Thursday, August 14, 2014

Five stirring performances at Woodstock

I first saw "Woodstock" in the mid-'80s, when most rock and pop was weightless and overproduced, with all the shelf life of a stale fart.

As a teen bohemian-in-training trapped in what was in many ways a plastic, reactionary era, I found the movie fascinating. For over three hours I was transported to a time when personal growth and exploration didn't take a backseat to getting ahead, when brotherhood was more prevalent—and infinitely more hip—than greed, when the young men didn't look like frat boys and the women had long, straight, natural hair instead of those godawful '80s perms.

Musically, Woodstock remains a rock festival without peer, a distinction which is likely to stick due to the scale of the event and the quality of the bands. The list of soulful, high-caliber acts that performed on those four days 45 years ago is staggering:  Jimi HendrixThe Who; Santana; Sly & the Family Stone; The Band; Ravi Shankar; Janis Joplin; Johnny Winter; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Ten Years After; Crosby, Stills, & Nash; Jefferson Airplane; Blood, Sweat, & Tears; Joe Cocker; Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie. 

Woodstock's high points could fill multiple posts, but I will focus on just five key moments. 

Richie Havens, one of the lesser-known acts at Woodstock, opened the festival. The first performance that appears in the documentary is Havens' closer, "Freedom." Never before have I seen a musician move an audience of 200,000 with just an acoustic guitar, his voice, and a lone conga player.

This turbo-charged rendition of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" features the Who early in their career, firing on all cylinders (see:  Pete Townshend's windmills, Keith Moon's kinetic drumming, Roger Daltrey's microphone lassoing). Added bonuses include Townshend's sonic performance art at the conclusion of this video and the heady split-screen footage spliced together from seven cameras positioned around the stage.

The backdrop to Woodstock was the United States' futile and bloody involvement in Vietnam. Country Joe, the relatively obscure leader of Country Joe & the Fish, captured the zeitgeist with an anti-war protest song, the "I Feel I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." Interesting historical footnote:  a young Martin Scorsese, serving as an editor of the documentary, came up with the bouncing ball-on-white lyrics effect that comes in at 1:42.


Ten Years After was one of my most potent Woodstock discoveries. Other than hearing "I'd Love to Change the World" every once in a while on classic rock radio, I had no familiarity with the band. After I saw this rousing clip, Ten Years After—and virtuoso lead guitarist Alvin Lee—became a permanent part of my musical landscape.

Alvin Lee was not the only bonafide guitar hero at Woodstock. Carlos Santana, then just 22 years old, led his band through an epic version of "Soul Sacrifice." From the sheer size of the crowd to the percussion orgy break (2:11) to the most bad-ass rock drum solo this side of "Moby Dick" (3:07) to the molten guitar solo that followed and the random shots of audience members caught in musical ecstasy, it doesn't get any better than this.

                                                 More music posts at "Truth and Beauty":


  1. Both Richie and his conga player played live at his Cafe Wha? in my Underground Tonight Show in '74. First some tea on his boat at the 79th St Boat Basin then a walk across town to McDougall to do the show that night.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Roy. The Cafe Wha has an interesting history, between seeding Jimi Hendrix and many other greats in the 60s and being owned, I believe, by David Lee Roth's uncle, Manny.

  3. I thought Janis's vocal performance was total musical genius! I had never seen that till last night. Crosby, Stills & Nash was pretty slick, but Joe Cocker was electric soul - surfing in on that storm, and Jefferson Airplane pure magic!