In 1969 the tiny Isle of Wight pulled off a publicity coup of global proportions when counterculture phenomenon Bob Dylan snubbed his local festival at Woodstock and instead chose to play his first full concert appearance in three years at the second annual Isle of Wight Festival of Music. Fifty years later to the day, the Million Dollar Bash celebrated that remarkable event just a few miles from the original site. The unashamedly retrospective festival included not only some of the original acts but also a surprising number of the original audience.
Northwood showground was the venue - a large, windswept field with a few marquees. The main stage was a curiously long and thin tent with a replica of the 1969 stage at the far end. Viewers were obliged to choose between a distant view of the dimly-lit stage, or an acute angle. But once the music got going, such concerns seemed trifling.
The one thing everyone can say about Bob Dylan is that he defies expectations. This time, alas, he did not make an unscheduled appearance back on the Island, but nonetheless the day was full of memories of the great man, with many artists choosing to cover his songs. In the acoustic tent there was also a remarkable chance to hear insights and reminiscences about Dylan and the 1969 event from speakers including folk-rock legend Ashley Hutchings and local celebrity Ray Foulk, co-organiser of the original Isle of Wight Festivals.
An unusual feature of the Million Dollar Bash was that it was a festival making an extra effort to be accessible for those with dementia and their carers. With quiet areas, good accessibility, clear signage and of course the music. Perhaps it is appropriate, as the 'beautiful people' from the summer of '69 are now of an age most likely to be living with dementia - and of course, the powerful beneficial effect of music is a well-known way to stimulate and unlock memories.
Pentangle, led by Jacqui McShee, was introduced as "the first of our genuine heritage acts" They took to the main stage and launched a folk-jazz set that could have been straight from 1969. The powerful acoustic songs had a dark immediacy that had lost nothing in fifty years.
Local favourite Robyn Hitchcock confessed that he had only been sixteen at the time of the original festival, and was proud to have glimpsed the "tiny ant-like messiah", Bob Dylan through the 100,000 strong crowd. Hitchcock - who has been compared to Dylan in style - delivered two Dylan covers plus a well-received range of work from his own catalogue.
With plenty of dogs, tartan blankets, mobility scooters and portable chairs there was clearly an average age that was higher than most festivals. But as things livened up it was hard not to feel the spirit of 1969 rushing back. People had dressed for the occasion, and not just with fancy dress - for some this was the real thing. One lady was whirling happily through the crowd, barefoot in an authentic-looking outfit that surely she must have worn to the earlier event. Others wore vintage jackets or coats that must have been hanging quietly for fifty years in the back of the wardrobe for just this opportunity.
A surprising show came from original 1969 performer Julie Felix on the acoustic stage. Festival veteran Felix delivered a rousing set, with her characteristic folk songs punctuated by scathing political commentary that would not have been out of place in 1969 - and raised an unexpectedly heartfelt cheer from the audience. She went on to describe how she had spent half an hour backstage with Bob Dylan, before finishing her show by doing an eye-watering high-kick and pointing out to the incredulous fans that she was now 81 years old.
Kossoff: The Band Plays On was an act that conjured the spirit of the original event. They revved it up with a more American sound, less folk and more rock; and Free's iconic song All Right Now got the whole tent on their feet. As the glorious red sunset filled the sky of the Isle of Wight, Wishbone Ash took to the main stage and started out with some prog classic tracks that turned back the years. If original member Andy Powell couldn't quite hit the high notes he could in 1969 it's hardly surprising - but if you think there's any compromise on those wailing guitar solos that we had all heard on scratched vinyl so often you'd be wrong. An authentic, rich and dazzling musical experience. Surprisingly few people were holding up phones - perhaps they were all too old to know how. Or old enough to know not to.
The climax of the event was a full set from founder member of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, who played in 1968 and then attended the 1969 event to see Dylan. Many of the crowd had been waiting just for this performance, and it was warmly received. Finally, festival co-organiser Ashley Hutchings took to the stage himself with his own specially-formed band Dylancentric. Playing a broad range of Dylan songs with Hutchings' own unique interpretation it was an appropriate way to bring down the curtain on this delightful little event.
Retro festival enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that following the success of the Million Dollar Bash there are already plans to deliver a third event next year to commemorate the third and largest of the original Isle of Wight Festivals in 1970, yes, the one with Jimi. It's going to be a festival to look out for.
latest on this festival
Million Dollar Bash 2019 review
line-ups & rumours