Melanie/Woodstock, Too Feature

ROCKIN' FREEDOM FEST

Chances are, it'll rain on the Fourth of July this year. That would be just perfect. In August of 1969 a young woman with long hair, a pug nose, beaming grin, and acoustic guitar stood in the stormy weather at Yasgur's Farm in upstate New York, alone with a half-million people. Melanie and her music cut through the drizzle and brought the steamy masses to their feet. She sang about beautiful people, universal love, and, of course, about peace, all in a warbly, preternatural voice that was at once charismatic and annoying, depending on the listener's mood.

The mood at Woodstock was positive, and something happened that would forever alter American culture: members of the crowd began lighting candles and holding them above their heads in an impromptu salute to the hippie folk singer on-stage. Ever since, popular musicians have received similar lighter-held-aloft treatment at concerts everywhere.

Other musicians took the stage at Woodstock and wowed the collected mass of humanity. The first act of the event was Richie Havens, who lied "Here Comes the Sun." Country Joe McDonald and the Fish led the audience in a chant of "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" during their signature song, "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," an anthem for those who fought against the war. Canned Heat brought a Top 20 hit - "Going Up the Country" - to the festivities and firmly established themselves among the vanguard of blues-rock progenitors.

A year later, however, Canned Heat co-leader Al "Blind Owl" Wilson was dead of a drug overdose. But there still exist survivors of the Sixties; and on Thursday Melanie, Havens, Country Joe, and the Heat will reinvent Woodstock, on a much smaller scale, as a tribute to the real meaning of peace and love and freedom - or so the organizers say - in an event dubbed Rockin' Freedom Fest, which begins at noon in Tamiami Stadium. At best the concert is an anomaly, at worst a marketing ploy that goes against everything Woodstock stood for - or, rather, what it was perceived to stand for. In fact, Woodstock itself turned out to be an illusion, a washed-out spectacle of uninhibited stupidity whose true fame lives only on film and record. (Neither Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning documentary nor the album were given away free, by the way.)

"This concert is a test," says Rockin' Freedom Fest promoter Trisha Nowrouzi. "We aren't trying to re-create Woodstock. I don't think anyone could ever re-create Woodstock. It just happened. We're not going to draw 500,000 people. I hope we can get half of what Tamiami can hold [the capacity for this event is 20,000]. This is about a mood. I salute our troops, but that's played out. We're saluting our troops in a different way." One element of that salute comes in the person of Jennifer Sauders, Miss Florida of 1987, who will sing the National Anthem.

Nowrouzi and her partner, Elaine Salley, decided to organize Rockin' Freedom Fest right about the time the United States began bombing Iraq. She hates to be called a "promoter" - "they're all shitheads, cutthroats, and very political," she explains - and insists the war was "a coincidence" that had little to do with her motivation. "After a three-month vacation, I flew into Miami on January 6," Nowrouzi recalls. "And we began talking about this idea. It bothered me that this country was going into war again. But I knew in my heart that the war would be over by July 4. If we were still at war - I can say, from my gut, the event would not be changed at all if the war was still going on. There's nothing political about this event. I'm not political. It's about the true meaning of peace and love. Of course we'd like to make money. But we wanted to do something that means something, that has a meaning. We don't do things just for the green."

Two decades ago Melanie Safka - who will close Rockin' Freedom Fest, most likely with the Woodstock-inspired "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" - was a superstar. "Lay Down" was not only the ultimate anthem of the Sixties generation and one of the most evocative rock songs of all time, it was a hit. At the Isle of Wight fest in 1970, she volunteered to close the show - the Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and others on the bill were afraid to go last. By the time she took the stage, which was already being dismantled, the audience was dozing. By the time she finished, the crowd was on its feet. Soon after, she placed two albums in England's Top 10.

The hits poured like summer rain - "Lay Down," "Beautiful People," "What Have They Done to My Song Ma," "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)," "Brand New Key" - and Melanie sold more than twenty million records. Then peace and love fell out of fashion, and people who Melanie thought were friends, people she had helped with their careers, people such as Jackson Browne and Neil Young, would no longer associate with her.

The major labels abandoned her, too, but Melanie never looked back. She and her husband/producer/manager Peter Schekeryk had formed their own record company, Neighborhood, and "Brand New Key," that goofy, infectious ditty, was the label's debut release. It went to Number One and wound up triple platinum - her biggest hit ever. Without saying a word, she shoved the industry figures' rejection right down their throats.

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