Friday, May 29, 2009

A long ago hippie summer.

Coincidental or not, there is a flood of releases right now that are highlighting the spirit of Woodstock. This August the reality and the myth of Woodstock will turn 40. It is hard to believe that this three day rock festival was at one time considered an earth-shaking event to an entire generation of music fans. In the era of gigantic festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Mile High Music Festival etc. it is hard to imagine what was so special about this event. With the re-issue of both of the original sets on CD (Woodstock and Woodstock II) there is a renewed opportunity to evaluate them. It is hard to separate the phenomenon of Woodstock with the actual group of performances on the releases. The movie, which was seen and obsessed over by millions, provided such compelling images of the audience and surrounding scene, that a narrative of hippie paradise was woven that may have overshadowed, or changed the perception of the music.

The original set, Woodstock, remains the more diverse and more iconic of the two. Originally a three record set, it is now a 2 CD set with all the original artwork and greatly improved sound. Some of the performances really crackle now. Like many of today’s festivals, the line-up features acts that were already established (Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane) and mixes them with groups that would become famous (Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and some that would remain obscure (Sha Na Na). The performances are for the most part uneven, some plagued by sound problems, some out of key, some suffering from nerves, but those that shine really shine. Richie Havens’ hypnotic and largely improvised version of “Freedom” remains a high-water mark of the festival. It is an unforgettable performance with energy and spirit oozing from every note. The Who provided probably the most intense set of the festival, and their one contribution to the soundtrack (“We’re Not Gonna Take It”) is truly the stuff of legend. Townshend claims to have been freaking out on STP the entire time, but the power and bravado of the band justifies their reputation. Thanks to John Belushi, it is almost impossible to judge Joe Cocker’s performance without some humor (I guess we didn’t need Belushi for that - Cocker is just funny to watch). However, the version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” he and The Grease Band turn in is magnificent. He was a ballsy performer and nobody else really matched his performance style. In many ways, Santana built their international acclaim on the back of their performance at Woodstock. The version of “Soul Sacrifice” is incendiary and drummer Michael Shrieve provides one of the only really interesting drum solos in rock. Sly and The Family Stone also provide a career-making medley of music so energetic and funky it is impossible not shake your booty while listening. Of course the signature performance of the entire festival was Hendrix closing the show on the final day. The version of “Star Spangled Banner” followed by “Purple Haze” and a long, spacey Jam is just unbeatable. His playing is loose and druggy, but masterfully precise at the same time. I think the images and sounds Hendrix created at this festival did more to propel the myth than anything else.

At the time, I remember thinking that Woodstock II was a leftovers kind of release that wasn’t as serious as the first. In reality, it expands the realities of some of the higher profile performances and introduces a couple of different names to the mix. The selections by Jefferson Airplane and CSNY unfortunately do little to improve the memory of their performances. Both groups are filled with the spirit(s) of the day, but both suffer from sound and/or nerve problems. The Airplane were playing early in the morning (probably after partying all night) and their performance is ragged. There is some nice guitar work out of Jorma Kaukonen, and the band looks really cool, but the vocals are off key much of the time. CSNY also are clearly nervous and have some trouble singing together, although it is interesting to hear both acts trying. The Hendrix material is good and showcases more virtuoso playing. Mountain is the big surprise of the set, offering up a couple of powerful performances that predict in some ways groups like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

Overall, it was a pleasure to revisit these sets and try to determine what was reality and what was hype. Surprisingly, very little sounds like hype. To those who participated it seems like they were truly moved by the experience and gave it there all. For others, the experience truly did inspire career-making performances that history will remember.

If you want to get a better feel for the promise and talent of Crosby Stills and Nash, I suggest the soon to be released Demos. Compiled by Graham Nash, this collection brings together early stripped down versions of songs that would become hits (“Marrakesh Express, “ You Don’t Have To Cry,” “Love The One You’re With”), some songs you have never heard (“My Love Is A Gentle Thing,” “Be Yourself,” “Singing Call”) and some radically different versions of familiar songs (“Déjà vu,” “Music Is Love” “Long Time Gone”). Throughout the album, one is struck by both the professional authority they bring to their vocals and playing, but also the breezy sense of discovery that is evident on every track. The highlights were many but for me Stills’ unreleased “Singing Call” is a sweet folk/blues in the vein of “4+20” that really is a lost gem. Crosby delivers my other favorite moments with a solo performance of “Déjà vu” that ends with him scatting by himself what would become a very complicated arrangement. The version of “Long Time Gone” finds Crosby and Stills running through a different, jazzy arrangement of this classic that is very appealing. Finally, there is a version of “Music Is Love” which would appear on his solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name. The final version was a masterwork of cascading, over-dubbed vocals. This version is just Crosby, Nash and Young working through the song without all the embellishment. The vocals are still magic, and the melody is even more striking. It is really a find for lovers of that great album. CSNY jumped to superstardom after their somewhat uneven performance at Woodstock, but this is the stuff that really proves their greatness.

Woodstock and Woodstock II will be reissued on June 2nd. There will also be a reissue of the movie, and a box set of music to follow later in the summer. CSN Demos will also be released on June 2nd.

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