By Rene Abadie
HAMMOND -- The untold story of Louisiana's disastrous attempt at its own Woodstock rock festival will be brought to life on the Southeastern Channel, Southeastern Louisiana University's educational access station.
"McCrea 1971: Louisiana's Forgotten Rock Festival," a documentary about the failed Celebration of Life music festival in McCrea, Louisiana, will air at 8:30 pm. Saturday (Feb. 22) on the Channel, which is Charter Cable Channel 18.
Produced by Southeastern students Nick Brilleaux and Scott Caro, the documentary will air repeatedly throughout the next two months, according to channel General Manager Rick Settoon.
"Most rock-and-roll fans who've lived in this state all their lives don't know that a Louisiana version of Woodstock was ever attempted," Settoon said. "It's a tragic, yet fascinating story. Although they're students, Nick Brilleaux and Scott Caro have produced a professional-quality documentary that captivates viewers."
The Celebration of Life festival in June 1971 brought over 60,000 attendees from all over the United States to the small crossroads of McCrea, located along the Atchafalaya River levee in upper Pointe Coupee Parish. While the 1969 Woodstock festival today evokes memories of peace, love and music, the Celebration of Life is remembered for mud, mosquitoes and death.
The festival was advertised to include over 70 big-name acts such as the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, BB King, Ike and Tina Turner, and Sly and the Family Stone. But in reality only 10 bands actually showed up to perform, including Chuck Berry, Stephen Stills, WAR, John Sebastian, and Delaney and Bonnie.
Adverse factors included local hostility and uproar, an expensive legal battle, and the brutal summer heat of south Louisiana, compounded by shortages of food, water and medical facilities. While the rock groups played at night, festival goers spent their days in misery seeking food, drugs, and shelter on the treeless, mosquito-infested grounds.
Rumors of police brutality along with a number of accidents, including the drowning deaths of at least four people in the swift-moving Atchafalaya River, contributed to the disaster. The festival shut down after its third day. Musicians aimed criticism at the promoters, while organizers and local officials blamed each other for the festival's failure.
"I first learned of the festival through casual conversation with my mother," said Brilleaux, son of the late British singer/musician Lee Brilleaux of Dr. Feelgood fame. "I was shocked that, having lived in Louisiana for most of my life, I had never heard of the event. As a graduate student of history, I found it particularly exciting to come across something that had received virtually no attention within academic circles."
The video features long-lost film footage and interviews with musicians and attendees, including festival production manager Vaughn Mordenti of New Orleans and late Stephen Stills Band guitarist Stephen Fromholz, who was filmed in San Antonio last year but died less than a month ago.
Brilleaux, who studied film and documentary production at the Southeastern Channel, not only shot and edited the program but also co-produced and directed it with Caro, also a graduate student in history. The students produced the entire 33-minute documentary by themselves except for musical contributions from individuals such as Caro's brother, Dan, an accomplished drummer.
Brilleaux and Caro point out that the Celebration of Life mirrored the same problems of late 1960s festivals like the Altamont Speedway Free Concert and the Powder Ridge Rock Festival. The McCrea failure marked the end of the golden age of the rock festival culture begun at the Monterrey Pop Festival and Woodstock.
Caro said that rock festivals today are run by experienced event crews with the support of local officials, police and promoters with large cash reserves. But at the time of McCrea, large rock concerts grew mainly through improvisation.
"We remember the huge successes like Woodstock, but the record shows that festivals like McCrea were hit-or-miss. A few even descended into chaos," Caro said. "At the root of most failures was a lack of cooperation between festival organizers and local governments and police forces. That was the case for Celebration of Life."
"McCrea 1971" has already begun to garner acclaim. It was selected for screenings at the New Orleans Film Festival, the Southern Screen Festival in Lafayette, and Fanfare at the Columbia Theatre in Hammond last October. The film's trailer can be seen at mccrea1971.com.
The Southeastern Channel can be seen on Charter Cable Channel 18 in Tangipahoa, St. Tammany and Livingston parishes and on Channel 17 in Washington Parish. The live 24/7 webcast and archived video on demand can be seen at www.southeastern.edu/tv.