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The Rockologist: Woodstock Forty Years After

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As the song goes, by the time they got to Woodstock, they were half a million strong…

Over the next few weeks and months you’re going to start seeing a lot of stuff about Woodstock both on the internet and elsewhere. That’s because the 1969 rock festival — considered by most music historians and other Rockologist types, like yours truly, to be the greatest concert of all time — is turning forty this year.

As the Byrds would say, it seems like only yesterday — particularly if you were actually around back when it happened. Woodstock is not just the stuff of legend, but also of tall tales told from barstools by aging rockers and other hippie types at the sort of musky watering holes you’ll find in most any major city in America. You know the ones that usually start with "I remember Woodstock?"

In my own case, the only thing missing is the grey ponytail.

So, to commemorate this anniversary, there are no less than something like 587 remastered, remixed, and otherwise repackaged Blu-ray, DVD, and CD versions of the concert coming out this summer. Okay, so I’m exaggerating just a little bit. But not by much.

Remastered versions of the original Woodstock and Woodstock Two soundtrack albums are already in stores on CD now, as is a fresh, new version of the Director’s Cut of the original film. The latter item is available both in a single DVD and Blu-ray version, as well as in a full-on boxed set which features loads of previously unseen footage by artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead along with additional unreleased, archived performances from bands like the Who and the Jefferson Airplane.

There’s also a brand new interactive website which you’ll find by pointing your browser towards Woodstock.com. Still to come are another boxed set, as well as a series of individual double discs from Sony Legacy capturing the Woodstock Experience with the complete festival performances of Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sly And The Family Stone, Johnny Winter, and Janis Joplin. Each of these will also couple the concert recordings with a classic album by each artist from about the same time period. My own reviews on these will be forthcoming here on BC in the days ahead (although I can tell you now that the sound is a bit disappointing on a few of them).

It’s all enough to make your world-weary Rockologist seek out some of that infamous brown acid for himself. Well almost.

One thing they don’t appear to be doing this year — thankfully — is another concert. Although I didn’t attend either of them, the last couple of big Woodstock reunion shows (in 1994 and 1999) actually bothered me quite a bit. To me, that sort of legacy is simply something that is not to be screwed with.

I mean did they honestly think they could feature bands like Nine Inch Nails and Metallica playing on some god-forsaken mudpit of a farm out in the middle of upstate nowhere and not have the fans riot and generally go ape-shit? Who were they kidding?

This, after all, was not the same group of peaceful, pot smoking hippies decked out in flowers, beads and patchouli oil. Nor was it artists like mellow sixties lefties Joan Baez, John Sebastian, or for that matter, even Grace Slick inciting the faithful to revolution with the Jefferson Airplane in 1969.

Hell, even if Grace herself were there, had she sang such incendiary lyrics as “Up against the wall, motherfuckers” (as she did back in 1969), you can’t help but think that these knuckleheads would have taken it as an invitation to burn down the campground. As it turns out they didn’t need Grace after all; they did it anyway. It’s like, what were they thinking, ya’ know?

Anyway, this brings us back to that brand new deluxe boxed set from the original 1969 concert and subsequent film. The challenge here being, how do you improve upon the perfection of the original without completely screwing it up? In most cases, the answer would be that you don’t.

Which is why you’ve got to give the folks at Warner Video some credit for this set, which is billed as the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Woodstock. Not that there won’t be another one of these things ten or so years down the line, because there probably will. But for what it’s worth, they actually did a pretty nice job here.

Start with the box itself. It comes in a faux leather/suede sort of package, complete with the prerequisite fringe. Because as anyone who has ever seen the Woodstock film already knows, everyone who was anyone back then — from Roger Daltrey to David Crosby to Sly Stone — wore them some fringe. Nice touch, there.

The extras are also pretty cool. You’ve got your original ticket stubs for starters (eight bucks a day if you can fathom that).

