that was one of the things that reminded people of Woodstock. But we were so starstruck, the main thing I remember was all those great bands there.”

Three Cincinnati bands served as local openers. Two were jazzy acts: Sound Museum featuring the late Jimmy McGarry on saxophone and the Dee Felice Trio. (The Trio’s album that year, In Heat, was produced by James Brown and is now a collectible Soul Funk rarity.) A local Rock quartet, Balderdash, which featured a dynamic organist in the late Steve Brady, also played.

“We were pretty inspired,” recalls Bruce Stull, Balderdash's drummer/lead singer. (He still plays with a new version of Balderdash today.) “We did ‘Tobacco Road,’ our signature piece back then, and a song called ‘Foolin.’ We would do verse and chorus, 20 minutes of solo work, verse and chorus and out. A song was just an excuse to get a jam going.”

Tarbell had already booked some Rock shows into the Hyde Park Teen Center, beginning with Vanilla Fudge, a New York rock quartet that had a big hit in 1967-68 with a psychedelic version of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

Grand Funk, a Michigan-based Hard Rock trio, had released its debut album about a month before the Mini-Pop fest. But it had played a free concert earlier that summer at Eden Park that was such a sensation — kids spontaneously snake-danced throughout Seasongood Pavilion — that Tarbell booked them for both the festival and for Ludlow Garage on Sept. 19-20. (It became the Garage’s opening act.)

Earlier that summer, on July 6, he booked the Edwin Hawkins Singers — who had a Pop/Gospel hit in “Oh Happy Day” — into Cincinnati Zoo. That went well, and the zoo was eager to earn money by hosting more shows. But, Tarbell says, zoo leaders were less thrilled about Rock after the Midwest Mini-Pop Festival ended.

“It went on long because of all the delays, plus people were having a great time,” he says. “A lot of kids jumped the fence and snuck in — ordinarily, they didn’t have to worry about things like that. Also, a lot of kids were wandering outside of the concert arena, and they weren’t happy about that.”

By the time rains ended and headliners Mack, Butterfield and Vanilla Fudge took the stage, the show was running really late. Urban legend has it that zoo security or Cincinnati police pulled the plug or even chopped a cable to end the show.

“Everything ended abruptly,” Little says. “It was 1:30 or 2 in the morning, near the end of a set, and there didn’t seem to be a real bunch of anger about it.”

Tarbell says he might have made money on the night except that Vanilla Fudge had been signed to a guarantee plus a percentage of the gate. And the band wanted that percentage immediately.

“One of the more interesting moments was with Rocco, the road manger, when I gave him the money,” he says. “I gave him pretty much everything I had and he said, ‘Mr. Tarbell, I don’t think it’s all here.’ He had a bulge on his hip that I could only guess what it was, so I went around and scrounged up more money to give to him.”

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