Inside the secretive concert where spies mingle with rock 'n' roll royalty

A logo for the "Spookstock" concert series (Image provided by the Spookstock Foundation).

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How much would you pay to watch former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper do a Blues Brothers routine alongside Dan Aykroyd?

The going rate is roughly $1,000, but the real challenge is securing the ticket that gets you in the door.

The show, known as “Spookstock,” is an annual invite-only concert organized by a nonprofit organization that brings together current and former U.S. intelligence agents, corporate executives and special forces soldiers to watch performances by members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The event’s proceeds are donated to the families of Americans killed in action.

The event has built up a mystique around the Washington, D.C., area thanks to scarce invites, the A-list lineup and the underlying charitable cause. The Spookstock Foundation’s founders say it has donated $2.7 million to the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), which provides scholarships and educational support to children of forces killed in the line of duty, among others.

The guest list over the years has helped generate word-of-mouth buzz. Aykroyd and Clapper’s routine was performed at the inaugural show, while ZZ Top, Steve Miller Band, Peter Frampton, Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel have all either attended or performed. Ticket fees and sponsorship dollars go toward providing resources for the families of fallen soldiers and intelligence agents, said Pack Fancher, executive director.

“Our mission is very explicit and straightforward: We exist to raise dollars and awareness for surviving dependents of fallen intelligence and operations personnel,” he said during a recent interview.

As the event enters its seventh year, organizers of the concert say word is starting to get out.

The organization’s website is password-protected, but the number of incoming phone calls from decision-makers hoping for an invite is starting to exceed the number of tickets offered. Founders figure it’s due in part to companies looking for opportunities to rub elbows with U.S. intelligence leaders, but also because it’s a good cause. Senior leaders from Amazon Web Services and government contractor CACI also have attended, Fancher said.

The first Spookstock event had roughly 300 people, former attendees said, while roughly 1,200 people were there for the 2018 concert, headlined by John Fogerty at the Anthem, a music venue in Washington, D.C. Spookstock plans to invite 2,000 people this year to watch headliner Lenny Kravitz.

The vibe inside

Keely Quinlan attended her first Spookstock in 2014. Quinlan, whose father, John, died in Afghanistan in a 2007 helicopter crash, said she was invited by a college liaison from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Despite the genial atmosphere, she said there was still a clandestine feel to the show.

“It was a 45-minute drive out to some nondescript building in in Sterling, Virginia,” she said. “There were intelligence people outside dressed as moving or construction people to facilitate people in and out of the compound, and then you had to show a few different forms of ID to get in.”

Once inside, she mingled with high-level leadership from the defense industry and at one point was asked to speak about her experience with the charity. SOWF, thanks in part to donations from Spookstock, paid for approximately 40 percent of Quinlan’s tuition to New York University, she estimated. She graduated with a double major in journalism and English, and works now as an intern for the online music publication Stereogum.

“I was completely honest about how much they and SOWF helped me with everything, and then when I got offstage Harvey Keitel hugged me,” she said. “It was insane, and I didn’t even know Robert DeNiro was there.”

Last year, Spookstock invited more than two dozen children of special forces and intelligence operatives who never came home. The kids, all recent graduates, met Fogerty, received scholarship money and connected with public and private sector professionals who could provide career opportunities. One highlight for Quinlan, who also attended in 2018, was meeting with CIA families.

“When this happens to you when you’re young, it’s such an isolating experience,” she said of her father’s death. “But [Spookstock] brought us all around and gave us a five minute standing ovation for just existing. … Me thinking about my younger sisters and how their college education is covered? It’s an insane relief.”

Previously, some family members took a private tour of CIA headquarters led by Mark Kelton, who worked as Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service for Counterintelligence.

“We’re going to do more of that in the future,” said Kelton, now works as a Spookstock board member after 34 years in the agency. “The kids get to meet special operations people, but they also get to meet each other. They can share their experiences. It’s very moving.”

‘American Idol’ meets ‘Mission Impossible’

Along with a headline act, Spookstock attendees watch a battle-of-the-bands competition made up of six acts whose members’ primary vocation is national security.

Battle-of-the-bands judges traditionally have been high-level intelligence leaders like former National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, former DNI Mike McConnell, and former Defense Intelligence Agency director Ron Burgess, alongside celebrities such as DeNiro or Paul Shaffer, who is best known for his gig as the musical director for “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

Previous entrants have included groups with names like “The Operators” and “Clashing Coats,” a group consisting of government employees that performed for a panel of judges that included DNI Dan Coats.

Footage from Robert DeNiro’s 2014 appearance alongside then-Warner Bros. Records head of promotion Peter Gray, apparently captured by cell phone, survives on YouTube.

The dichotomy of the judges’ professional background is never clearer than when government bosses try to credibly weigh in on musical performances. Once, a former DNI serving as a battle-of-the-bands judge mischaracterized a Jimi Hendrix cover performed by a blues band from Cisco, saying “It’s about time we had some soul music,” sparking audience laughter.

“It’s really funny because some [of the officials] take it really seriously, like [they are] Simon Cowell, and some are light-hearted,” said Jeremy King, founder of the the executive search firm Benchmark and a regular Spookstock attendee. “Either way, it’s just unique to watch a senior community judging people playing music.”

Business is far from the goal of Spookstock, says Fancher. But it inevitably comes up as tech executives talk over drinks with government employees and other potential customers. Private sector leaders traditionally pay $1,000 per ticket, while government attendees pay $100, Fancher said.

This year, Spookstock is expanding its reach into the private sector to raise more money for young people, and to establish ties with tech firms and potential sponsors located outside the beltway. That could mean replacing one or more battle-of-the-bands judges with an artificial intelligence algorithm to assess performances. Or, it could mean exploring partnerships with companies that serve U.S. national security in new ways, such as providing faster data analysis or more efficient cloud storage.

“A lot of these companies, whether they know it or not, provide tremendous support for U.S. security,” said Kelton. “It’s also a hell of a lot better than sitting in a conference room and listening to some product thing. Instead, you can have a beer in a short-sleeve shirt and talk about rock ‘n’ roll.”

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CIA, Spookstock
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