Inside Woodstock 50’s Last-Ditch Maryland Attempt
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball is optimistic that Merriweather Post Pavilion could host anniversary event, though many obstacles remain
The countdown clock on Woodstock 50’s website continues to subtract days, minutes, and hours until August 16th, when the festival would ostensibly kick off. In recent weeks, its harried organizers have been denied permits four times in Vernon, New York, where they attempted to move the beleaguered fest from its original proposed site of Watkins Glen International. And with no venue in place, they have yet to put tickets on sale.
But much like the original Woodstock, they may be granted a reprieve at the 11th hour. On Thursday, with a mere three weeks to go, Columbia, Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion emerged as the fest’s possible savior. But there are still a few italicized question marks that may continue to put the festival in jeopardy.
“It definitely could happen here,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball tells Rolling Stone. Ball serves in a role similar to a mayor for the county, whose city of Columbia is situated between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “It’s up to the promoter and Merriweather.”
Ball, in particular, is excited to potentially have Woodstock 50 in his backyard. He learned last week that the festival organizers were in talks with the Merriweather venue — which opened in the summer of 1967 and hosted a Janis Joplin gig three weeks before the original event in 1969. “Woodstock is an icon of peace and music,” he says. “I think when you combine that with the history and foundation of Columbia, focused on peace, inclusion, diversity, and our shared interest in the arts, I thought it was a great opportunity to have a conversation.”
This past Tuesday, he sent a letter to Greg Peck, one of the principal organizers of Woodstock 50, expressing his excitement. “When we heard that there was an opportunity to save this festival and bring a piece of American history to our community this summer, we jumped at the chance,” he wrote. “Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia is a jewel of Howard County and one of the top music venues in the nation. It felt like such a natural fit to host a historic festival on our storied stage.”
If all goes well with shoring up the venue, Ball says the county has the framework in place to put on the show. The police, fire, and transportation departments fall under his purview, as does the necessary permitting; these have previously been bugbears for Woodstock 50 at the New York State venues they originally scouted for the festival. “We’ve had Jazz Fest, Virgin Freefest and many other festivals here that have brought tens of thousands of people,” he says. “We have the infrastructure in place.” And he adds, “We have a history here in Howard County of being efficient and making things happen on very short order when needed.”
But those newly involved in Woodstock 50 have cautioned to say with absolute certainty that the festival will occur. When a reporter asked Ball, “So you’re absolutely positive that Woodstock 50 is going to take place?” at a press conference Thursday night, Ball demurred, replying, “Howard County is absolutely positive that we are in talks with the promoter and with Merriwether.”
Merriweather Post Pavilion was equally cautious in their official statement, sounding almost passive-aggressive in their punting to the Woodstock 50 organizers. “Woodstock 50 approached Merriweather about hosting their event here in Columbia, Md.,” Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. and operator of Merriweather Post Pavilion, said in a statement Thursday. “The Woodstock folks are working on securing the artists now. If the bands come, we’ll produce the show. We’re looking forward to getting an update as soon as Woodstock 50 has one.”
Reports of the lineup so far have been grim. Jay-Z, the festival’s highest-profile artist, will not perform in Maryland. And John Fogerty, one of a handful of Woodstock ’69 alumni, has said that he’s now opting to perform solely at the Woodstock “tribute” on the original festival site. “John Fogerty knows where he will be for the anniversary weekend of Woodstock,” his rep said in a statement. “At only one site … at the original one — the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.” On Friday, Woodstock 50 producers released all artists from their contracts, per Billboard,leaving the lineup very much in doubt.
A rep for Woodstock 50 declined to comment for this article. A rep for the Merriweather Post Pavilion declined to comment.
Hurwitz reiterated in a Pollstar interview Thursday that he’s just waiting to see which artists will come to the venue. “Right now, I am still waiting on them to present us with a show,” he said. “We are ready to do a show if they have one.”
The venue already has Smashing Pumpkins and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds booked that weekend and would have to consider working around that. (A rep for Gallagher did not reply to a request for comment. A rep for the Pumpkins declined to comment.) “We need to talk to them about maybe being involved [in Woodstock 50] or maybe we wouldn’t do it on that day,” Hurwitz said. The whole thing is a big “if,” but he’s cautiously optimistic. “Maybe [Woodstock] will end up one day or maybe it will end up being three days, who knows?” he said. “Let’s see who they tell me is playing. That’s what I’m waiting for at this point.”
Meanwhile, agents are working behind the scenes to figure out whether the dozens of other acts who are still listed on the festival’s lineup page (which still mentions Watkins Glen in the artwork) will commit to the move. Earlier this week, Woodstock 50 organizers put in a request to at least one major talent agency to see if they would perform at Merriweather. Rolling Stonehas confirmed that numerous acts on the original lineup would still get paid even if they declined to perform, as artists contractually have the right to refuse to play the new venue.
“Once the promoter lines up the various acts with Merriweather, I am going to be prepared and ensure that we have a safe, fun, special event that not only celebrates our history, but sends a message to everyone right now who needs a little bit more peace, love, and unity,” Ball says.
One big question mark that remains is how many people not only would attend Woodstock 50, but could. Hurwitz has said that the venue could accommodate up to 32,500 people on weekend days — Ball says that’s because they have expanded the venue in recent years — but it all comes down to interest. “We’ll have to go through the permitting process, and we’ll have to see what that looks like,” Ball says about the prospect of tens of thousands of people coming to the venue. “It will depend on the acts, the time of the acts, when people are coming, but we’ll be well prepared.”
But the biggest question remains: will anyone actually come? With so much negative press surrounding Woodstock 50, the prospective number of attendees has dropped from an original estimate of 150,000 to 61,000 when it came to permitting at the original venue, Watkins Glen, to a cap of 32,500 people. The original Woodstock attracted between 250,000 people and 400,000 people. Woodstock ’94 brought in 300,000 to 350,000 people, and even Woodstock ’99 got 225,000 music fans to upstate New York. But it’s safe to assume that people have grown wary of Woodstock 50 as it has fumbled repeatedly over the past few months.