Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Woodstock 2009: Forty Years After

Let’s get right to the bottom line: the “Heroes of Woodstock” concert at Bethel Woods on August 15 was the best concert I’ve seen since. . .Woodstock in 1969. I’ve been to dozens over the past 40 years, but this one tops them all, for the quality as well as the quantity of music plus the celebratory atmosphere.

From the first sounds—15-year-old Conrad Oberg recreating (nearly) note-for-note Jimi Hendrix’s electrifying “Star Spangled Banner”—to the final song almost eight hours later, the event gave us everything we wanted, and then some. For many attendees, those who were there in 1969 but took the worst of it between the bad weather, the physical privations, and the brown acid, this concert was the smooth entertainment they wished had been provided the first time. I saw a few people overcome by the heat (it was the hottest day of the year, of course, with temperatures above 90), but there was no sign of rain, mud, or starvation. As far as I’m aware, the worst thing that happened was that they ran out of lettuce for the wraps late in the evening.

Linda and I benefited from the lessons I learned 40 years ago. This time I stopped in Monticello on purpose, parking at the racetrack and taking a shuttle bus which delivered us to the front of the museum where a line had already formed a half-hour before the gates opened. The first thing we saw was a group of two dozen people wearing matching tie-dyed shirts and posing for photos of a family reunion. The next thing we saw was hundreds of other people wearing tie-dyed clothing, more than I’ve seen in the past few decades combined. Since I can’t fit into my old tie-dyed shirt, I shelled out $25 for a new one, changed shirts in line, and felt much more in tune with the old times.

In line, and then sitting at a picnic table in the shade until the music began, we met a lot of people who had been there in 1969. Hundreds, if not thousands, of the roughly 17,000 people in attendance were returnees. One didn’t remember anything; he had a bad drug trip, passed out, and was carted away from the concert by friends, later becoming a drug counselor himself. Another knew he was there somewhere but couldn’t remember exactly where. A third admitted leaving after the Friday-night storm which turned the site into the “sea of mud” which greeted so many of us on Saturday. Then there was the guy who was in the Army in 1969 and became part of the convoy of Army vehicles bringing supplies to the concert site. He gave away the food he was carrying and was gladly stranded there for two days. The rule of the convoy was that you waited for the last truck, and then you went back. The last truck never made it through, so he was forced to stay and listen to the music.

We got a spot about halfway down the sloping lawn where tickets, fittingly, ran $19.69. Threw down a blanket and sat in the $5 rental lawn chairs, watching the crowd gradually fill the hillside. Other fans perched in the woods and on rocks behind the hill, but the music could be heard all the way back by the entrance, an invitation to explore the site’s well-tended grounds. A lot of people stayed in the shade until the sun went down. We endured the blistering sun, kept buying cold water (at $4 a bottle—the concessions made up for the cheap tickets), and savored a perfect evening for music, cool, still, a starry sky above, and sacred earth below that had been blessed by Native American Gary Duncan, the guitarist from Quicksilver Messenger Service, in his invocation.

From the start, the show channeled the spirits of Woodstock past. After Oberg’s scorching anthem, Sam Yasgur, the son of Max Yasgur, spoke to the gathering. He read the text of the wonderful speech his father delivered in 1969, blessing kids he really didn’t understand for achieving “three days of nothing but fun and music,” and added his own blessing for this celebration. He was followed by Country Joe McDonald, the only performer who did two shows in 1969 (a solo set on Saturday, and joined by The Fish as the first act Sunday night following the big storm), who acted as the MC this time. That was a great idea by the organizers. One of the toughest things in 1969 was waiting for the next act to come on. Most of the time it took 45 minutes to change and check equipment, which wasn’t good. This time it took about half that time, and Country Joe filled it with music of his own. He started by saying “Give me an ‘F’!” and we did. “Thank you,” he said, stopping there. Everyone laughed. He saved the “Fixin’ To Die Rag” and the full “FUCK!” cheer for his second segment, and during the course of the evening gave us Arlo Guthrie’s “Customs Man,” “Ring of Fire,” a haunting song about Janis Joplin, and many other treats. This time, the entertainment never ended.

