On August 30, 1968, the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair opens a three-day run in a pasture near Sultan in Snohomish County. This is one of America's first multi-day, outdoor rock concerts. Among the bands and performers playing at the Sky River Rock Festival are Santana, Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton, Country Joe and the Fish, Richard Pryor, Dino Valenti, Byron Pope, It’s a Beautiful Day, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Alice Stuart Thomas, the Youngbloods, New Lost City Ramblers, and local groups such as Juggernaut and Easy Chair. On the last day, The Grateful Dead arrive unscheduled.
Piano Falls Out of the Sky
The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair was born of the "Piano Drop," an event held four months earlier in Duvall on April 28, 1968, and sponsored by radio station KRAB and the Helix newspaper. The Piano Drop answered the musical question, “What sound does a piano make when it’s dropped from a helicopter?”
More than 3,000 inquiring people made a pilgrimage to tiny Duvall to witness this earth-splattering event and to see a show by Country Joe and the Fish. The Piano Drop was a countercultural success. The event also made money, causing Paul Dorpat, publisher/editor of the Helix, to speculate, “If 3,000 people come to hear one band, how many would come to hear a dozen, or two dozen, or ...?”
The idea appealed to sundry circles that intersected at the Helix office. Social revolutionaries, hippie communalists, psychedelic evangelists, musicians, and music fans all saw the value of holding some kind of event –- but what kind, and under what name?
Sky, River, Rock
A location for the festival had already been determined: Betty Nelson’s “organic raspberry” farm near Sultan (approximately 30 miles northeast of Seattle, along the Skykomish River). Betty, a rural free spirit, had gladly donated the use of a large pasture cradled in a natural amphitheater.
Larry Van Over, originator of the Piano Drop “concept,” became obsessed with the idea of giving people rides on a giant tethered helium balloon. He therefore advocated “The Lighter Than Air Fair.” Others felt that music should be the main draw. In May or June, Paul Dorpat, Walt Crowley, Scott White, Gary Finholt, John Bixler, John Cunnick, Tim Harvey, and possibly Tom Robbins or at least his astral body (no one quite remembers) gathered at a house in Wallingford to choose the name.
With candles illuminating a dense haze of incense and other combustibles, the group squatted around a low table. At one point, someone intoned “Skykomish River.” Someone else abbreviated this to “Sky River.” And someone else added “Rock.” Sky – River – Rock. Sky – River – Rock! SKY – RIVER – ROCK! Out of this mantra came the “Sky River Rock Festival,” with Van Over’s “and Lighter Than Air Fair” appended later. Now the festival had a place and it had a name. All it needed was a festival.
Forty Bands and One Contented Frog
Cyrus Noe, Helix “Society Editor” and recently retired director of the University of Washington’s noncredit extension program, invited UW instructor and conterculture champion John Chambless into the mix. Chambless offered to direct the festival with help from his wife Dorothy Chambless and from Cy. John and Cy co-signed notes for $40,000 in seed capital and arrangements were made to donate any profits to Native American organizations.
Tickets went on sale in mid-July before a single band had been signed. Advance prices were set at $6 for all three days, and $8 at the gate. Chambless and his crew scrambled to sign up acts. The ever-faithful Country Joe was one of the first to sign up, and as the event drew near, Walt Crowley’s poster for the event listed 40 confirmed acts.
The poster produced a mild brouhaha. It featured a frog sitting on a rock, contentedly smoking a joint. Cy Noe, who had been assuring local constabularies that the festival would assemble the finest American youth for a celebration of American values in the great American outdoors, came unglued. He did not welcome truth in advertising. Crowley countered that if Cy could sell the locals that line of bull, he could convince them that the frog was smoking a fine American cigar. Most likely that is what Cy did. The posters went up quickly, two weeks before the festival.
Like Trying to Steer an Avalanche
Work progressed. A giant stage and assorted tents were erected. Portable toilets (many too few) were rented, generators were fired up, and miles of wire were strung. Betty Nelson’s pasture was transformed into a bivouac for the expected Golden Horde.
And they came, 20,000 strong. Some even paid. First a trickle, the smart ones who scouted out the best campsites, then the masses, eager but unprepared. Roger Downey was put in charge of directing “security,” and as such, he displayed solid judgment and sounded a strategic retreat within hours of the festival’s opening. To do anything else would have been, in Cy Noe’s phrase, “like trying to steer an avalanche.”
The weather on the first day was overcast but not hostile. Drivers shuttled bands and performers between Sea-Tac airport, their rooms in the Camlin Hotel (appropriately, home of the Cloud Room), and unsunny Sultan.
Larry Van Over dutifully filled his balloon with helium, tied it to a truck bumper, and 10 minutes later watched it float away. Frantic calls located a hot-air balloonist in Spokane who trekked west with his gear. He could have skipped the trip, for people came for the music, not for balloon rides.
Dancin’ Naked in the Noonday Sun
Who played and in what order? Who knows? Some 50 groups had committed, but not everyone showed up. On the other hand, the Grateful Dead arrived unscheduled and unexpected. Other bands and perfomers, depending upon whom you talk to, included Santana, Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton, Country Joe and the Fish, Richard Pryor, Dino Valenti, Byron Pope, It’s a Beautiful Day, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Alice Stuart Thomas, the Youngbloods, New Lost City Ramblers, and local groups such as Juggernaut and Easy Chair. Suffice it to say that enough bands came to keep the stage hopping 18 hours a day for three days.
The rain came too, that first night. Though the vast field turned to mud, few attendees gave up their ground. The bands played on, and the view from the stage, looking out into darkness, was of scattered fires and lanterns flickering in the mist like some prehistoric encampment.
The gods took pity the next day, and briefly the mud baked in bright sunlight. The denizens of Sky River Rock stirred from their huts and greeted the day. Blouses and bras, pants and briefs were discarded. A dance began and soon linked hundreds in a spontaneous ritual of purification around and within a deep pool of ooze.
An Instant, or a Millennium
It was magic. Even the drunken rowdies who intruded with the sole aim of kicking hippie butt were swept up in the collective wonder of the thing. When the festival ran short of drinking water, the Sultan townsfolk gladly trucked it in for free. Clouds and drizzle returned, but pervasive good cheer prevailed against every adversity and every shortage and could not be doused.
The three days passed in an instant, or a millennium. “It’s a Beautiful Day” finished the last set on the afternoon of September 2. The stage was disassembled, the tents struck, the cables coiled, the litter collected, and a final caravan of beat-up trucks, VW buses, and vans headed south toward the real world.
The following year, the second Sky River Rock Festival was held near Tenino, south of Olympia. By that time, outdoor rock concerts had become popular nationwide, and the second Sky River Rock did not achieve the successes garnered by the first. For many, experiencing something wonderful for the very first time was a hard act to follow.