Standing on a giant block of concrete that was anchoring part of the stage at Freedom Fest, I felt like I was dreaming. No more than 20 feet away stood John Fogerty, a musical hero of mine since I was a kid, and through my telephoto camera lens, he looked even closer, and then when it was time for a guitar solo, he swaggered my way, looking right at me and grinning.
As a card-carrying press photographer, I had the best “seat” in the house, at least for three songs. As Fogerty ripped into the first song — “Travelin’ Band,” the first in a long line of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics he would play — I couldn’t believe how great he sounded, both as a singer and as a guitarist.
His voice sounded every bit as strong as it must have when I saw him fronting Creedence back in 1972, on my 12th birthday, and his guitar work was undoubtedly better, thanks to years of nearly constant dedication to improving his six-string skills. How could he be rocking this well, 45 years later?
I honestly don’t remember too much about the 1972 concert — my first — but I can’t imagine it could have been anywhere close to as good as Saturday night’s show was. That Creedence concert came less than three weeks before the breakup of the band, which had dwindled to a trio with the departure from the band of Fogerty’s brother, Tom.
I’d be shocked if Fogerty and his Creedence bandmates weren’t distracted by bad feelings and ground down by constant touring, and even if they weren’t, they couldn’t have matched the musical prowess on display at Freedom Fest. Fogerty had his son, Shane, on second guitar, mostly playing rhythm parts but occasionally getting a chance to show he could go toe-to-toe with Pops in a riff-off, and there was a third guitar player filling out the sound.
On bass guitar, Fogerty had James LoMenzo, who has played with Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, David Lee Roth and Slash’s Snakepit, to name a few. On drums was one of the best in the business, Kenny Aronoff, who has performed live and recorded with a long, long list superstars. Along with that killer rhythm section, Fogerty has keyboard player Bob Malone, who has played with other greats including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffett.
Fogerty and his band played hit after singalong hit, leaning heavily on the Creedence classics he wrote back in the 1960s and early ’70s, but also playing some of his great solo work, too, including “Centerfield” and “Old Man Down the Road.” They nailed every song, playing at least 15 minutes longer than scheduled, and Fogerty looked like he was having the time of his life — I bet he was, too. He exuded such energy, you’d never guess he was 72 years old. That just blows my mind.
I feel like a fortunate son that the concert went on as planned. All week long the chance of rain kept increasing, and I kept looking over my shoulder while The Remainders played their fantastic set, eyeing the towering storm clouds that seemed sure to come our way. Just before Fogerty was going to take the stage, the woman who escorted me up to get in position for my photo shoot said the lightning strikes were 10½ miles away — half a mile closer and they would have shut down the show.
That would have been sad. I would have missed one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, and my parents would have missed it, too, as they drove down from the Twin Cities to join me and my family.
The part of Freedom Fest that immediately preceded Fogerty’s show also left me feeling grateful. A bagpiper led a group of soldiers from all branches of the military, resplendent in dress uniforms, onto the stage, where they stretched a large American flag between them while a slide show flashed the faces of 196 Wisconsin service members who gave their lives in service to their country since Sept. 11, 2001.
The crowd stood silent during the Fallen Heroes Tribute. Mostly silent. I could hear muffled sobs coming from the section reserved for families of the Fallen Heroes.
This was the 10th and final Freedom Fest, something Logistics Health Chairman Don Weber founded as a way to honor and help veterans and active duty soldiers. In those years, Freedom Fest raised more than $500,000 for veteran-related causes, including almost $200,000 in scholarships for veterans, grants that are named to honor Weber’s father, who served in World War II.
Although Freedom Fest is going away, Weber is not giving up in his quest to help veterans. He’s just going to do it without the expense and complicated fun of putting on an annual outdoor rock concert.
So, thank you, Don Weber and everybody who helped pull off these 10 Freedom Fest events, and thank you, John Fogerty, for giving me music I’ve loved my whole life and a spectacular concert experience.
Rock on …