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The Bank of Edwardsville is the primary sponsor of Mississippi River Festival Revisited and has been supportive in the months leading up to the first concert on May 21 at 8 p.m.
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Photo by David Colburn
A commemorative plaque sits near the intersection of New Poag Road and North University Drive, where the original Mississippi River Festival took place from 1969 to 1980. The original concert area, initially created as a “summer home” for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1969, attracted more than 1 million guests over its 12-year run.
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Pure Prairie League will kick off the revival series at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 21, in the Meridian Ballroom at SIU Edwardsville. The country-rock and soft-rock band is perhaps best known for the 1975 hit single “Amie.”
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EDWARDSVILLE — For some, the 1970s are a bit hazy.
For others, the memories are crystal clear … and very fond.
“For 36 years, people have said, ‘Man, wasn’t that fun? Don’t you wish we could do that again?’ Well it’s time,” Ozark Mountain Daredevils bassist and multi-instrumentalist, festival spokesperson and “good will ambassador” Michael “Supe” Granda proudly proclaims as he recalls the last summer show of a local legend.
On May 21, a music festival that encapsulated the ‘70s for the Metro East returns. Mississippi River Festival, once the longest-running music festival in the world, will be “Revisited” in the Meridian Ballroom at SIU Edwardsville from 8 to 11 p.m., in the first of numerous upcoming concert dates.
The first band to perform in the revival series will be Pure Prairie League with co-founder Craig Fuller. The country-rock and soft-rock group is perhaps best known for its 1975 hit, “Amie.” Pure Prairie League first performed at Mississippi River Festival on June 22, 1978 — opening for America — and again June 12-13, 1979, to open for the Marshall Tucker Band.
The driving force behind the revival, David Thomason of Carmen Concerts (along with Granda and promoter and magazine contributor Terry Perkins) has been an active participant in the music industry in both Nashville and the Metro East for more than 30 years, bringing shows to Edwardsville’s Wildey Theatre as well as Argosy Casino in Alton and Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheatre.
“Two of the larger-scale shows I did in the recent past were the Winter Jam and the Allison Krauss (and Union Station) concert at the amphitheater,” Thomason says.
The opportunity to revisit Mississippi River Festival is an exciting one for Thomason for a number of reasons.
“I used to attend the concerts regularly in the ‘70s. I remember seeing the Eagles, Joe Walsh, and Seals and Croft, among many others,” Thomason says, adding the Seals and Croft concert was his “most memorable” personal experience of the original festival. “It rained so hard that people were sliding up and down the hill during the show. It might not have started out as a fun time, but it ended up being one.”
Granda has also been incredibly active in bringing forth the Mississippi River Festival revival.
“Michael was the first person I approached and he thought it was a great idea,” Thomason explains. “He’s been a great spokesperson for the festival and he posts as many shows as he can.”
Hailing from and well-known in the St. Louis area, Granda himself will “jump on a stage or two” to accompany musicians he’s known for four decades.
“I’ve played with a lot of these folks on stages around the world, and now we get to jump back onto the Mississippi River Festival stage,” Granda says. “I know they’re just as excited as I am.”
Ozark Mountain Daredevils performed at Mississippi River Festival a number of times and is best known for the singles “If You Want to Get to Heaven” and “Jackie Blue.”
Reliving the past: the history of Mississippi River Festival
Originally held near the present-day intersection of New Poag Road and North University Drive approaching SIUE’s campus, Mississippi River Festival ran from 1969 to 1980. The site, located on a hill, was designed by George Anselevicius and George Dickie, encouraging a “free spirit” atmosphere and the ‘70s version of “tailgating parties.”
“It’s important to note that Mississippi River Festival was the first concert venue of its kind in the area,” Thomason says.
Today, a plaque commemorates the original location near wooden bleachers en route to the university’s campus alongside North University Drive. The plaque was unveiled in 2009 as part of a 40th anniversary celebration at the college.
Perhaps mainly remembered today for its world-renowned classic rock acts — Alice Cooper, Eagles, The Who, Ike and Tina Turner, Yes and ZZ Top, just to name a few — the jam festival was an eclectic mix of “theater, bluegrass, symphony and a little bit of everything,” according to Thomason, with more than 350 performances over five to six days during the summer in its 12-year span.
According to Lovejoy Library’s online archives on SIUE’s official website, the festival was born of a desire to create a “summer home” and temporary performance site for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with many of the earliest concerts conducted by Walter Susskind. The inaugural concert was June 20, 1969, and the first season attracted 87,000 customers.
Despite numerous financial issues during its run, university President John Rendleman declared the festival as an “essential function of the university” and remained a prime supporter until his death March 4, 1976. Following Rendleman’s demise, the festival faced mounting issues of support, and the university announced that a new season would not be held May 22, 1981.
In the midst of internal monetary struggles was a decade of musical bliss. Bob Dylan famously joined The Band on stage July 14, 1969, to perform a surprise four-song encore, and Thomason proudly notes “Jackson Browne wrote two of his biggest hits in the old Edwardsville Holiday Inn while waiting to perform the festival.”
A new era: rebirth, not rehash
Today, there is not much to see at the original lawn site of the festival, although if you listen closely you just may hear some ghosts from the past jamming among the overgrown brush and trees.
When asked about the inspiration to relaunch the festival after 36 years, Thomason, who hails from Edwardsville, explains that he woke up one morning a few months ago and felt the need to revisit an integral part of Edwardsville’s pop-culture history.
“I did some research and learned that the Mississippi River Festival name and logo had both expired, so I bought them and began talking to some of my musician friends about my idea,” he says.
Over a period of seven months, the ambition became an enthralling reality.
“The university was very forward, cooperative and open to the festival,” Thomason explains. “The only thing in the way of a ‘challenge’ was the waiting process; when you’re anxious to do something, everything feels slow.”
In the spirit of revival, Thomason hopes to bring in as many original acts as possible, including Alice Cooper and ZZ Top. In addition to classic rock, other musical genres will include blues and jazz events.
“Even if we’re not able to bring in original bands that are no longer active, we’d like to bring some of those original band members to represent them,” he says, adding he expects a full house at the first concert. “Tickets are going fast. What I find amazing is that a lot of younger people have heard about the original festival and are really excited to share in an experience that their parents first had. The first concert will contain a big display of memorabilia for the public, including ticket stubs and a chair saved from one of the original dressing rooms.
“I’m hoping to have a screen behind each artist that performs with footage and photos back from when the original show occurred.”
Granda says he believes the first concert will draw a “very nice crowd of people who have very nice memories” of the original festival.
“Those people will want to come out and gather not only as a rock and roll audience but as a group of people with a shared memory, like a family reunion,” he says.
Beyond the summer, Thomason has plans to continue the festival on a monthly basis through the winter “as long as artists are willing to return” and revisit a fun, exciting and unforgettable moment of Metro East nostalgia.
Mississippi River Festival: Revisited is sponsored by The Bank of Edwardsville. Tickets for the May 21 performance range from $30 to $50, the latter being the “VIP experience” with collectibles, posters and meet-and-greets at the discretion of each artist. Doors open at 7 p.m.
To learn more about the history and cultural significance of Mississippi River Festival, including short movies and a narrated historical slideshow, visit siue.edu/lovejoylibrary/archives/mrf/.