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Taking Stock of Woodstock

August 16, 2019

Taking Stock of Woodstock

        I’ll begin this post with full disclosure: I did not attend the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the 50th anniversary of which will be observed this weekend.

        I heard about it in the news and after the fact, heard the live recordings and the albums — I have some in my iTunes library — and I think at some point watched at least part of the movie that was made of it. So I figured I knew the story: the crowd overwhelming the facilities, the rain and mud, the Peace and Love ®, the big-name acts like Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, etc.

        But the there were acts performing that I didn’t know were there, or forgot if I once knew. You get past the trivia question — What was the first band on stage at Woodstock? — and you get down into the weeds with artists and groups that became well-known later, but at the time probably didn’t appear on most music fans’ radar.

        Some would answer the trivia question above with “Richie Havens,” and the late folk singer/guitarist was indeed the opening act. But while he had two accompanying musicians, he was considered a solo act, and the first actual band to perform was Sweetwater.

        That Los Angeles-based group was supposed to be the first act to take the stage. But they got stuck in the incoming traffic jam — like Joni Mitchell, who wrote the iconic song recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash, even though she never got to the show — and had to be helicoptered in.

        Woodstock, and previously opening for the Doors, didn’t catapult the band into stardom. They had recorded an album the year before, but it barely made the Billboard LP chart and two singles released off it failed to chart.

        Lead singer/guitarist Nansi Nevins was seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident four months after Woodstock, and couldn’t record new material for the second and third Sweetwater studio albums, the latter of those released in 1971. By the time she and two other original members reunited for the 25th-anniversary Woodstock 94, three of the other eight originals were dead, from disease or accidents. 

        Following Sweetwater was Bert Sommer, a folk singer/songwriter who had briefly been a member of the Left Banke (but apparently not at the time of their two big hits, “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina”). Sommer got a standing ovation — the first of the festival, it is said — after performing Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”; his other claim to fame was being a member of the original cast of the Broadway musical Hair, his personal hair being on the cover of the soundtrack album.

        Sommer was followed by another folkie, Tim Hardin. Writer of “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Reason to Believe,” he performed the former song solo, and the rest of the set backed by a band. But his heroin addiction and stage fright had made his live performances erratic, and his Woodstock work did not appear in the documentary film or on the original concert album.

        Next up was Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who played a 35-minute, three-song set in the rain. Melanie, one of only three female solo acts appearing at the festival, was next; she said that her experience performing at Woodstock inspired her to write “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain,” her 1970 breakthrough hit.

        Wrapping up the Friday night bill were Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, who were both pretty well-known at the time. No so Saturday’s opening act: Quill, a successful regional band that had opened for the likes of Jeff Beck, the Grateful Dead, the Kinks and the Who.

        A glitch in the audio and video recording equipment rendered Quill’s performance unusable in the movie, so they didn’t get the promotional boost that their new record label had hoped. An important member of the group left after their first album was released and went nowhere, and the remaining members disbanded in 1970.

         Most of the rest of Saturday’s lineup was a who’s who — literally, since it included the Who — of then-popular rock: the Airplane, Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Dead, Janis Joplin, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian (albeit without the rest of the Spoonful) and Sly & the Family Stone.

        But there were some acts that were just breaking through. One was Santana, which wouldn’t release its first album until two weeks after the festival, but caught fire after that. Band leader and lead guitarist Carlos Santana was tripping on mescaline, or something like that, and said he thought he was wrestling with a snake, not playing amazing guitar.

        Also getting a boost from Woodstock was Mountain. Lead guitarist/vocalist Leslie West had recorded a solo album by that name earlier in 1969, but the band’s first LP didn’t come out until the year after the festival.

        Keef Hartley had gained some notoriety as the drummer for John Mayall’s band, but the group he brought to the Woodstock stage late Saturday afternoon lasted only three years; they, and Quill, were the only acts to appear on neither the festival album nor film. The Incredible String Band had released four albums before appearing at Woodstock, but had more of a cult following; they, too, would disband within a few years.

        Sunday’s lineup also included some known quantities, like Hendrix, who closed the festival at his own insistence; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the first three of whom had made a splash with their debut album earlier in the year. Ten Years After was already popular in the U.K., and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had been performing for six years.

        Country Joe returned with the Fish on Sunday. Blood, Sweat & Tears had had two big hits earlier in 1969, and Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” had been a hit a year earlier. The Band had backed Bob Dylan for years, and had released its critically-acclaimed (but not so commercially successful) debut album more than a year earlier.

        Johnny Winter, though, hadn’t released his first significant album until four months earlier. Sha Na Na had formed earlier in 1969, and their retro-rock reworking of 1950s songs took off after their Woodstock performance.

        Sha Na Na was supposed to be the festival’s final act, but Hendrix wanted to wrap it up, and delayed his show. His set included the iconic, distortion-drenched solo guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

        The Woodstock festival was historic in part because of the point in time when it happened, and how it played out. But it would have been notable if only for the acts and artists that performed there, and who caught that wave and rode it to fame.

 

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