Woodstock 1999: When Rome was on the world’s biggest stage
Jeff Aderman had never been on a stage like this.
The organizers of the Woodstock 30th anniversary festival wanted some local bands to play on the Thursday before the three-day festival proper began. Anderman was the lead singer and rhythym guitar player in a four-piece group called Red Herring, which played clubs and other small venues around Rome, the kind of places so small and cramped he has to avoid bumping into the headstock of the lead and bass guitars, and the cable to his amplifier normally coils around his feet. Then they called him to the stage. It was time to go on.
“I go to step up to the lead vocal microphone and my 20-foot guitar cable is about 15 feet too short, because the stage is so big,” Aderman said. “I had to borrow somebody’s cable quick because I coudn’t get anywhere near the lead vocal mic.”
This stage was enormous. Aderman couldn’t hear the lead guitar except through the monitor right in front of him. Not only that, but here he was: At a Woodstock festival, on the stage where in the next three days there’d be some of the biggest acts in the world at the time, right here in his hometown.
Thirty years ago, the popular-music world’s eyes were on Rome, where Woodstock ‘99 was held the last weekend of July on the grounds of the decommissioned Griffiss Air Force Base. The event is being recalled elsewhere this month in connection to efforts by one of the original 1969 festival’s organizers and partners to stage a 50th anniversary festival in August at Vernon Downs. The racetrack was a possible backup location until the town cited lack of clear preparation in denying the necessary event permits. Media reports have since said it may instead by held in a scaled-down fashion at a permanent amphitheater in Maryland.
But closer to home, the last weekend in July 1999 is recalled for the Woodstock festival. Planning for it had begun the previous fall. Estimates of the ultimate attendance run up to 350,000. While many Romans were wary of the crowds, traffic and potential noise, many others saw it as just what was needed for a city that had lost much of its manufacturing base and where a major employer and institution, the Air Force base that had been there for half a century, had closed four years before. Now, the world was coming.
It was, literally and figuratively, Rome’s biggest stage.
A summer job in organizing
In May 1999, Jessica Gestwicki was a rising senior home from college at the University of Buffalo and looking for a summer job. She’d heard the Woodstock ‘99 festival was hiring and filled out an application. She got it. She became an assistant to the festival’s director of staff and community relations. The job was largely one of educating local people in light of concerns raised over having such a big event. There was a series of meetings on topics like traffic. She found the festival promoters and orgnizers professional and their experience showed. Many had connections to the ‘90s supergroup U2; she recognized some names from album liner notes.
At the festival itself, her work was largely over, but she was given a walkie-talkie and wandered through the grounds. As the festival opened, the plans seemed to have worked. Her office had moved to a hangar at the former base, from the Capitol Theatre as it had been during the planning phase, and she went home, slept and went back through the festival. Through the first two days, Gestwicki and others involved felt like patting themselves on the back. It was actualy a relaxing atmosphere, she recalled. But things changed on Sunday. Word got out about rowdiness breaking out: Bottles being thrown, festival-goers climbing speaker towers, assaults, vandalism, fires.
Gestwicki and colleagues huddled in the office. Some were in tears. It had filled her summer.
“It really felt like all our hard work was sort of undone in this moment by a couple of punks,” Gestwicki said.
She went back to college that fall, finished her degree and took a dream job, with the public television station WGBH in Boston, working on several of its well-known shows. Now, she’s the mother of two sons in Muncie, Indiana, where her husband teaches computer science, but also involved in community planning through the BSU Women’s Club, which supports a scholarship for non-traditional students. That’s included adding community events and working with other local institutions and organizing fundraising events. She had an interest in event planning and community involvement beforehand, but credits having more confidence and a sensitivity to opposition to working with Woodstock.
“I was happy to see the community come to embrace it, embrace this concert that they had various misgvings about at the outset. And I think there’s a lesson there in, I don’t know, in being open and hospitable and that things are never as bad as we fear. And even though it ended porly you kind of see both sides of human nature, I guess, that even if you do everything right you can’t control everybody.”
A tie and a lanyard
As president of the Rome Chamber of Commerce in 1999, Bill Guglielmo saw an opportunity in Woodstock ‘99 to promote his city and its businesses. Promoter Michael Lang, well-known for his role in the original Woodstock festival, came to speak to the chamber board. Guglielmo wore a Rolling Stones ties nephews had given him. It was exciting: Woodstock was coming to Rome.
By February, he was on vacation, visiting relatives in Texas, and called back to the office. “‘Did it get approved?’” he said.
