The Woodstock Experience – Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Johnny Winter
Attention to details and rummaging through history never gets old. The merch madness of items related to the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair of 1969—books, revamped DVDs and CD—cant help but make one feel a bit giddy, matched with a degree of apprehension, as to how worthwhile all the new product is. Focusing on the music, theres Legacy Records’ The Woodstock Experience, which presents a snapshot of the final year before the Me Decade intruded by coupling studio albums from 1969 by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone and Johnny Winter with their complete sets from the legendary festival. (It always seemed odd that more of the performances from those three days in August havent materialized. Besides the members of the Grateful Dead, who dismissed their set as another opportunity squandered, the ones represented here give an indication of what transpired; a mix of brilliance equaling the moment, youthful nervousness playing in front of 500,000 people, and the possibility that substances of the day got in the way.
Lets start off with the best and move on to the rest. Sly & the Family Stone take it to the crowd. Hard. From the opening of MLady, the mix of funk, soul, pop and rock rises up to the occasion and doesnt let it up whatsoever for the full 50 minutes until the final notes from the electrifying title track of the groups album from that year, Stand!, fades away.
The performance of Santana’s Jingo in the original Woodstock documentary made me anticipate the San Francisco acts set above all the others. And while, individually, the live versions of nearly all the material that makes up the groups self-titled debut are powerful, particularly Savor, Jingo and Soul Sacrifice, the actual stops and starts that mark their appearance relentlessly cut back on the necessary flow. What could have been mind-numbingly brilliant becomes merely very good. Expectations are a bitch and I damned myself with such thoughts.
As one of the festivals headliners, Jefferson Airplane has the lengthy catalog (six albums) and hits (Somebody to Love, White Rabbit) to merit its spot on the program. Spread out over a disc-and-a-half with Volunteers highlighted as the 1969 release, one can hear the musical expansion within the Airplanes ranks as well as the professionalism and quality of the musicianship. The members move from the morning rave up of The Other Side of This Life to a marathon version of Wooden Ships, a blues workout on Uncle Sam Blues and get intensely experimental to finish up matters with The House at Pooneil Corners. Its almost too easy to take it all for granted. Initially I did. Then, I realized what I was dealing with and how the Airplane are greatly overshadowed by its commercial success and unjustly ignored by its reformation under its Starship smooth-rock guise.
Janis Joplin took to the Woodstock stage shortly before the release of her debut album, I Got Dem Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama!. Backed by the Kozmic Blues Band, Joplin sounds somewhat overshadowed by the soul rock format and the presence of non-stop horn arrangements. It almost sounds as if shes trying too hard to match the lineup behind her, and it becomes exhausting. Following a brief break when Snooky Flowers takes over on lead vocals for Cant Turn You Loose, Joplin sounds more reassured and the whole set goes on an upswing with Work Me, Lord, Piece of My Heart and Ball and Chain. Her Festival Express set is markedly better, and can be heard on the Deluxe Version of Pearl, but completists should be satisfied.
Strangely, Johnny Winters self-titled 1969 debut shows him as a class A student of a number of blues styles. On the album, he schools listeners in the ways of Chicago blues with a stop at the Missisippi Delta and more. While there are a few moments where flash nearly outshines the tune, Winter sounds in sync with his band. Not so much when they played Woodstock. Initially, Winter dazzles with his six-string runs but the rhythm section seems to be coming from some other place. Fortunately, they do find their pace on Mean Town Blues and You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now. Then, Johnnys singer/keyboardist/saxophonist brother Edgar shows up and the next three numbers become more chaotic than cohesive. A solid cover of Johnny B. Goode finishes up the set with a glimpse at a moment of time that didnt quite gel in the best way possible.