I confess that I wasn’t expecting the music to be scintillating. Too many of the star performers would be missing. How great could Big Brother and the Holding Company be without Janis? How could the Jefferson Starship fly high without Grace Slick? And Canned Heat? Their two main performers died a long time ago (Alan Wilson in 1970 and Bob Hite in 1981). They couldn’t even be the same group without that duo. The survivors from the listed bands are in their 60s; would their music be lethargic, a listless echo of former brilliance? I wondered.

I can report that the music was scintillating from start to finish. The survivors rocked as only rockers can. It struck me that musicians are more like golfers than team sports athletes. A group of 60-year-olds cannot play baseball except in slow motion, but 60-year-old golfers can still compete. Classical musicians have often continued their careers into their 80s. The veteran performers at Bethel Woods (and on the rest of the summer-long “Heroes of Woodstock” tour) have gray hair and middle-aged paunches matching those of the people on the lawn who were dancing along with them, but their talents haven’t faded.

Each group had a core of its original lineup, and the young performers who filled the departed stars’ roles clearly performed in their spirit. It began with Big Brother, the leadoff group. A young Asian singer who calls herself “Superfly” launched the concert with “Down On Me” and “Piece of My Heart” before yielding to a veteran New York City performer, Sophia Ramos. She did five vintage Joplin songs (“Combination of the Two,” “Kozmic Blues,” “Summertime,” “Me & Bobby McGee,” and “Ball and Chain”) as if Janis herself were being channeled through a stronger voice. The virtuoso vocal tricks she threw into “Ball and Chain” wowed the audience and made us realize that nobody was going to be phoning in their performance. Ramos set the tone for a night of soulful re-workings, not pale imitations.

Canned Heat was next. Yesterday I read the band’s history on Wikipedia, and it was like reading the history of the 1960s Mets, there were so many continuous roster changes. Bass player Larry Taylor has been in and out of the group at least a half-dozen times, and the same is true of everyone except the indestructible Fito de la Parra, the drummer who kept the group going despite the tragic deaths and other calamities. I remember very well my disappointment in 1969 when they announced that their guitarist that night would be Harvey Mandel. It seems that only a week before, Henry Vestine, whose scorching guitar was (I felt) the most exciting thing about the band, had left the group after a beef with Taylor. Enter Mandel, who has also come and gone from the group many times since then (as did Vestine before his death in 1998). Both Mandel and Taylor were on hand last Saturday, and along with de la Parra, single/harpist Greg Kage (with the group a dozen years now) and guitarist Barry Levenson, they damn near made up for the absence of Wilson and Hite. Fito did the falsetto vocal for “Going Up the Country,” which got half the lawn crowd up and dancing. They did the vintage Canned Heat songs, starting with “Bullfrog Blues” and including “On the Road Again,” “Work Together,” “Time Was,” and a 16-minute version of “Refried Boogie” with its rotating solos. A great 70-minute set.

The biggest surprise of the night for me was the next group, Ten Years After. They were my favorites in 1969, and I saw them perform five or six times that summer. I saw them at Newport and Central Park, in a movie theater in Hackensack, New Jersey, and on a college campus in New York City where they played for almost three hours because the other scheduled group (Canned Heat) couldn’t make it. I was front and center for their Woodstock gig, capped by Alvin Lee carrying a watermelon off the stage after an exhausting performance of “I’m Going Home”. Ten Years After has always been about Alvin Lee, not the other three members of the group (even though bass player Leo Lyons is a long-time favorite). I saw Alvin in concert without the others 20 years after Woodstock, and he was as overwhelming as ever. Now, 40 years after, they were back.