The chamber wanted to get concertgoers to come see what Rome had to offer. It sold sponsorships for Birnie buses from the venue into town. The chamber had a welcome tent near the festival grounds entrance. If people wanted to take a break from the music, they could visit businesses in Rome and, it was hoped, get a favorable impression while also patronizing retailers and restaurateurs. It seemed to work, Guglielmo said, with the city and county experiencing a major boost in sales tax collections.
“Bring the attendees into Rome to vist our stores, shop in our stores and see what our community’s all about. That was our mission.”
He still has credentials on a lanyard hanging on his office doorknob.
The festival had seemed to go well. But when he got home that Sunday night, he heard on television that things had turned ugly. The reports of hooliganism, vandalism, violence and arson were coming out. (MTV told all its staff to evacuate).
Still, Guglielmo looks back on it as a positive for the community. Yes, the festival ending garnered negative attention, but were there negative effects? No, he said.
“Look at the progress we’ve seen at Griffiss Business and Technology Park over the past 20 years. It has been fantastic. I do not think there was any negative effect. There was negative publicity. But it did not stop the growth that has taken pace and is taking place at Griffiss Business and Technolgy Park.”
Professional sound and a great set
Things were going well for Corey Coleman, then a young musician from Rome in the summer of 1999. A drummer with the all-originals rock band Open Eliot, he’d been gigging almost every weekend, and when word went out that festival organizers were looking for local acts to greet arriving festival-goers and setting-up headliners, he and bandmates jumped at the chance.
He and guitarist Christian Arthur and bassist Nick Mendiola usually did their own sound, but here it was done for them, and he remembers vividly the professionalism and speed of the audio engineers and others who set them up. “Whatever you needed, you got it.”
The set up happened behind a giant curtain separating them from the act then on stage. They went on early in the afternoon. Colmey guesses there were 300 or 400 people close to the stage, and maybe 1,200 visible in the audience area — nothing like the multitudes who would be there for the main acts, but still a great setting with a big sound coming from his band.
“Our set went off without a hitch. It was a blast, an absolute blast, one of the most fun times I’ve ever had paying in my life, for sure. It was something that as a young musician you just dream about: Being able to have that opportunity to play on a stage that huge, for thousands of people.”
As for the vandalism and violence that broke out, Colmey attributes it to “adolescence combined with some people under the influence.” It was many factors coming together: Anger over expensive tickets and basics like food and water, and it was “scaldingly hot,” at least the high 90s, with much of the venue on an unshaded, hot, paved runway. He saw pallets pulled up and lit on fire, peoole with demonic looks, fire and negative energy. At times, it was surreal, and people got scared, confused and left.
“I remember it feeling kind of like ‘Lord of the Flies.’”
Now 39, Colmey teaches drumming in Rome and is preparing for August workshops in African drumming and rock ensembles at his self-named business. He also teaches private lessons. He looks back on Woodstock ‘99 with mixed emotions. It was a fantastic time as a musician, but hometown pride is mixed with hurt over how it ended.
Colmey wasn’t harmed physically but was injured nonetheless.
“I did feel hurt because being a Roman, I love this city and love the people here, and I just felt like we were getting trashed on. And so yeah, that did hurt that that was happening in our city and it would probaby ruin our chances of haivng something similar or having a festival of that scope ever in our town again. I thought it would probaby be over for us.”
Colmey moved to Seattle and New York City before coming back to Rome. Once in a while, when away, he’d mention his hometown and people would ask: Oh, yeah: Is that near Woodstock ‘99?
On the big stage, with a pass
Now 48 and running a recording studio in Utica, Aderman chuckles. “I say, ‘Hey, ‘I played Woodstock,’ because I did. But technically it was Thursday that we played.”
Like Colmey, Aderman and his band were part of the pre-festival show. He remembers having to get up early and go to the Turning Stone hotel for parking passes and stage credentials, and having to be at the venue by mid-morning but not going on until late in the afternoon. With no reference points and no experience playing anywhere so large, he could only guess how many pepole were listening — maybe 800 — in the vast venue as the festival was just getting going.
“The whole thing was about two miles so it was quite a bit to wander around get your bearings, set up your camp,” he said. “I think we were background music for a lot of poeple. But that’s ok. It was a really good time.”
The credentials allowed him entry to bleachers, hospitality tents with food, and freedom to come and go, so Aderman acknowledges his experience differs from many people’s. That the crowd got out of hand wasn’t surprising given the conditions: Extremely hot, $5 for a bottle of water and $10 for personal pizzas on top of $125 tickets, and effectively no exit from a very hot, shade-less, paved tarmac, coupled with some aggressive, angry musical acts and corporate nature to the event. The private security force wasn’t well trained and seemed to abandon their posts when trouble erupted. “It wasn’t a friendly thing.” Still, he remembers his own experience fondly.
