It is rock 'n' roll's most storied event, the culmination of the '60's and the defining moment of youth culture of the 20th century. Under the establishment's noses, hippies took over for a weekend, creating their own city and their own mythology. For a brief, shining moment, it looked like peace and love might be a realistic way of life.
That was the way it was portrayed at least. The reality was a lot of mud, bad acid, traffic jams and unbelievable luck. That it didn't collapse in riot or natural disaster is quite remarkable. Now 50 years later, most of our knowledge of what happened comes from the famous film of the event, and the many stars that remained iconic heroes in rock, often thanks to their appearance at the festival.
The film and the original soundtrack album were examples of great editing, making the event and the musicians look a lot more exciting than they probably were. For the 50th anniversary, greatly expanded collections have been put together that give us a lot more music, a lot more stage chatter and announcements, and a lot better idea of what it must have been like on Yazgur's Farm those three days. There are smaller sets that handle the best-known music, on five LPs or three CDs, nothing much new there. On the other end, there's a mammoth 38 CD set, with virtually every song played, 432 tracks in all, more than half of them previously unreleased. If you're into it that much, I'd advised stripping naked and rolling in mud while listening for the full experience. I'll stick to the more feasible 10-CD box set.
It's not everything, but it is everyone, each band who played the festival represented by three or four cuts usually. Well, Ravi Shankar only gets one, but of course, it's really really long. This means that unknowns such as Sweetwater who played near the beginning get as good a look as Hendrix or The Who, for better or worse. Sometimes that is a real eyeopener. Troubled folkie Tim Hardin, sounds quite brilliant on "How Can We Hang On To A Dream," and captivating on "If I Were A Carpenter." He was notorious for bad shows, but this was a great one. Joe Cocker, who became a huge star thanks to his captivating performance of "With A Little Help From My Friends," has another four songs here, including an epic and well-chosen "Let's Go Get Stoned." The Band, one of the groups originally not featured in the soundtrack and film, do their usual tremendous set, and it turns out "The Weight" was a highlight at Woodstock, at least of the live audience.
Not all the original no-shows are as welcome additions. Every Deadhead knows they sucked at Woodstock, and wasted tons of time with rain delays and noodling. "Mama Tried" sounds okay but "Dark Star" is an embarrassment, and its no surprise Woodstock did nothing for the group. The most out-of-place act was Scotland's Incredible String Band, who made no friends by refusing to play their first slot due to the rain, worried for their trad instruments. When they finally got up a day later, there was no excitement to their set, which had nothing to do with blues-rock or hippy folk. Only die-hard fans will be pleased with their belated appearance here.
Famously, the best moments were in the middle of the night or early in the morning, with set times thrown way off due to delays. The overnight Saturday/Sunday shows by Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone and The Who is the best run, and it is served well here, from "Ball and Chain" to the "Dance To The Music" medley to "Pinball Wizard" at full force. It's interesting to note that Jefferson Airplane followed, and didn't sound great. While they were include in the film and soundtrack, they were clearly a band being passed by, and while the other three are still considered untouchable heroes, the Airplane has fallen in status.
Much of the fun of the Woodstock experience as most of us knew it, from the film and album, was the stage announcements and sound bites. The "No Rain" chant, the Fish Cheer, Max Yazgur's "I'm a farmer" speech, these are all here, but now in context, and with much more. What you find out is that the crowd was abuzz with rumours, especially about the brown and blue acid, and whether it was poison or not. There are a lot of stage announcements from Chip Monck about what to do for help for bad trips. Hilariously, between almost every act, he also implored people to get down from the PA towers. Imagine that today, they'd be getting roughed up by security staff. There are stage moments as well, including the notorious Abby Hoffman incident, when he commandeers the stage mic during The Who's set, and Townshend bashes him in the head with his guitar. Perhaps explaining her band's weak performance, Grace Slick extends sympathy to those who suffered bad trips, while saying they had the good acid, and the whole band was flying.