When you talk about the influence of music festivals — especially in the US — Woodstock is usually where the conversation begins. But if you look at the current musical landscape, there’s no festival more influential than Isle of Wight. That’s not because it happened in 1968, a year earlier than Woodstock, or because the original incarnation went on for three years to Woodstock’s single offering (I mean really, let’s not count all those anniversary festivals).
The original Isle of Wight ran from 1967 to 1970. It was so huge — attracting over 600,000 people and plenty of logistical issues in its third year — that even the UK Parliament was terrified of its scale. In 1971, Parliament passed a law banning open-air gathering of over 5,000 on the Isle of Wight. It was by far the biggest gathering of any early music festival.
But the crowd size isn’t what makes Isle of Wight so influential. It’s because IoW is the direct forebear for pretty much every modern music festival. No, seriously. Most US festivals from the last 10 years are just smaller versions of early-’00 meaga-fests like Boonnaroo, Coachella, and Austin City Limits. Those festivals were modeled after long-running UK events like Glastonbury and Leeds. Guess where those British fests got their inspiration. That’s right — Isle of Wight. It’s a clear progression: IoW → Glasto → ‘Roo → Gov. Ball.
Not only is the original Isle of Wight run important because of what it inspired though. It’s also memorable thanks to the myriad memorable performances that happened there. Some were triumphant, some were harrowing, and some were downright wild. Oscar-winning documentarian Murray Lerner was on hand to capture many of the performances during the festival’s final year. Here are a few of the concert film highlights:
Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970
Joni Mitchell’s set at the festival could’ve been disastrous. She was asked to perform early for a crowd eager to see The Who that night — and solo, at that. The set was even interrupted by a heckler. Watching the entire ordeal unfold and seeing Mitchell slowly win over the rowdy crowd is nothing short of magical. Having only recently rising to prominence at this point, you can hear her voice quaver but not buckle under the pressure. This is all accompanied by interview with Mitchell from 2003, giving the viewer a rare look inside the mind of a legendary figure at a pivotal point in her career. This is the latest Isle of Wight documentary to be released, having come out just last week. It may also be the most compelling.
Miles Davis – Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue
Was Miles Davis’ decision to “plug in” as controversial as Bob Dylan’s? That’s a toughie, right there. Lerner’s documentary includes the entire 38-minute Isle of Wight set and examines it in the context of Davis’ decision to go electric, its fallout, and its ultimate influence. “Electric” is the operative word for the performance, as the onstage energy is palpable. This is the perfect companion to Bitches Brew which came out just months before the performance.
The Who – Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970
This is more of a straightforward concert film than the first two, but the set that almost derailed Joni Mitchell is a good time to witness. The band is in top form for this performance, and the footage accentuates that. Seeing Pete Townshend wail on the guitar in his white jumpsuit and watching Roger Daltrey gesticulate is a great reminder that The Who was one of the coolest bands ever. And that doesn’t even count John Entwistle’s badass leather skeleton suit. The highlight may be when the crowd is chastised and asked to be quiet, because Tommy is a rock opera and therefore very serious.
The Doors – Live at The Isle of Wight Festival 1970
The most noticeable thing about The Doors’ performance from the final day of the festival is how subdued Jim Morrison is when compared to early performances. That doesn’t mean he’s boring, though. This release is notable because it’s the last performance recorded before Morrison passed away the following year. In addition to the entire hourlong set, the Blu-ray/DVD release includes some compelling interview extras from keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore
Jethro Tull – Nothing Is Easy: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970
While plenty of hippies decried the presence of fences and — gasp — ticketed entry at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, Ian Anderson expresses some sympathy with “the man” during a modern-day interview conducted by Lerner. It’s easy to think of Jethro Tull as a polished band, but this is a decidedly scrappy performance from the band, fresh off the release of Benefit. While the interview segments with an elder Anderson add some intrigue, the star of the show is the younger version of Tull’s flautist-cum-frontman, having his way with the crowd and his flute simultaneously.