Woodstock – 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm – various
The original Woodstock box set came out on CD in 1994. And like nearly any recorded product with a built-in audience, revamping and re-releasing it seemed like a good idea to record company executives. In this case it was. First off, the original four-disc set was unappealing. Yeah, it’s all about the music, but we’re dealing with something that was a cultural touchstone as well. It deserved more attention than looking as if it was encased in a supermarket paper bag. Enter Rhino records, which, as far as reissues are concerned, is becoming the Rykodisc of the 21st century.
As part of all the 40th anniversary hoopla surrounding Woodstock this summer, the set expands by two additional discs, incorporates 38 previously unreleased tracks and presents full-length versions of formerly edited ones. Now, you may not have been holding your breath these past four decades for some of these selections (i.e. Sweetwater sounds like a pale version of the mighty Jefferson Airplane) but, overall, it’s definitely a higher quality version with these extras. Here’s why. For the people that were actually there, for those who couldn’t make it and for those who weren’t born yet, this Woodstock makes great strides in becoming the historical document that it’s supposed to be. Although you can find a number of the same tracks contained on the two Woodstock soundtrack releases — both of which were re-released last June — and I have to question the thinking behind excluding anything by The Band or even the invocation by Swami Satchidananda in favor of the nearly 30 overcooked minutes of Canned Heat’s ‘Woodstock Boogie,’ it’s the meticulous manner in which these CDs were constructed that make this a positive.
It presents a story arc of amazement, naivety, endurance and indulgence along with many full-on powerblasts of rock ‘n’ roll, folk, blues and soul and announcer Chip Monck, in particular, offering brief elements of authority and comfort to the nearly 500,000 in attendance.
With the audio segments of Monck, John Morris and Max Yasgur, a fuller picture of Woodstock is allowed to develop. Their inclusion with the performances creates a dramatic storyline. You sense the immediate need for the organizers to wing it during the early portion of the festival. Richie Havens goes on first due to Sweetwater being stuck in traffic on the folk-heavy discs one and two, while concerned messages are already being read in regards to concertgoers trying to reunite with others as well as which color acid is the one to avoid (Always thought it was the brown tabs, but apparently the blue and green ones were equally dangerous.) Electric rock sets fill up the next two discs with a performance by the Grateful Dead ("Dark Star") emerging after all these years of the band disowning their contribution. It may not meet the momentousness of the situation but it certainly is nowhere near the embarrassment that the members thought. On the other hand Janis Joplin sounds like she’s trying too hard to match the occasion. Creedence Clearwater Revival comes off much stronger on its three songs. One hopes that if the rest of the set matches whats heard here, the full performance will eventually be released as well as Havens, the Who, Joe Cocker, Country Joe & the Fish and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
While the politics of the times are made prominent by some (i.e Country Joe McDonald’s "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag" and Havens’ "Handsome Johnny"), it’s still done as part of the good vibes of the moment. Hearing Abbie Hoffman whip up the wet tired crowd into another Chicago 68 Democratic Convention scene during the Who’s flat-out, bone-crushing three-song segment, one gains a better understanding why Pete Townshend kicked him off the stage."
Sly & the Family Stone’s lone track, a medley of "Dance To The Music"/"Music Lover"/"I Want To Take You Higher," and Jefferson Airplane’s five songs including "Volunteers" and "Somebody To Love" both offer previews of the worthiness of their full sets, which are available separately on the Woodstock Experience CDs. The end of disc four finds the unwaveringly sunny spirit of Wavy Gravy offering the pronouncement of ‘breakfast in bed’ for everyone. The astonishment at the sizable crowd changes at this point to palpable anxiety when the Rainstorm hits.
The announcements and sounds of wind and raindrops becomes chilling when compared to the stellar set by Joe Cocker shortly beforehand. After this, Country Joe & the Fish give an indication of why they should be remembered for more than its frontman’s infamous "Fish Cheer" and anti-Vietnam sing along. Finally, Crosby, Stills Nash & Young’s second gig ever lives up to the hype while Jimi Hendrix takes the opportunity to be as free creatively with an improv-heavy two numbers that morph into the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Purple Haze." The set ends with an audibly exhausted Monck wishing what’s left of the crowd farewell, and a reminder to pick up after themselves. End of story and the credits roll in my mind. The Woodstock Music & Art Fair was a historic event because a potential disaster became the idealized Hippie Dream. Fortunately, someone kept the tape rolling.