Or were they? The band began with “Love Like a Man,” and it sounded like the real thing, but after a few minutes I trained my binoculars on the stage and saw what was clearly not Alvin Lee on vocals and lead guitar. Lee is a long-haired blond, slouching and haggard, and this was a much younger man with a dark crew-cut and a lean, hungry look. But he sounded and played like Alvin. It was a shock to me. The others were there: Lyons still bobbing his head on every note of his fast-paced bass lines, Chick Churchill on keyboards, and Ric Lee on drums. The songs were vintage TYA: “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain,” “I’d Love To Change the World,” “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” “I’m Going Home,” and a couple of others I can’t recall. The sound was the same, especially on “Schoolgirl,” the musical high point of my evening. That was always the big show-off song for Alvin and Leo, a lengthy dialogue that got faster and faster, boundless flurries of notes, and it was again at Bethel Woods. Eventually I learned the name of the young man channeling Alvin Lee (even his vocals were right on the money, totally garbled and unintelligible): Joe Gooch, who joined TYA six years ago at age 24. I don’t know what else he’s going to do with his life, but I’ll be happy to hear him perform Alvin Lee’s standards for the rest of my life. The only disappointment was that they played just less than an hour, skipping TYA treats like “Help Me” and “Woodchopper’s Ball.” Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Next up was the act billed at Jefferson Starship, which turned out to be a kitchen sink of musical classics. Original Airplane members Paul Kantner (still rocking at 68) and Marty Balin were there, and they were joined by Grateful Dead keyboard player Tom Constanten, Duncan and another Quicksilver musician, and people from the other groups as the set went on. Oh yeah, and Kathy Richardson on vocals. She was the night’s version of Grace Slick, and like the other channelers, she knocked the audience’s tie-dyed socks off. It wasn’t just that she tore through “White Rabbit” like fast-acting (purple) acid. The epiphany came midway through the set. She was singing a long, slow blues (I don’t know the title), and I was sitting there amidst the mellow crowd, thinking, “well, she’s just fine, but there are probably a thousand (or thousands) of others like her.” She was 30ish, a lovely blonde with a strong voice, rocking the night away singing Airplane songs in a Slick style, and now drifting through this blues. Then she launched into a deft harmonica solo, and the crowd gave her an ovation. They were thinking what I was thinking: pretty girl, nice voice, wait a second, she’s a musician! Typical of the whole concert, she gave us what we expected and hoped for, and then some more. The Starship set included many high points. The Quicksilver folks did a Dead medley that included “Saint Stephen” and “Love Light,” the ensemble did a great version of “Wooden Ships,” Sophia Ramos joined them in a rousing “Volunteers,” they threw in “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” and everyone they could round up joined them for the big finale, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Indeed.

The crowd started to thin out a bit after this set, which ended at 10pm. Linda and I were sorry to witness the exit of a woman in her 70s, scrawny and wrinkled but wearing a stars-and-stripes fringe vest, who had danced up a storm to Canned Heat. Had to laugh at the guy who stood up and bellowed “goodbye, everybody, I’m leaving now!” We felt the evening chill now, but during the scorching afternoon Linda had promised not to complain if it got cold later. We went for a walk under the stars and wound up splitting a lettuce-less turkey-cranberry wrap (far better than the lukewarm hotdog that was my diet in 1969). Finding our spot again in the dark, stepping carefully around people stretched out on their blankets, inhaling the pungent aroma of pot, it all felt so right. Forty years later, there would’ve been no excuse for the concert promoters to fail to get it right. But the crowd got it right, too. Just let us sit there in peace, having our fun and music.

