originally published August 16, 2014
“Said I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock & roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.”
Somewhere amid the cultural symbolism and the anthemic declarations of a generation’s identity lies the actual music performed at the Woodstock festival. Contrasting that weekend with the tighter and more disciplined Monterey Pop Festival from two years earlier reveals an evolution in rock culture: the glittering aftermath of psychedelia, the re-blossoming of foundational blues and folk through rock-tinted lenses, and the collective embrace of instrumental mastery.
The Who sent jaws dropping to the dusty floor in ’67 when Pete Townsend assaulted his guitar into pieces; at Woodstock they were neck-deep in exploring the possibility of rock-opera. The Jefferson Airplane soared on the strength of their early hits at Monterey; two years later their music was more introspective and demure. Soul music, which had tickled the Monterey crowd to the tune of Otis Redding, Lou Rawls and Booker T. & The MG’s, had rocketed into the realm of cosmic funk by 1969, with Sly & The Family Stone representing. And Janis… well she was just Janis. No higher compliment could be given.
Some of the Woodstock performances were iconic. Others were merely adequate. Then there was Sha Na Na, which fit into the vibe of the festival like a can of tuna fits onto a dessert cart. But the music is unquestionably the skeleton that gives the experience its historic form and structure.
Just imagine what could have been.
A number of acts were either rumored or invited, but never made the bill. Bob Dylan, the poet-rebel of the Newport Folk Festival four years earlier, was the most logical invitee. He lived near Bethel in the actual town of Woodstock, but he’d already committed to the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of the month. Shiny new superstars Led Zeppelin were selected, but promoter Frank Barsalona didn’t want his band to be just another name on the bill. The Doors figured it would be a second-rate Monterey Pop so they turned it down, an act that guitarist Robby Krieger claimed they later regretted.
The notion of witnessing the Beatles performing live in the late 60’s was a perpetual rumor, as the band had ceased touring in the summer of 1966. There were a handful of possible reasons for their absence from Woodstock, one of which involves Richard Nixon denying John Lennon (who had been busted for pot the previous year) entry into the country. Another story is that John refused to perform unless Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band was also added to the bill. The most likely reason is that they simply didn’t want to.
Chicago Transit Authority (who had yet to shorten their name to ‘Chicago’) had a contract with famed promoter Bill Graham. Bill booked the band into the Fillmore West on August 17th, ostensibly so that he could book Santana at Woodstock instead. Tommy James & The Shondells passed, most likely because of the way the gig was presented to them: “Yeah, listen, there’s this pig farmer in upstate New York that wants you to play in his field.” That blundered pitch (come on – Max Yasgur was a dairy farmer!) led them to pass on the show.
Other acts who could have taken the stage include the Jeff Beck Group (who broke up a couple weeks beforehand), the Byrds, the Moody Blues, Frank Zappa, Procol Harum, Spirit, Jethro Tull, Iron Butterfly, Free and Joni Mitchell. Joni’s manager insisted that her appearance on the Dick Cavett Show would be a better career move, which makes it all the more ironic that she would go on to pen “Woodstock”, the song most closely associated with the spirit of the festival.
Sweetwater was supposed to be the first act to take the stage on Friday afternoon, but due to some logistical issues, Richie Havens kicked off the festivities at 5:08pm with a powerful folk set. If you’ve never seen this performance, you owe it to your seat-back to feel the strain as the power of his voice and manic strumming blow you physically backwards. Havens had the voice of a soul singer, drenched with the liquid passion of anguished activism. His rendition of “Freedom” is – to my ears – the highlight of the Friday performances.
The bulk of Friday was devoted to folk music, featuring names I’d never heard of (Bert Sommer and Tim Hardin didn’t make the soundtrack or the film), closing out with Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, who shut the night down at a reasonable 2:00. The infamous Woodstock rain wouldn’t occur until Sunday, but an early sprinkle during Ravi Shankar’s set heralded a mucky experience for the entire weekend.
Those who arrived at the site packed with consciousness-altering and/or wakefulness-inducing drugs would have been wise to save their stash for Saturday. The set opened with New England rockers Quill shortly after noon, and concluded at 9:40 the following morning with Jefferson Airplane’s gut-throttling set. In between, the towers were blasting the sounds of Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, CCR, Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, and a 23-song journey by The Who.
John Sebastian showed up as a spectator and was invited to the stage for a quick set, possibly to help mellow out those whose trips on the not-so-good brown acid had been elbowed into the cosmos by Santana’s frantic jams. Saturday also featured the lone significant technical derailment of the festival when the Grateful Dead’s amps overloaded, likely due to an excessive influx of intensely good vibes. Saturday was a veritable parade of some of the era’s most wondrous concoctors of soul-slamming tuneage.
Those whose constitutions were of sufficient strength to endure another day and night of music on Sunday were treated to the weekend’s most raucous musical achievements. Those who were worn out already also experienced these performances, since the roads were too littered with car debris for anyone to leave if they wanted to.
After Joe Cocker’s magnetic rendering of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, the infamous Woodstock thunderstorm derailed the music, resulting in those triumphant ass-slides through sloppy muck that have been replicated at every rainy outdoor festival since. The music picked up at 6:30 with Country Joe & The Fish, followed by Ten Years After’s delicious feast of infectious rock. Their performance of “I’m Going Home” is a magnificent expression of desperation fuelled by jubilation and sweaty anticipation – it must be heard to be believed.
Saturday night continued with The Band, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Blood Sweat & Tears, Crosby Stills Nash & Young (their second ever live performance), the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na (ugh) and a mesmerizing 2-hour set by Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies. Jimi’s notorious interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” expertly captures the damaged patriotism wrought by the Vietnam War and a nation fiercely divided by a snarling generation gap. By the time Jimi finished, at 11:00am on Monday morning, only a few thousand stragglers were left.
Not every artist was thrilled with their performance at Woodstock – Neil Young only showed up for the last part of Crosby Stills & Nash’s set, and he’d insisted the cameras be turned off, lest they interfere with the show. The music truly holds up though; the spectacle of Woodstock lies in the footprint of its cultural wallop, but the music demonstrates why the hippie phenomenon was tied so dearly with the soundtrack of its era. In short: even if you disagree with the hippie ideals, the vehemently bohemian lifestyle or their eclectic mode of dress and style, the music lives up to the hype.