The roughly half million people at Woodstock had endured a lot by the time the Band took the stage at 10 p.m. on the final night of the three-day festival. The traffic jam, rain, mud and notorious bad brown acid made for some tough times, as did the basic fact that organizers weren’t nearly prepared for a crowd of that size, meaning that food, water and medical care were in short supply.
In his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire, Levon Helm recalled arriving at the site by helicopter. “You kind of felt you were going into a war,” he wrote. “There weren’t any dressing rooms because they’d been turned into emergency clinics . . . The crowd was real tired and a little unhealthy.”
There was a severe thunderstorm that afternoon, delaying the show for over three hours. When things cleared, Country Joe and the Fish played, followed by Ten Years After and the Band. “After three days of people being hammered by weather and music, it was hard to get a take on the mood,” Robbie Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1989. “We played a slow, haunting set of mountain music. We lived up there, near Woodstock, and it seemed kind of appropriate from our point of view. We did songs like ‘Long Black Veil’ and ‘The Weight,’ and everything had a bit of reverence to it. Even the faster songs sounded almost religious.”
Despite their powerful set, many people don’t realize that the Band even played Woodstock because they didn’t appear in the movie. “We were offered half our fee for the movie rights to our performance,” Helm said. “[Our manager] Albert [Grossman] naturally said no. They did film us, in low light because we told them not to mess with us onstage. Our set was recorded, and someone at Atlantic Records told us later that our tapes came out better than anyone’s. They really wanted to put them out. We felt we didn’t play a bad set, but it wasn’t totally up to our standard since Robbie’s microphone had been inadvertently left on, and he wasn’t much of a singer.”
The Band weren’t the only group left out of the Woodstock movie. Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mountain, Tim Hardin and Ravi Shankar’s sets also didn’t make it in. Fortunately, most everything was filmed and many performances have surfaced over the years on deluxe editions of the movie. Here’s footage of the Band playing “Tears of Rage.” The camera is fixated almost entirely on Richard Manuel. It’s a nice antidote to The Last Waltz where, despite the many cameras around the stage, he was barely visible, even during his spotlight songs.