They All Went Down To Yasgur’s Farm, And Everywhere There Was Song And Celebration

…By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong/And everywhere was a song and a celebration/And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes/Riding shotgun in the sky/Turning into butterflies/Above our nation… (excerpt from Joni Mitchell tune Woodstock)

Next week is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, which took place from August 15-18, 1969. Much has been written about this festival, which officially was titled the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The initiators Michael LangArtie KornfeldJoel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. The selection of the venue, which ended up being Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. The acts who were not invited or and those who were but chose to decline or didn’t make it there. The artists who performed at the event. The overcrowding with an audience exceeding 400,000 people, more than twice the 200,000 that had been expected, based on advance sales of 186,000 tickets. The mud bath conditions resulting from bad weather.

Woodstock Poster

As a huge fan of music from that era, it felt natural to commemorate this extraordinary moment in 20th Century entertainment history. At the same time, I did not want to create yet another write-up that recaps the history. Instead, this post focuses on what my blog is supposed to be all about: Music I love and therefore like to celebrate. Following are some performance highlights from Woodstock. Since I didn’t have strong feelings about a particular order, I decided to go chronologically.

Let’s kick it off with Richie Havens, the opening act on the first day, Friday, August 15, in the late afternoon, and his riveting performance of Freedom. It was an improvised encore based on the traditional spiritual Motherless Child. “When you hear me play that long intro, it’s me stalling. I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to sing?'” he later explained, according to Songfacts. “I think the word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me. I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person was sharing it, and so that word came out.” Sounds like a cool story.

Sweet Sir Galahad is a tune by Joan Baez. Like in other cases at Woodstock, her performance predated the actual recording and release of the song, which first appeared on her 1970 studio album One Day At A Time. BTW, when Baez played it at the festival, it was already past 1:00 am on Saturday, August 16. In order to squeeze the 32 acts into the three days, many artists ended up performing after midnight. As you might imagine, some weren’t exactly happy about it.

Undoubtedly, one of Woodstock’s highlights I’ve seen is Soul Sacrifice by Santana. The band played on Saturday afternoon. Credited to Carlos Santana (guitar), Gregg Rolie (keyboards), David Brown (bass) and Marcus Malone (congas), Soul Sacrifice was included on the band’s eponymous studio debut album, released two weeks after their iconic appearance at the festival. I’ve watched this clip many times, and it continues to give me goosebumps. These guys were lightening up the stage. Live music doesn’t get much better than that. This appearance in and of itself already would have justified Santana’s place in music history. Of course, there was much more to come.

Moving on to Saturday evening brings us to blues rockers Canned Heat and their great tune On The Road Again. Co-credited to the band’s vocalist Alan Wilson, who also played harmonica and guitar, and blues artist Floyd Jones, the track was adapted from earlier blues songs. It first appeared on Canned Heat’s second studio album Boogie With Canned Heat released in January 1968. At Woodstock, it was the band’s closer of their set – what a way to wrap things up!

Next up: Born On The Bayou, one of the killer tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Written by John Fogerty, the song was included on CCR’s sophomore album Bayou Country from January 1969. The band was among the acts performing in the wee wee hours of Sunday morning, August 17. I recall reading that Fogerty wasn’t happy with that time slot, saying the audience was half asleep. That’s why he refused CCR’s inclusion in the 1970 Woodstock documentary, something this band mates felt was a mistake, but John was the undisputed boss. However, footage of CCR is featured in an expanded 40th anniversary edition of the film, which came out in June 2009.

Another highlight of the early hours of Sunday was Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band. Here’s Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), the opener of Joplin’s third studio album I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! from September 1969. The song was co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor. I don’t feel there was any way Joplin could have tried any harder to sing that song than she did. Similar to Santana, the energy of her performance was through the roof. And all of this after 2:00 am in the morning – whatever substance she was on, it apparently worked!

If I see this correctly (based on Wikipedia), the set with the most songs at Woodstock  belonged to The Who with 22 tracks. They kicked their gig off at 5:00 am on Sunday. Again, what a crazy thought to play at that time! Still, the kids certainly were alright. Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me, the final track from Tommy, the band’s fourth studio album that appeared in May 1969. Like most tunes on the record, it was written by Pete Townshend.