The music continued with Mountain, another big favorite of mine in 1969. Founder Felix Pappalardi was shot to death by his wife in the early 1980s, and the current version consisted of just three people: guitar/vocal giant Leslie West, original drummer Corky Laing, and a young bass player named Rev Jones who played up a storm, often spinning in circles and rotating his head to make his long ponytail whip around, as if trying to get dizzy to match the dizzying pace of the music. West was in fine form, outdoing the other guitarists in pounding out that rock, especially on the long “Nantucket Sleighride”. He sang “Theme For an Imaginary Western” as a tribute to Pappalardi (who wrote it and debuted it there in 1969), paid homage to Eric Clapton with a wicked “Crossroads,” did a clever riff on the theme from “Close Encounters,” and—oh yeah—took a brief time-out from the performance to get married. I thought that was especially fitting because it happened to be my parents’ anniversary. West looked rather bedraggled in the semi-tux he’d been performing in, but his bride looked radiant in a full wedding gown. Cheers rang out when the minister referred to the wedding being attested to “by this company,” and laughter during the vows when the minister recited the next statement to be repeated by the groom (“with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you”) and West turned to him and blurted “what?” A rock star moment. After the five-minute ceremony, the bride was whisked off-stage and West belted out “Mississippi Queen” to everyone’s delight. And that was that for Mountain.

That left only the headline group, the Levon Helm Band, a 12-piece ensemble including a five-man horn section, playing a mixture of songs by The Band, softer rock, and country. Thanks to the horns, the sound was much different from anything else in the show—funkier, mellower Helm, a survivor of throat cancer, was under doctor’s orders to rest his voice, so he stuck to the drums while everyone else took a turn at singing. A half-hour into their set, Linda started shivering and decided to head for the bus and wait for me there. I stuck it out another 45 minutes until the last number of the night (The Band’s “The Weight”), which ended a little after 1am. I packed up my pack, rolled up the blanket, and left the rental chairs behind along with a little trash in homage to 1969.

But leaving wasn’t the same this time. Instead of slogging through that vast landfill to get to a road that took forever to traverse, all I had to do was drift to the top of the hill and onto the bus for another carefree ride back to the Monticello track. By 4:30am, we were pulling into our driveway, three-quarters asleep and weary but still exhilarated. This was a great concert, pure and simple. I wonder how the guy who missed the music in 1969 because he took the brown acid enjoyed this one. What would have happened back then if if it hadn’t rained, if we hadn’t had Wavy Gravy promising “breakfast in bed for half a million people,” if we hadn’t simultaneously become the third-largest city in New York and a disaster area?

If everything had gone smoothly, hundreds of thousands of well-fed people would have enjoyed the hell out of the 32 groups who played, things would have ended on time, and everyone would have had smooth sailing getting back to their cars. It would have been a wonderful experience—but of course it would not have been the Woodstock we know and love. The point of Woodstock was not that it was an organized event which overcame some bad breaks. Rather, it was a spontaneous gathering of a huge number of people who wanted to be there, and who joined together and took care of each other. Everybody got wiped out—physically, materially, and logistically. We all had nothing, and we had nothing else to lose but our inhibitions. Deprived of property, sustenance, and assets, we lived through, in one weekend, the Great Depression many of our parents had survived. We did so without violence and contention, and with only two deaths out of a population that would keep a city’s funeral homes flourishing. We had no choice. During all that time between the music, we kept ourselves going.

I didn’t see any deprivation at Bethel Woods last Saturday, but I also didn’t see much sharing. People came to enjoy the music, and that’s what they did. For all the pot in our area, I didn’t anybody passing joints to the group or couple next to them. With our physical needs provided for, we were free to savor the entertainment. That’s what we deserve at a concert. It was a celebration—but it wasn’t the Woodstock festival.

I feel extremely lucky to have experienced it both ways. I can’t wait to see which one the 50th anniversary concert is like!


Little Bird said...

Thanks for the follow-up! I'm looking forward to your 50th reunion recap.

cheeseblab said...

Jefferson Anything w/out Slick? Like the kid in the classic New Yorker cartoon, I say it's spinach, and I say to hell with it!

Still, great account--glad you got to go, glad you grooved.

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