If it had all been sun-shine and clockwork, with a tidy profit on the morning after, no one would have said another word. Instead, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, held August 15th to 17th, 1969, near Bethel, New York — a refugee-camp experience officially declared a state disaster area on the second day — became an anniversary industry.
And business is booming. In addition to these six new releases, the 1970 documentary, Woodstock, is out as a deluxe DVD set. The 1970 soundtrack and its 1971 sequel, Woodstock Two, are back on CD. Then there are the books, replica tchotchkes and commemorative events, mostly drawing on an artfully massaged memory of that weekend’s accidental wonder: That amid the frozen traffic, stressed food and medical services, and oceanic mud, “Half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music — and have nothing but fun and music!” as the late Max Yasgur, the farmer who welcomed the horde on his land, said from the stage on Sunday morning.
Yasgur’s breakfast speech, edited on the Woodstock album, appears in full on Woodstock — 40 Years On, a small but telling example of the box’s documentary detail and momentum. Its six CDs contain virtually all of Woodstock and Woodstock Two plus tracks from a 1994 box, then another 38 previously unreleased songs and actualities. All but three of the 32 acts that played are represented (the exceptions, because of licensing issues, include the Band and, strangely, Ten Years After, who are on the 1970 album). Everything is in the order it happened, as it happened. There are bum notes (musicians were high, burnt or both) and bumpy mixes (recording conditions were just shy of wartime). But the result, combined with the full-length performances in the Woodstock Experience packages, is the most comprehensive and satisfying account so far of the main reason why Yasgur’s acres became an instant city of freaks, including me: the music.
Some of the history gets a valid rewrite. The Grateful Dead’s set was a notorious disaster, beset by equipment problems. But the salvaged 19-minute “Dark Star” is good trippin’, one of the mostly heavy-rock weekend’s few truly psychedelic flings (especially considering the bad acid MC John Morris keeps warning the crowd about). Singer-songwriter Bert Sommer was left out of the movie and the original albums. But the folk-rock strains of “And When It’s Over” and Sommer’s high, rippling voice suggest a Tim Buckley-in-waiting. (That, sadly, is where he stayed. Sommer died in 1990.) And, honestly, Country Joe McDonald’s “F-U-C-K” cheer never felt as mutinous and euphoric on record as it did that Saturday in the open air. The bigger gas is a long excerpt of acid-flecked garage rock from his later appearance with the Fish.
There is a solid shot of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s roots-‘n’-TNT set and more of the Who’s enraged dead-of-night assault, if not enough of either. Pete Townshend’s amp-gutting solo in “Amazing Journey” at least partly explains why he didn’t hesitate to whack Abbie Hoffman into the pit when the yippie bolted onstage after “Pinball Wizard.” (Hoffman: “I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison!” Townshend: “Fuck off my fucking stage!”)
That exchange underscores a dirty, overlooked truth of Woodstock. The biggest massed-youth moment of the decade was also the least political: straight-up capitalism (if you bought a ticket, like I did) and hip escapism. The most direct comment on the real state of the nation — Vietnam, urban riots, civil protest — only came on Monday morning, as most of the mob headed home: Jimi Hendrix’s wrenching firefight guitar adaptation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If it hadn’t been in the movie, most of the Woodstock Nation would have missed it altogether.
Hendrix’s uneven but epochal finale was finally released in its near-entirety in 1999. Three of the full sets in the Legacy series are even better. (Each volume is a double CD with the act’s 1969 studio LP, a drag if you already own the latter.) Sly and the Family Stone were the only deep-R&B act on the bill, and from the shotgun start — a scat-and-gallop “M’Lady” into the smiling swagger of “Sing a Simple Song” — Stone is at the height of his party-politics command. (A year later, he was sinking into drug-and-paranoia twilight.) Jefferson Airplane’s Sunday-dawn show is truly “morning maniac music,” as singer Grace Slick famously put it: fast and gnarly, spiked with crossed-sword vocals. The convulsive jam out of “Wooden Ships” would have blown minds at any hour.
The Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter shows are, in turn, uneven and near great. She sings with familiar fire but leads her big band with less assurance. He goes overlong on the solos but locks in with his original Texas rhythm section: drummer Uncle John Turner and bassist Tommy Shannon.
But for pure shock, nothing beat Santana’s 45 Woodstock minutes. It was one of their first East Coast gigs; the set was their then-unreleased debut LP. And I still clearly remember guitarist Carlos Santana’s furious trills cutting the Saturday-afternoon heat over the band’s Latin-railroad charge. As far as I’m concerned, for that alone, the rest of the mess was worth it.
Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience — Three stars
Santana: The Woodstock Experience — Four stars
Sly and the Family Stone: The Woodstock Experience — Four stars
Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience — Three and a half stars