Apart from Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, perhaps the most iconic performance at Woodstock was With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker, the first act who officially opened the festival’s final day on Sunday afternoon. To me, Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ tune is the best rock cover I know. He truly made it his own. In fact, The Beatles were so impressed with it that they allowed him to cover more of their songs like She Came Into The Bathroom Window. With A Little Help From My Friends was the title track of Cocker’s debut album from May 1969. What an amazing performance!

On to 3:00 am on Monday, August 18 and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. For the most part, including set opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, it was actually David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash only. Neil Young skipped most of the acoustic songs but joined the band during the electric set. Neil being Neil, he also refused to be filmed, feeling it was distracting to both the performers and the audience. Written by Stills, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was the opening track of CSN’s debut album from May 1969.

A post about Woodstock’s musical highlights wouldn’t be complete without the closing act: Jimi Hendrix. Playing on Monday from 9:00 to 11:00 am, it looks like he had the longest set. Here is his unforgettable rendition of the aforementioned The Star-Spangled Banner. Hendrix effectively used heavy guitar distortion, feedback and sustain to imitate the sounds from rockets and bombs. He truly gave it all he got and collapsed from exhaustion while leaving the stage after his encore Hey Joe.

Woodstock’s original co-creator Michael Lang also helped organize a planned 50th anniversary festival. However, after a series of production issues, venue relocations and artist cancellations, it was canceled on July 31, 2018. A second Woodstock anniversary festival was planned at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, but in February, the Center announced that instead it will focus on “A Season of Song & Celebration” for the entire summer. The anniversary dates coincide with concerts from Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band (Aug 16), Santana with The Doobie Brothers (Aug 17) and John Fogerty with Tedeshi Trucks Band & Grace Potter (Aug 18).

I’ll leave you with a little fun fact: Tickets for Santana with The Doobies start at about $128.00 (including fees). By today’s standards, sadly, this is fairly normal. But, to be clear, these tickets are the cheapest and will only get you the lawn, the area farthest away from the stage. By comparison, tickets for the entire Woodstock festival in 1969, which as noted above included 32 acts, sold for $18.00 in advance and $24.00 at the gate. That’s the equivalent of approximately $123.00 and $164.00 today. Once again, we see the times they are a changin!

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Syracuse.com, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts website, YouTube

Guitar Gods Re-Experienced

Jimi Hendrix and Cream tribute bands Kiss The Sky and Heavy Cream recreate iconic rock history

Electric Ladyland and Wheels Of Fire have their 50th anniversaries this year – wow, that’s hard to believe! The two albums were released on October 16 and August 9 in 1968 by The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, respectively. What better way to celebrate the occasion than with an evening of great music capturing the amazing artists behind these iconic rock albums. And that’s exactly what I had a chance to do last night at Monmouth University Center for the Arts’ Pollak Theatre in West Long Branch, N.J. So, did I enjoy myself? You bet!

As some readers of the blog may recall, I posted about Jimi Hendrix tribute band Kiss The Sky and their amazing guitarist Jimi Bleu a month ago after I had seen an ad on Facebook. That’s when I also learned about last night’s gig and immediately decided to get a ticket. But before I get to Kiss The Sky, let’s start with Heavy Cream. And, as you probably guessed, it’s not what you may put on top of certain beverages, though the music they play surely as heck sounds sweet to me!

Kiss The Sky and Heavy Cream Poster

Heavy Cream is a tribute to the rock power trio of Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Cream were often called the world’s first successful “supergroup.” Frankly, I don’t care much about these labels. To me it all comes down to a simple question: Do I like the music? And when it comes to Cream, the answer is a clear ‘hell yes!’

While Heavy Cream are on Facebook and ReverbNation, there is relatively limited information on this band hailing from Philly. Their usual lineup includes Billy Thoden as Eric ClaptonDion Paci as Jack Bruce; and Steve Iannetonnt as Ginger Baker. Last night JT Curtis and John Hummel filled in for Thoden and Iannetonnt, respectively.

Let’s get to some music. Due to light conditions and where I was seated, capturing the action on my smartphone was challenging, and at times the video footage is out of focus. But I still prefer using my clips to keep things more authentic. Overall, I think the came out pretty well. Here’s the opener of Heavy Cream’s set: White Room. Composed by Jack Bruce with lyrics by poet Pete Brown, the tune also is the first track on the Wheels Of Fire album. Note I moved to a better recording position for the other clips that follow.

In addition to tracks from Wheels Of Fire, Heavy Cream also played a few other songs, such as Badge and the set closer Sunshine Of Your Love. A Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton co-write with lyrics by Pete Brown, Sunshine Of Your Love appeared on Cream’s second studio album Disraeli Gears from November 1967.

