Mercurial memories: MSU’s mini-Woodstock, 50 years later

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Fifty years ago Sunday, May 24, 1970, more than 35,000 music fans crowded into a muddy field at Michigan State University’s Old College Field. The spectacle was a mini-Woodstock — complete with rain, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll music.

The Open Air Celebration, held just three weeks after the Kent State killings, provided a catharsis: a break from weeks of demonstrating and generally thinking about what the future would bring. Classes were ostensibly over, despite no formal action by the administration. Graduating senior men had the draft hanging over their heads. “Woodstock,” the documentary film based on the now legendary concert, was playing at a local theater.

Attendees paid — or at least most paid — $5 to hear sets by Jefferson Airplane, John Sebastian, Rotary Connection, Mountain, Small Faces and Chicago. Problems with the sound equipment left a spotty experience, but it didn’t seem to bother most of the beer-fueled attendees, who also indulged in wine, marijuana and acid.

The concert was the largest ever on campus. ASMSU, the student governing body, fronted the dough for the event. Entertainers were paid $60,000, with other expenses, including portable toilets, security and stage and sound equipment rental, bringing the total cost to $115,000.

Starting at daybreak, students began lining up carrying supplies, blankets and rain gear. Even the sodden ground and intermittent chilly rain throughout the day did not deter them. For many, the brownies and other drugs helped take the edge off the weather conditions. By the time Rotary Connection took over the stage at about 12:30 p.m., it didn’t matter if it was windy, chilly and rainy.

Ray Walsh, now owner of Curious and Archives bookstores in East Lansing, covered the concert for the Michigan State News. Walsh, 20 at the time, reported the opening group, Rotary Connection, “were constantly plagued by amplifier problems.”

John Sebastian, formerly of The Lovin’ Spoonful, played songs “similar to his Woodstock performance,” Walsh wrote.

Walsh wrote that the set by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane “was probably the best amplified and loudest of any of the groups in the concert.” The group had the audience on their feet, playing its popular hits: “White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love,” and “Saturday Afternoon.”

It was mostly downhill after that. The sound system made Chicago barely audible; however, shortly after Hare Krishna were shooed off the stage, the remaining audience got a rare listen to the hard-rocking Small Faces, featuring Rod Stewart.

Dick Rosemont, one of the founders of the Flat, Black & Circular record store in East Lansing, now living in New Mexico, remembers Small Faces being late and the crowd thinning with many missing the dynamic Stewart.

He used a Kodak Instamatic to shoot four different color photographs showing a relaxed crowd that day.

Bob Every, director of the Greater Lansing Sports Hall of Fame and former coach of the Lansing Community College baseball team, was fortunate enough to wrangle his way closer to the stage and got some outstanding black and white photographs of John Sebastian and Grace Slick.

Every, then 20, said one of the things he remembers the most about the Open Air Concert was the rain.

‘We got an awful amount of rain before the concert was to start. There was even doubt it would happen. Then, just like that, the rain stopped and the sun came out,” he said.

He recalls everyone having a good time with the smell of “hemp” in the air.

“As I look back on it all, it was one of those necessities every young person needs while growing up. It’s a memory that’s still somewhat vivid in your brain after so many years,” he said. “I guess it was my Woodstock, but in my own backyard.”

He said he visits the baseball, softball and soccer complex several times a year for events and coaching.

“Not once when I step through those gates, do I not think of that concert. Grace Slick was my chick, and the music of Jefferson Airplane still resonates in me today,” Every said.

Rosemont said even though it was raining most of the day, it was a fun event regardless. With darkness blurring the horizon, the crowd began thinning, going back to their dorms and apartments to party and listen to records. After all, there was no school tomorrow.

The Open Air Concert would remain the largest concert at MSU until 1994, when The Rolling Stones brought its show to Spartan Stadium.

Memories are mercurial. I was 22 when I attended the Open Air Celebration. When I started researching the concert, I recalled a whole different lineup order with Chicago kicking the concert off. But like Every, I remember that day every time I make the circle around the Sparty statue. My best friend and companion that day, Alice, has been listening to the angels for more than three decades. Be good, my friend.

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