This Week in History - August 15-21

By: David Ball

This Week in History - August 15-21
Jimi Hendrix

Posted: August 16. 2009

The Woodstock Music & Arts Fair celebrates its 40th anniversary from August 15 to 18, but in terms of the lineup and some of the performances, the much revered festival isn’t the “greatest of all-time;” the Atlanta and Monterey Pop festivals blew it away. But it’s scary to think “what if” Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Bob Dylan didn’t decline their Woodstock invitations. No matter: Woodstock’s ongoing influence on pop culture makes it far more important than all other festivals combined. Thanks to the mega-famous 1970 documentary, Woodstock has achieved mythical status, while unfortunately also giving the festival’s unofficial spokesman, eternally zoned-out hippie Wavy Gravy, a career.

Although the film makes the event seem like a tremendous weekend of great music—there were some gems—the actual lineup was stacked with too many no-names and hippy-dippy moments . . . and it didn’t help that some of the big rock acts put in sub-par performances. Aside from an emotional set by festival opener Ritchie Havens, Friday’s folk-heavy bill sucked: singer-songwriter Bert Sommer played far too long; Melanie’s soft acoustic tones cured insomnia; Ravi Shankar’s frantic sitar punished eardrums; John Sebastian was distractingly flaky; and Joan Baez capped the day off with her usual preachy and self-righteous caterwauling. After all that, I would have ignored the PA’s order to not take the brown acid.

Thankfully, day two was a big improvement.

After two no-name bands kicked things off, Santana sizzled through a seven-song set highlighted by instrumental acid rocker “Soul Sacrifice”; Carlos’ guitar reached for the heavens while young Michael Shrieve drummed his way into immortality. Unfortunately, The Grateful Dead’s hard luck at big festivals continued. The hippie icons’ decent five song low-intensity psychedelic trip got steamrolled by the high-intensity performers that followed: CCR, Sly and The Family Stone, Janis Joplin, and The Who (The Dead fared even worse at Monterey). That being said, The Who and Joplin made bigger splashes at Monterey, but who didn’t love it when Pete Townshend slugged Yippie spokesman Abbie Hoffman in the head with his guitar during The Who’s Woodstock set?

Due to inclement weather, Sunday’s schedule stretched right through to Monday morning. Joe Cocker’s Sunday show was career defining, but for my money, no one could touch Ten Years After leader Alvin Lee’s intensity on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and “I’m Going Home”; fellow bluesman Johnny Winter came close on “Mean Town Blues”. And why The Band—who played a long and well-received Sunday night set—never made it onto the original film I’ll never know (though they’ve been included on various DVD releases).

Blood, Sweat and Tears hit the stage after midnight on Monday morning, officially making Woodstock a four-day fest instead of three. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young followed and played two pretty good sets, even though they confessed to being “scared shitless.” Unfortunately, day four was marred by the inclusion of cheesy ‘50s rock revival act Sha Na Na. Not only didn’t they belong at the peace and love gathering, but there’s no freaking way they should’ve been the lead-in act for Woodstock closer, Jimi Hendrix. No wonder Hendrix (who took the stage at 8:30am) played to a crowd estimated at only 20,000; Sha Na Na may have caused the mass exodus . . . or perhaps 450,000 smelly dirt-caked “stick it to the man” hippies had to get back to their day jobs? Truth be told, Hendrix’s two-hour performance paled in comparison to his Monterey coming-out party, but the incredible improv jam leading into his emotional fest-closing instrumental, “Villanova Junction” was a fitting end to a world-changing moment.

The festival took place at Max Yasgur’s farm, just outside of Bethel, a sleepy hamlet located in upper New York State and some 43 miles south of the actual Woodstock. Less than 200,000 people actually paid for tickets, while an estimated 250,000 gate-crashed the event. There’s now a new Woodstock museum (opened in 2008) that sits near the original festival grounds. I visited it last summer and although I didn’t see any hippies wandering the halls, it felt like I was stepping back in time to the summer of ’69.

Next week: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Brian Epstein

Video: "Red House" performed by Jimi Hendrix

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