“I saw a whole bunch of bands and musicians that in Rome, New York, we’d never befere or since have seen,” he said. “It was great. The whole world was looking at us. And unfortunately at the end, that’s what we’re remembered for. But to me it’s what about the whole other you know, 72 hours, where everything was great.”
Vending booth as home base
For Joyce Finnegan, getting a vendor booth wasn’t so much a chance to make some money off the festival as it was to have a vantage point for keeping an eye on her teen and young adult children who she knew would go to the festival. She’d had some selling experience, and she and friends paid the fee. The spot proved to also be a refuge for them and at times others. It also gave her an inside view of how the business end of the event was run.
Finnegan and her friends staffing their spot were given a 15-by-15 area with an alley for storage and access. Her product was a bandana stuffed with polymers that when soaked in water could be worn around the neck to help cool off. The festival dictated pricing: $15 each. It seemed too much, but the contract was strict and she wanted to follow the rules.
They’d hired someone to stay in the booth overnight to guard against looting, and at first it was OK. Her children helped out-of-town vendors go off-site for meals.
But early on, signs emerged of possible trouble. Trash was not getting picked up, and portable toilets went unemptied and cleaned. Drug use was obvious and rampant. ATMs were broken into or toppled. As the heat built, people came asking for their water for soaking their bandanas. She dropped the bandana price to $5. They just weren’t selling.
“We probably ended up covering our costs. They charged us $5,000 for the booth which I thought was kind of pricey but, you know, it’s the cost of admission.”
The security force wasn’t effective, and kids did what they wanted, Finnegan said. And whatever attitude of goodwill there might have been at the original 1969 Woodstock, it wasn’t there in 1999. “They had a whole different peace and love element then.” Organizers dictated high prices, she said, “because they could.”
“The bottom line is they got their money.”
Yet when asked if she’d do it again, Finnegan hesitates before answering. It was an experience, she said; her hope is people have learned from it.
“If you want to get into this there’s a few things with lessons learned and that is who are these promoteers, what else have they promoted?”
Rallying a community
There absolutely were skeptics and detractors to having the festival in Rome. There is for any big event. But for someone in political leadership, the question is how can you address those concerns while keeping the benefits. That was the task before then-Mayor Joe Griffo after organizers first approached local officials around Thanksgiving 1998.
Now a state senator and deputy leader of the chamber’s minority Republican caucus, Griffo remembered that he saw an opportunity for just what Rome needed. It needed exposure, an economic boost and, most of all, something positive in the wake of losing the Air Force base just a few years before. That was demoralizing, but Woodstock presented a chance to pull off something big.
Leaders went to work, planning for public safety and traffic, including reimbursements to public agencies for their expenses. A bus system for moving people was put together.
Griffo was part of a group that traveled to Saugerties, the Ulster County community that had hosted a Woodstock-related festival 10 years earlier. One takeaway was the importance of traffic planning. So back in Rome, officials worked through redundant alternative routes should bottlenecks develop or accidents occur.
Crowd expectations were up to 300,000. It was an exciting time.
Not only was it a gathering of top names representing an eclectic mix of music and a commemoration of an era-defining event, it was also seen as bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, Griffo recalled.
“You have to remember that this concert, more than the 30th anniversary of Woodstock, it was the millenium bridge. So that was the lure of that particular event in ‘99. It was the cross from the 20th to the 21st century, not only the 30th anniversary but the opportunity to say we’re moving from 20 to 21.”
Looking back, though, there are clear lessons, Griffo said. Most prominently, more uiformed law enforcement personnel could have been inside the venue itself instead of relying so heavily on a private security force referred to as the “peace patrol,” but organizers resisted.
Griffo believes that has to do with their desire to recreate the 1969 festival and how difficult that proved in a new era.
“Woodstock started with amovement. There was a reason that they all gathered. It was an anti-war movemnt. They were promoting peace and love, things of that nature, so it was movement driven, even though it was for pleasure. But in ‘99 I think it was more of a spring break mindset. People were just there to party and have a good time.”
It didn’t help that there was edgy music at the end with acts such as Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Griffo added.
Still, Griffo believes that from Rome’s perspective, the event worked.
“Considering what we had to manage, we did a pretty good job. And it accomlished what I wanted to achieve: the economic building, the exposure and the confidence building in the community.”
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