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Altamont Photographer Bill Owens (Copyright 1969)

Altamont Photographer Bill Owens (Copyright 1969)

These days in Tri-Valley, when you mention Altamont, people think you are talking about the traffic traveling from Livermore into the Central Valley.  Many young residents and visitors are not aware that it was in fact the site of infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969.   The much maligned concert is in some circles widely known as the end of the hippie era.  It has been 40 years since Woodstock, and the festival is celebrating with a new film, and hundreds of press articles.  But here in Tri-Valley, we are remembering the end of the 60’s differently with an exhibit of never before seen photos from Altamont by photographer Bill Owens at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore.  The exhibit will be on display during Guitar Player Live! September 11-13, 2009 at the Bankhead Theater.

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was an infamous rock concert held on Saturday, December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway in northern California, between Tracy and Livermore. Headlined and organized by The Rolling Stones, it also featured, in order of appearance: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, with the Rolling Stones taking the stage as the final act.  The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform, but declined to play shortly before their scheduled appearance due to the increasing violence at the venue.  “That’s the way things went at Altamont—so badly that the Grateful Dead, prime organizers and movers of the festival, didn’t even get to play.”  Nevertheless, the erroneous notion is still in circulation.

Altamont Photographer Bill Owens (Copyright 1969)

Altamont Photographer Bill Owens (Copyright 1969)

Approximately 300,000 people attended the concert, and some anticipated that it would be a “Woodstock West.” Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles shot footage of the event and incorporated it into a documentary film entitled Gimme Shelter (1970). The event is best known for having been marred by considerable violence, including one homicide and three accidental deaths: two caused by a hit-and-run car accident and one by drowning in an irrigation canal. Four births were reported during the event as well.

The Altamont concert is often contrasted with the Woodstock festival that took place less than four months earlier. While Woodstock represented “peace and love”, Altamont came to be viewed as the end of the hippie era and the de facto conclusion of late-1960s American youth culture: “Altamont became, whether fairly or not, a symbol for the death of the Woodstock Nation.”Rock music critic Robert Christgau wrote in 1972 that “Writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended”.

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