It's the enticing performances of the smaller acts -- and not the explosions of the big ones -- that made Woodstock such a singular event.
Compiling and releasing a new collection of material from the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair (let's be formal) is an undertaking that's a least a little ambitious. Not just because there's more or less three days worth of music to sort through. That would be the easy part. What's trickier is figuring out what to do add to a 40-year-old conversation where nearly every angle's been taking, much of the key tracks have been heard, and the whole project's become its own sort of institution.
The new six-disc, eight-hour set Woodstock -- 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm still manages to be a compelling enterprise. There's no reason to get into the nuts and bolts of the music itself. You know what it sounds like. But the selection process, the tracklist, and the general approach to the set do provide some insights into the festival.
The producers don't simply attempt to present the best eight hours of music from the event. Instead, they try to provide more of an overview, utilizing the original order of artist appearances and sampling the best as well as the forgettable, mixing in stage announcements to add to the feel. Importantly, they also rely on the original tapes, eschewing some of the alternate takes used for Music from the Original Soundtrack and More: Woodstock, even if that means we get glitches like the problems recording the vocals on Arlo Guthrie's "Coming into Los Angeles" (which is noticeably different from what you may be used to. There are some potentially intriguing questions about authenticity here, and the value of the original recordings, but those are issues that have been taken up before, and are best left to other discussions. What's necessary to note here is that the set attempts, aptly, to re-create the feel of Woodstock and to present it as accurately as possible.
Of course, to get the actual feel, you'd probably be best served by filling a kiddie pool with dirt and water and inviting 12 of your closest friends to stand in it with you. I don't recommend that. This box does a nice job of intermingling just enough stage announcements (usually relating to the quality of the acid) and covering just enough of each artist (missing, I think, just the Band and the Keef Hartley Band) to give you the gist of the proceedings. The stage announcements, wisely, are each given their own track, so they're easily skipped.
The producers provide plenty from the big-name acts, but there's enough room to go around. John Sebastian gets as many tracks as the Who. That's fitting, given Sebastian's particular fit at Woodstock and the fact that the Who didn't play one of their finer sets from the era here (see the recordings from Leeds and the Isle of Wight for just the two most accessible examples). We happily get the infamous Abbie Hoffman/Pete Townshend encounter, in which Hoffman babblingly takes the stage mid-Tommy, and Townshend, depending on your source either bumps or whacks Hoffman with his guitar to drive him away. It's historically a minor incident, and not easily parsed based on the audio, but it's still a legendary moment, the inclusion of which aids the disc (not only in providing entertainment, but also in capturing the essential Woodstockness of Woodstock).
The same disc with the Who cuts (disc four) is its own sort of pinnacle within the box. Sly and the Family Stone absolutely killed, providing the highlight of the three days. Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane had less spectacular sets, but nonetheless give stellar performances. The other star that keeps up with these groups is Hendrix. His lineup, called "Gypsy, Sun, and Rainbows" in what feels like an improvised moment, isn't one of his tightest (though it does include Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass), but the performance was significant, with its intense guitar acrobatics and, most memorably, Hendrix's unforgettable version of "The Star Spangled Banner".
Photo: Henry Diltz
There are plenty of quality acts turning in quality performances here -- and I'm going to have to brush Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and Young for some of it), even though the original trio delivers one of my favorite moments with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes". When listening to this much music from Woodstock, you can linger a little on some of the lesser-known bands. Some of them are best saved for this moment, a folkie or a psych act that's perfectly in its element. At the same time, it's hard to figure exactly how some of these bands didn't make it. For a number of acts, Woodstock was, if not a jumpstart to success, at least an indicator of what was to come. Santana had yet to release an album, but performed a legendary set that certainly provided some good promotion for the forthcoming debut record.
