…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 Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel 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.
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