• Abigail Hall

The Glory Days: 'We all kind of felt that was our own little Woodstock': Norman residents reminisce

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

Full headline: 'We all kind of felt that was our own little Woodstock': Norman residents reminisce on music glory days, reflect on current scene.

Originally published in Crimson Quarterly magazine September 2019 edition, and OU Daily Projects.

In 1974, thousands of music lovers gathered at Lake Thunderbird for Oklahoma’s first and only version of Woodstock. 

Normanite Mark Walters was 21 when he attended the first annual Oklahoma Sound Rush and Watermelon Feed Festival on a plot of privately owned land next to the lake. 

Around 5,000 people sat on blankets in a grassy field to listen to the bluegrass and country melodies as pot floated through the air. Among the five bands that played the festival was the then-up-and-coming beach folk artist Jimmy Buffett, who had recently released “Come Monday,” one of his earliest well-known hits. 

“It was exciting,” Walters said. “We all kind of felt that was our own little Woodstock — nothing like that ... really happened around here before. So it was fun to see the community of other like-minded people show up there.”

While the festival was intended to be the first of many, its premiere event in ‘74 was also the last, Walters said. But the Norman music scene continued to grow, with additional festivals and nationally recognized artists filling up arenas — such as the Lloyd Noble Center, McCasland Field House and Owen Field stadium — and performing local shows in a plethora of clubs, concert halls, bars and house parties. 

“We were all freaks — there were no hippies,” Walters said. “Hippies were for a summer in San Francisco. The rest of us were all freaks.”

From 1976 to 1993, Walters recalls seeing artists like Joni Mitchell, U2, Devo and Willie Nelson at the Lloyd Noble Center. 

During those decades, there were numerous concerts performed by nationally recognized acts at Lloyd Noble, according to setlist.fm, a historical concert database. Artists included in these setlists that were corroborated by Norman locals are Elvis Presley, the Grateful Dead, Queen, the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Sting, the Flaming Lips, Prince, The Time and Journey.

Additionally, Jimi Hendrix performed at McCasland Field House in 1970, and the Rolling Stones and U2 took the stage at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in 1997 and 2009, respectively.

“Those were the good times,” Walters said, “but that all changed.”

For many larger acts, Lloyd Noble was an ideal concert venue, Walters said. The last show he saw at the venue was Vince Gill in 1993.

“By the ‘90s, (use of Lloyd Noble as a concert venue) had trickled down and stopped sometime in there,” Walters said. “And I don’t know why. They must’ve had an official policy to do that … or maybe the big shows started going to (the Myriad in OKC) and maybe Lloyd Noble just couldn’t attract them anymore.” 

As a teenager and a blossoming music lover in Norman in the ‘70s, Walters had access to innumerable concerts and live music, he said.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Campus Corner was home to thriving clubs and concert halls such as Boomer’s Theatre, Fontanelli’s Tavern, Town Tavern and Up the Alley. Fontanelli’s and Town Tavern are now sports bars, and Up the Alley is now a strip club. 

“It was always packed down there at night,” Walters said. “Young people just hanging around, visiting with each other, going to Town Tavern for something to eat or some coffee and cheesecake, and there would be bands in the bars.”

Walters recalls the atmosphere of Campus Corner changing in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, with the Boomer Theatre bought and turned into offices and the closure of several social and music hubs.

Boomer Theatre in 1979. Photo via Facebook.

Walters attributes the shift to property owners and the city wanting to rid the area of the “riffraffs” and “freaks” in the music scene.

“It was a Campus Corner like you see in Palo Alto or Austin,” Walters said. “But they diluted it here. Now it’s just nobody — I don’t see people hanging around at all. They go to places, but that’s kind of what they do, they go there and they leave.”

Howard Pollack opened the Boomer Theatre in the late ‘70s as Norman’s first concert hall and continues to book and promote shows in the Oklahoma City metro area. Pollack agrees with Walters and, in an email, said the Campus Corner Association and City of Norman “did everything they could to shut us down.”

Today, the only venue that was open in the ‘80s that remains on Campus Corner is The Deli

Despite the closure of many beloved venues on Campus Corner, the music scene continued to support local bands in the ‘90s. In those years, the Flaming Lips and the Chainsaw Kittens were discovered at a local club called Rome, which was located in Stubbeman Village west of Walker and Adams towers.

David Box of Box Talent opened Rome in 1990 inside an old movie theater, and he kept it open until 1998, he said in an email.