But what I liked best here was the recreation (albeit in a more pocket-sized version) of Life Magazine’s original commemorative Woodstock issue. I remember buying this as a thirteen year old boy and cutting out all of the cool pictures of Grace Slick, Sly Stone, and Roger Daltrey and taping them up on my bedroom wall. So for me, that brought back some pretty cool, if slightly bittersweet memories as a thirteen year old, long haired hippie wannabe rock star.

But the real meat of this thing lies in the previously unseen footage of all those great (well, mostly great, anyway) musical performances. Not only are some of these added to the original film here (stuff like Janis Joplin for example), but there is also an entire second disc of this stuff. Sweet.

Nonetheless, much of what you get here is really kind of a mixed bag.

Given the fact that the movie producers had to edit down three days of the world’s greatest bands doing their thing into a three hour movie, you can see why bands like Mountain, for example, with all due respect, didn’t make the final cut.

If I’m being one hundred percent honest here, I also could have probably lived without the nearly half hour or so devoted here to the Grateful Dead doing “Turn On Your Love Light,” — Pigpen (God rest his soul) and all. In fairness though, Dead fans will probably dig this a lot.

Not so with Creedence Clearwater Revival however. John Fogerty and company simply play their asses off here on songs like “Born On The Bayou” and particularly “Keep On Chooglin'” where Doug Clifford beats the living crap out of his drums (did you get that Doug? — the former CCR drummer has been known to e-mail me on occasion).

Watching this, you gotta’ wonder if CCR wouldn’t have made it even bigger than they eventually did anyway had “Chooglin'” been included in the original film. The Johnny Winter spot also kicks several degrees of blues slide guitar ass.

The new additions made to the film itself, however, are a bit more curious. In a particular “WTF” moment, Jefferson Airplane’s set doesn’t even include the incendiary Woodstock version of their protest anthem “Volunteers,” opting somewhat oddly instead for the lower key “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon.” Still, you gotta love those closeup shots of Grace Slick (love those eyes) and the always amazing Jack Casady (love those eyebrows, and really love that bass, Jack).

It’s also great to see Janis Joplin’s Woodstock performance on screen at long last. The one time I saw Janis in concert — as a wide-eyed thirteen year old kid just a few months before she died — I also got to meet her. I can remember asking her then why she wasn’t in the movie. Taking a deep swig of her signature Southern Comfort, Janis replied “probably ’cause I didn’t do the editing.” She looks and sounds great here, belting out a nice version of “Work Me, Lord.”

Some of the other nice additions to the original film here include Jimi Hendrix doing “Voodoo Child” and the Who doing “Summertime Blues” and “My Generation” (well okay, that one’s on the bonus disc).

Personally, I’d have loved to have seen or even heard the way Townshend famously told sixties radical Abbie Hoffman to “get off my fucking stage” with his boots here. But as the Stones would say, I guess ya’ can’t always get what you want.

Outside of all the extras here, the rest of the Woodstock film is pretty much the same as I’ve remembered for some forty years now. The career making performances from Santana, Ten Years After, and the rest remain as great now as they were back then.

However, Sly And the Family Stone’s performance still stands in a class entirely its own. In fact, if I have any beef at all with this box, it is with the strange editing and even stranger sound drop-offs here of that very same performance. As I said from the onset of this article, you just don’t fuck with that kind of greatness.

Over the next few days, I will be reviewing Sony/Legacy’s Woodstock Experience CDs from Sly, Santana, Janis, the Airplane, and Johnny Winter.

In the meantime, happy 40th birthday Woodstock.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Prepare to be disappointed:

    Heroes of Woodstock 2009 Tour: Tom Constanten, Mountain, Jefferson Starship, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Melanie, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Levon Helm Band, and Country Joe McDonald will play the Bethel Woods Music Festival on August 15 2009, as well as 14 other shows across the USA.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Are any of those bands even still together? Or alive?

    -Glen

  • http://woodstockrevival.com Steve Leibowitz

    There is a Woodstock Revival coming up on August 5th in Jerusalem Israel.