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At last, A Festival Worthy of the Name
by Haven James

Preview: 1998 Catskills Music Festival

Does the legend of Woodstock as told in song by Joni Mitchell qualify as a modern-day fairy tale? If so, Billy Vonthaden and his friends are bringing that tale to life in the latest chapter of "Let's do the Woodstock Festival again"; only this time, perhaps, there's a better interpretation of what "Let's do it right this time" might mean.

Frankly, the spirit and intent of the upcoming href=>Catskills Music Festival at Hidden Valley Lake Campground seems far and away above that of other recent efforts to re-create magic, despite the fact that there are no grandiose foundations or cartel investment funds bankrolling this affair.

Music kicks off this Friday, September 18, 5 p.m. and runs day into night on Saturday, drawing to a close Sunday evening with a celebratory finale by Woodstock's own Mr. Woodstock, John Sebastian. This time there's camping over hill and dale in the meadows and in the woods, and it appears unlikely that there'll be a phalanx of off-duty bruisers corralling people through split-rail fence gates along shiny new asphalt thoroughfares. The promoters here are not limiting tickets sales to 30,000; instead, they are humbly hoping that somewhere between two-and-three-thousand folks will show up for the party they've laid their butts on the line for.

"This is an all or nothing thing," says Barbara Connolly, press coordinator and sister of promoter Billy V., about the efforts of her brother to make his dream happen. Barb is also a vocalist and will sing with Melange, her band from Long Island. Many of the acts booked are local heroes from the Hudson Valley, New York City and the Island, and it's part of the plan to provide these groups the opportunity for exposure in the festival format. Unlike the recent Bethel talking head who referred to these lesser-knowns as "rookies," both Billy and Barb speak excitedly about getting their friends and extended family up on the stage in the company of legends like Sebastian and currently hot talent like the Kate Russo Band, Patti Rothberg, Ian Lloyd's Planet-X, and Stir Fried with Buddy Cage (the amazing pedal steel player famous for his work with unknowns like the New Riders, the Dead, and Bob Dylan).

Woodstock's Dharma Bums and, believe it or not, the Sredni Vollmer Band with Sunshine and Tommy Doyle, plus Finally Balanced, Sunburst Jalopy, Brother Stump, Rakatan, Sean & the Time Travelers, Shakin' Not Stirred, Planet-X, Rob McDermott, and Wildlife Filmmakers all play on Saturday along with Cage's band and Ms. Patti. The report is that Buddy Cage will sit in with a number of acts on Saturday afternoon; no matter what the weather is like, that is gonna be a hot day. Kate Russo Band does Friday with Peter Gutman opening up the fest, followed by Lex Gray. Melange, Elisha Gray, Shanghai Love Motel, and Earth Eatz Dog! lead up to Sebastian on Sunday.

Two medium-sized stages are going to be set up in Sunshine Meadow and acts will perform alternately between them, so there'll be no delays for setup time. There is a lake to one side of the property and about 200 acres to spread out on to camp. The view looks up toward the Catskills we call home and, all in all, it sounds to be an idyllic setting for such an event. Obviously, if you're camping, bring everything. Confessing her vanity, Barbara was even musing about bringing her blow drier so as not to have "twigs in my hair" when she performs.

What calls to mind Joni Mitchell's Woodstock lyric ("I came upon a child of God, he walking along the road, I asked him where he was goin' and this he told me") is the story of Bill and his festival. Billy was six when Woodstock One occurred, but "motivated by a festival some 29 years ago" he set out on the road backpacking to the gathering in Bethel in '94. That was the 25th anniversary and the acts were Richie Havens, Arlo, Melanie, et al. They had a big impact on him and Bill got involved right off, as his sister recalls: "So he went up there and he met a bunch of these people and started traveling around and working with other people, helping out with the stage, that kind of stuff. Then he would go up [to Bethel] every year ... basically what my brother did was shmooze."

Bill then started to manage bands in New York City, including the Kate Russo Band, and soon realized he "didn't have tools to manage some of these smaller bands" or the resources/dollars to advertise and promote as he felt he'd like to, and so the concept began to evolve to put on a festival to showcase the talent. "Giving people an opportunity to go and hang out and camp for three days and hear some wonderful music from original bands ... this has kinda like been a dream for him and hopefully it'll fly," says Barb.

So now we have the next chapter: boy with backpack dives into festival promoter pool. "When I first started this I thought it would be really easy," Says Bill. "My friends told me it would be easy to get the bands and all the bands would bring lots of people and you just need a few permits and a water truck and a few people for clean up crews ...." And now he works every night and has recruited his sister and others to help and the festival opens this Friday at a place he's gone camping at since he was 17.

That's about all you need to know, other than perhaps these two items: tickets are only $27 in advance by phone charge at 338-4616 or at Rhythms or Rhino record outlets and $35 at the gate. This includes camping Friday and Saturday nights; Thursday (September 17 [1998]) overnight is available, too, for a small additional charge. The Hidden Valley Lake Campground is hidden between Kingston and Rosendale. Take Route 32 South 4.8 miles from Kingston to a right turn onto Kallop Road and stay right to Hidden Valley. There aren't too many rules except be responsible and considerate and have fun.

The festival does have a web site, which will be linked from Werewolves on the Web at if you need more details. This one sounds pretty good.

Haven James has been a consistent contributor to the Music & Arts scene around the Hudson Valley and beyond for almost a decade through his column, Werewolves of Woodstock, published weekly in the Woodstock Times

A writer, musician, philanthropist, and Mac addict; he lives reclusively, high atop Overlook Mountain with his son and a menagerie of animals, both wild and domesticated. Though currently unmarried, rumors abound as to his intimate relationships with Madonna, Sandra Bernhardt, and Eli Bach; though he insists these notions to be pure hearsay. His identity has remained a mystery to all but the closest of friends as he often travels in disguise and appears unannounced and undercover at concerts and venues in a dedicated effort to get the real story.

Go to the Werewolves of Woodstock page for more articles by Haven James.
Haven James can be contacted at

Posted on September 18, 1998

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