Right after their US tour and the Muscle Shoals recordings the Rolling Stones headlined a free concert at the Altamont Speedway, California. Approximately about 300,000 people attended the concert, and some anticipated that it would be a second Woodstock festival, West Coast style. Instead, the event is best known for having been marred by considerable violence, including one homicide and three accidental deaths.
Although a lot has been written about the ill-fated Altamont festival, hardly any source mentions Ian Stewart being there. But he was, as author and photographer Ethan Russell, who was at the scene, recalls: "I followed Mick and Keith with my cameras. I hoped that once we were onstage things would return to normal. Covered with people, the stage was actually sagging under the weight of all the bodies on it. Hells Angels were roaming across it at will.
I saw the imperturbable Ian 'Stu' Stewart on the other side of the stage. Stu had left the group officially, but he still played with them on records and traveled with them as their equipment man and main man in general. On the 1969 tour Stu did what he always did: helped get the band on the stage, performed with them, and was, as Stanley Booth puts it, "the only grown-up". Stu had been with the Stones everywhere, been through everything with them. When I saw Stu on stage at Altamont, it was the first time I had ever seen him worried. I knew then we were in trouble".
Adds Keith Richards, in his autobiography Life: "As the evening went dark and we went on stage, the atmosphere became very lurid and hairy. As Stu said - he was there - "Getting a bit hairy, Keith". I said, "We've got to brass it out, Stu". Such a big crowd, we could only see in front of our immediate circle, with lights, which are already in your eyes, because stage lights always are. So you're virtually half blinded; you can't see and judge everything that's going on. You just keep your fingers crossed".
Adapted from the following sources (all suggested further reading):
Ethan Russell, Let It Bleed. The Rolling Stones, Altamont, And The End Of The Sixties, Springboard Press, 2009.
Stanley Booth, The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, A Cappella Books, 2000.
Keith Richards, Life, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010.