Rome, which Box frequently closed down for short periods of time to rebrand the inside and change the name — including The Edge, as it was known for a period of time — said the venue was half dance hall and half band performance. Typically, the club would host four bands a night, averaging 12 bands a week.

“I think the scene was so vibrant because there were so many bands, and I wouldn’t say they competed against each other, but they just made each other better,” Box said. “I thought it was an amazing time — but I’m sure it comes in cycles.”

Although Rome and other venues off campus, such as The Blue Onion on Lindsey Street, found success in the local music scene, by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, national acts began to move to Oklahoma City.

“It used to be very much different — Bon Iver would’ve played at Lloyd Noble back in the day,” Walters said. “But most concerts I didn’t even have to leave town for, and that was great. I’ve really missed that because I have to go to (Oklahoma) City if I want to see somebody too.”

The transition to Oklahoma City venues is reflected in the decrease in performances booked at Lloyd Noble and other OU venues. This not only changed the perspective of the music scene in Norman, but also resulted in the increasing importance of one group’s task to bring concerts to campus.

Today, the Campus Activities Council (CAC) Concert Series is the only group actively pursuing bands to bring them to campus once a semester. 

Despite the group’s mission, the concerts they schedule usually do not occur in Lloyd Noble or other venues of Norman’s past concert glory.

In April, the series brought pop musician MAX to perform on campus in Cross Village, and the council intends to hold the first performance of the fall 2019 semester during homecoming week Oct. 13–19, said Josh Brinkman, CAC concert series chair. 

Photo by Caitlyn Epes/The Daily.

The concert series has a budget of around $40,000 a year — but the price for bands that would be considered popular or “known” far exceeds that amount today.

According to Priceonomics, booking a performance with an artist such as Adele would cost upward of $750,000. 

Additionally, booking an indoor venue like Lloyd Noble isn’t cost-effective, said Quy Nguyen, senior associate director of student life.

Nguyen said the Concert Series gets a 25-percent discount on booking Lloyd Noble, but even with that discount, the cost to rent the venue is $3,000. 

With a budget of $40,000, it’s simply not possible to bring someone of higher notoriety through the series, Nguyen said.

While the music scene in Norman looks different today than it did from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, many music veterans still see its vibrant potential because of the hard work of those before them.

“There have always been a lot of talented musicians in Norman, and they’ve always pushed each other,” Box said. “It was an amazing time, but now’s an amazing time, too.”

The venues are fewer, but The Deli, Bluebonnet Bar, Red Brick Bar and Opolis continue to offer opportunities for local musicians to perform and get recognized — one such artist is Parker Millsap, who was discovered after playing open mic nights at The Deli.

Box said The Deli remains the best place in Norman to see live music with performances “365 days a year.”

Things have changed, but Box said there are perks for local bands pursuing the craft in 2019 that didn’t exist in 1990.

“You used to be able to get bands record deals, but now bands can promote themselves,” Box said. “It’s a heck of a lot easier to get the word out and build a following that way — bands (should) never give up. Just don’t give up — because I’ve seen bands make it.”

Another addition to the Norman music scene is the annual Norman Music Fest, which has brought hundreds of acts annually to downtown Norman since its formation in 2008.

The festival continues to highlight local musicians, as well as national acts of various genres. Some of the former headliners of the festival are Beach Fossils (2019), Ra Ra Riot (2015), Portugal the Man (2012) and Norman-founded and signed Chainsaw Kittens (2008).

each Fossil at the 2019 Norman Music Festival. [OU Daily file photo]
Ra Ra Riot at the 2015 Norman Music Festival. [OU Daily file photo]

Doug Hill, a freelance photographer and concert reviewer for The Transcript since 1997, said the festival revitalized Norman’s current music scene with the largest free festival in the nation. 

“It kind of changed everything,” Hill said. “(The festival) really put Norman on the map music-wise outside the state.”

While Walters is nostalgic for the old days, he said he still enjoys local concerts and performances such as the Summer Breeze Concert Series in Lions Park, which he’s been attending since it was originally founded on campus in the ‘80s under another name.

“I’ve been listening to music my entire life, and I’ve seen all these changes happen, and it’s interesting to look back on now after 60 years,” Walters said. “I just hope that coming generations get to have something similar on their own.”

The Daily reached out to OU Athletics about the process of booking on-campus venues such as Lloyd Noble and received no response. 

The author of this story has a personal relationship with Quy Nguyen and did not conduct his interview. Scott Kirker contributed to this report.

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