After a short intermission, Kiss The Sky hit the stage. According to his online bio, Jimy Bleu met Jimi Hendrix in 1968 as a young teenager at Warner/Reprise Records. He also was a member of the official Hendrix fan club that managed to convince Hendrix to speak at an assembly at Bleu’s high school in New York City. How cool is that? The following year, Bleu attended Woodstock and got one of the guitar straps Hendrix used during his performance there. How mega-cool is that?

Bleu went on to attend Berklee College of Music, as Hendrix had recommended to him, and became a Columbia/Def Jam recording artist and accomplished session musician. He is a recognized Hendrix historian and even produced and starred in his own off-Broadway play on the life of Jimi Hendrix. Watching Bleu last night, it was obvious how closely he has studied Hendrix and that he has paid tribute to his music for more than 45 years. Not only did he perfectly adopt Hendrix’s way to play right-handed guitars turned upside down and restrung for left-hand playing, but also nailed stunts like playing with his teeth, playing guitar behind his back and pointing the instrument at the audience like a gun. Frankly, to me it really felt like the maestro himself had returned!

Jimy Bleu
Jimy Bleu in action

I would also like to acknowledge Bleu’s excellent backing musicians. Just like him they have plenty of experience and it simply shows. Members of The Experience tribute include bassist A.J. Hager as Noel Redding and drummer Ted Edwards as Mitch Mitchell. The Band of Gypsys tribute features Jay Powerz as Billy Cox (bass) and James Jaxon as Buddy Miles (drums).

Kiss The Sky played three sets. Kicking off their show was a recreation of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s appearance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. That legendary performance put them on the map in the U.S., which at the time already had gained popularity in the U.K. In fact, it was Paul McCartney who recommended the band to the organizers of the festival where they were introduced by The Rolling Stones’ co-founding member Brian Jones. Kiss The Sky also paid homage to Band of Gypsys and the Electric Ladyland album with two separate sets.

Here’s Foxey Lady from the Monterey Pop set. The song was written by Hendrix and first appeared on Are You Experienced, the debut album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience from May 1967.

Following are two other tunes from the Monterey Pop set, which was my favorite section of the show last night: Purple Haze and the closer Wild Thing. And while, yes, things got wild, I’m happy to report that no guitars were harmed in the process. As much as I understand showmanship, I always cringe when I see musicians destroy their instruments. Please don’t do that – instead, give your equipment to some kid who wants to learn how to play but can’t afford the gear! Written by Hendrix, Purple Haze was the opener of the U.S. edition of the Are You Experienced album. Wild Thing is a tune written by American songwriter Chip Taylor, which was made popular by English garage rock band The Troggs.

Following the Monterey Pop set, Kiss The Sky played some tunes from Band of Gypsys. Here’s Machine Gun, a Hendrix Vietnam War protest jam from 1970. It appeared on their eponymous live album, their only Band of Gypys record released during Hendrix’s lifetime. It appeared in March 1970, six months prior to his death.

The last song I’d like to highlight is another iconic Hendrix composition, Voodoo Child (Slight Return), the closer of the third set, which featured select tracks from Electric Ladyland.

While when it comes to tribute bands I generally care first and foremost how well they capture the music, I’d be amiss not to acknowledge how impressed I was with the close attention Kiss The Sky and Heavy Cream paid to other aspects, including the Marshall stacks and other equipment they used, as well as the outfits they wore. In addition, Bleu’s visual resemblance to Hendrix is stunning. He looks like he could be his younger brother!

Based on their Facebook pages, Kiss The Sky and Heavy Cream are taking their Guitar Gods 50th Anniversary Tour next to Sellersville, Pa. on December 19, where they will perform at Sellersville Theatre & Washington House Hotel & Restaurant. If you dig Jimi Hendrix and Cream and can get there, I’d highly recommend this show. Prior to this, Hendrix fans can also see Kiss In The Sky at Cafe WHA in New York City on November 26 and THS Shrine in Tulsa, Okla.

Note: This post was updated on March 23, 2019, after Heavy Cream manager Mike Gotch kindly got back to me to answer a couple of questions I had about the band’s lineup for the above gig.

Sources: Wikipedia; Heavy Cream Facebook and ReverbNation pages; Kiss The Sky Facebook and website; YouTube