Some of the other acts didn't fare as well in their careers, despite sensational sets at the festival. Canned Heat provided one of the finest performances at Woodstock, highlighted by "Going Up the Country" and the jam called "Woodstock Boogie" (both included here). The group seemed to have the perfect sound for the era. The blues-rock side of it matched the era's Britain-funneling-the-US styles; the folkier side appealed to the hippie contingent, and the psychedelia touches made the sound work in any number of venues.
So why aren't Canned Heat a revered band today, instead of one noted primarily for one great set? It's a tough question (and one that, worded a little differently, could probably apply to hundreds of bands). One possibility is that the group simply wasn't as good as they seemed (and that's not to their discredit). Their recorded music by and large doesn't match the Woodstock stuff, during which they were probably peaking (even with a recent lineup change) and riding on some adrenalin. The band's music also could not be more perfect for that particular venue (for the reasons described above). Heard in context, it's a phenomenal show, but being perfect in one context doesn't make a type of music perfect. Moreover, the group went through all kinds of internal chaos and turnover starting not long after Woodstock; the elements that gelled extremely well in August 1969 were no longer in place. It wasn't just that Canned Heat couldn't match their show. Canned Heat literally wasn't Canned Heat any more.
Mountain also made a strong showing at the festival (with only their fourth ever live performance), but remain thought of primarily as little more than a one-hit wonder, for "Mississippi Queen", which they didn't even perform here. This group's debut Climbing! still holds up as a strong listen, but the band suffered from two complicating factors. First, they never nailed a big follow-up single. "Nantucket Sleighride" is a fine song, but not a great one. Second, the band was excluded from both the original Woodstock film and the triple-album soundtrack. Mountain's debut album came out the same year as the soundtrack (to far less fanfare, I'm sure), and they lacked the boost that the other artists would have received. Mountain hasn't earned a spot as a true rock classic, but it would be interesting to consider their potential career path with just one more single and a stronger commercial push out of Woodstock itself.
Photo: Henry Diltz
The band that really intrigued me on this new set was Sweetwater. The group seemed to have the right elements in place for critical and commercial success, perhaps the latter kind in particular). The simplistic comparison is to Jefferson Airplane, primarily because they're both trippy rock bands fronted by women (Nancy Nevins in Sweetwater, and Grace Slick, of course, in Jefferson Airplane). While it's an easy match that I'd like to avoid because it just feels lazy, it's probably the most accurate comparison you could find.
Sweetwater's self-titled 1968 debut wasn't as strong as what the Airplane had been doing, but that's no knock against it. The band was strong enough, and capable of creating just the right atmosphere as well as naturally matching the current of its time without feeling. Unfortunately, we get only two tracks from their Woodstock performance on this box. One, "Two Worlds", appeared on the debut. "Look Out" -- with some rock, some groove, and some era-appropriate flute -- would appear on their sophomore album Just for You in 1970.
It's a fine song, but it's what happened between Woodstock and the release of Just for You that explains Sweetwater's demise. In late 1969, Nevins was in a car wreck involving a drunk driver and suffered severe injuries, including one to a vocal chord. The band put out two more albums while she recovered (and contributed both songs and vocals). However, the band's career was derailed. Like Mountain, Sweetwater didn't appear in the original documentary or soundtrack. There are suggestions that this fact is somehow connected to Nevins's injuries, but regardless of the reason, it didn't help.
Of course, most of the acts that performed at Woodstock didn't become huge stars, but most of them also didn't hold their own with the festival's big stars. Dwelling on a few of these near-misses might be like a bit of a downer, but that's not really the point. Aside from exploring some trivia and indulging my own fascinations, looking at these sorts of acts (and 40 Years On has enough variety for plenty of such explorations) helps explain why Woodstock was such a novel event from a musical perspective. Ignoring the size of the crowd and all the cultural associations and going directly to the music, it's pretty amazing that this many acts (and not all of them) played this well for three days. For some of these groups, it was their finest hour, and that sort of elevation -- and not the presence of future Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers -- is what made the music itself such a singular event.
Photo: Henry Diltz