Hunger burns for Hendrix at the Sarasota Polo Club in Lakewood Ranch

Giving Hunger the Blues celebrates Woodstock’s 50th anniversary at Sarasota Polo Club.

by: Jay Heater Managing Editor, The Observer

After watching Woodstock through the better part of three days, percussionist Gerardo Velez knew his experience would be amazing when he took the stage 50 years ago with closing act Jimi Hendrix in the world’s most famous musical festival.

It wasn’t quite what he expected.

While Velez, who now lives in Sarasota, had watched a crowd of an estimated 400,000 people engulf the stage through most of the acts, the Jimi Hendrix experience was different. Hendrix, the highest paid act at $18,000, had been backed up for more than 10 hours because the festival was running behind schedule.

Velez finally took the stage with Hendrix at 9 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 18, 1969 when the festival was supposed to be over.

“By 8 a.m., the sun was up and we looked out at thousands of (abandoned) sleeping bags, garbage and a muddy, gooey field,” Velez said. “About 30,000 to 50,000 people were remaining.”

It still was one of the most incredible experiences of his life. And the 50th anniversary of Woodstock certainly was one he wanted to celebrate.

At last year’s Giving Hunger the Blues festival at the Van Wezel in Sarasota, Velez met event director Peter Anderson and they discussed their love of music. Eventually, Velez suggested building this year’s Giving Hunger the Blues Festival, which has been moved to the Sarasota Polo Club, around the theme of Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. Velez, who spent more than 10 years with the jazz-fusion band Spyro Gyra (more than 10 million sales of albums), was hoping to highlight the show (which runs Nov. 15-16) with his Hendrix X Hendrix band.

“A lot of people here have experienced Woodstock in one way or another,” said Anderson, who is 62 and took over the event in 2015. “I think I have been obsessed with music festivals and Woodstock is the granddaddy. The nature of creating an event around music to bring a large group of people together is inspiring to me.”

Anderson started lining up popular local bands that would agree to play a set of music that was featured at Woodstock. For example, Kettle of Fish, which plays Saturday evening, will play music from The Band. Blues musician R.J. Howson will play Santana and Ship of Fools will play The Grateful Dead.

Giving Hunger the Blues Director Peter Anderson.
Giving Hunger the Blues Director Peter Anderson.

If any of the musicians need inspiration, they can talk to Velez, who will close the show with his set beginning at 8 p.m., Saturday.

“The first day of Woodstock (Aug. 15, 1969) was my 22nd birthday and it was going to be my first professional gig,” Velez said. “I was making $1,000 a week (with Hendrix), which was a lot of money back then.

“The list of (musicians) goes on and on. When they weren’t playing, we were all backstage hanging out and partying.”

Meanwhile, the crowd, which was more than double what was expected, was making the best of it. He said most people didn’t have enough food, but everyone was sharing what they had. He said it was community in the best sense of the word as people looked out for each other.

There also was, of course, drugs and nudity.

“Everyone was in the creek naked,” he said. “That was the energy. Jimi wasn’t doing (much drugs), but the rest of us were vipers. We thought it would help us use the greater portion of our brains to do incredible things, but we froze our brains.”

The festival had 797 documented cases of drug abuse and two overdose deaths (a third death occurred when a male teenager was run over by a tractor).

The event also had to withstand some strong rainstorms that rattled the towers and the speakers. Velez said pipes use to build the structures were flying through the air at times and the stage, which was built from composition board, became saturated and smelled terrible.

“The bands just playing,” he said.

Many people probably don’t realize Bethel was 40 minutes southwest of Woodstock, which was a small arts community where talented musicians came to jam or start studios since real estate was inexpensive. Velez’s sister, Martha Velez who played the lead in Hair on Broadway in New York and also released her own solo albums, owned a home in Woodstock and her brother came to stay with her when he started playing with Hendrix.

He said it was the Woodstock vibe and the musicians would go “from one house to another, to another, to another,” to collaborate. It was that fervor that was being created that led to Woodstock.

Velez said he loves the arts vibe and the support from the community in Sarasota and it led him to helping Giving Hunger the Blues.

“I do this show in the spirit of Jimi,” he said. “We were blessed to be part of that energy level. At Woodstock, it was open your heart and enjoy the music. We wanted to be more musical than political, although there were political things that happened. Jimi wanted to play the Star Spangled Banner because he said, “This is our country.”

Velez said he now will give his energy to this event and future Giving Hunger the Blues events.

“I am discerning what I put my time into,” he said. “I am committed to do things to help.”

It is the 23rd version of the event, although it was not held in two years during that time. All proceeds benefit the Mayors Feed the Hungry Program. George Generoso, who owned Sarasota’s Five O’clock Club, founded the event.

Anderson, who has been involved with the event 18 years, said he loves the Sarasota Polo Club and noted owners James and Misdee Miller have been very accommodating. He said he could see an expanded event in the future.

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