It’s odd to say that a box set that feels endless at six CDs might be better if it were five times as long. But as producer Andy Zax notes in the booklet, the original plan for Woodstock 40 Years On: Back To Yasgur’s Farm was to release every note played, announcement made, and stray bit of sound caught on tape at the legendary festival, which—sorry, it’s mandatory—took place in Bethel, New York, not Woodstock proper. Three actual, full days’ worth of peace and music is too much for any sane person, it’s true, but it would at least be a welcome sign of audacity for a cultural event that hasn’t given off any real sparks since shortly after the documentary film chronicling it was released theatrically.
Not to mention that 30 CDs might have helped to quell the thing’s aura for good. There’s no question that Woodstock was a sociological milestone: a half-million or so young people cohabiting peacefully in spite of horrible weather, awful camping and living conditions, a shortage of food and supplies, and traffic jams out to the next county. And there was certainly great music performed at Woodstock: Sly & The Family Stone, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix’s sets are all legendary for good reason. (They’re also available in their entirety elsewhere.) But especially in the wake of the long-lost footage that was made into the 2003 documentary Festival Express—whose performances regularly smoke many of the same artists from the Woodstock film—there’s good reason to go along with the idea that Woodstock itself wasn’t so hot. And now Rhino has issued the box set to prove it.
The first day of the festival offers a model argument for the benefits of cutting to the chase. The incredibly rickety Richie Havens begins with, mercifully, only two songs from his two-and-a-half-hour opening set. There are two cuts by Sweetwater, a Jefferson Model Airplane with a sub-Janis frontwoman and some of the most gratuitous back-to-the-land flute of the era, and three from negligible folksinger Bert Sommer, whose teeth-grinding “Smile” laundry-lists one empty-headed hippie platitude after another, capped by, “It only takes a song to understand.” (If that’s true, it isn’t this song.) Melanie screeches. Joan Baez trills. The best moment isn’t musical: the affable Arlo Guthrie announces, “The New York Thruway is closed, man!” No one stuck in traffic was missing much.
The second day fared better. Country Joe McDonald delivered his justly famous “‘Fish’ Cheer/I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag”; The Grateful Dead’s twinkling “Dark Star” and three terse selections by Creedence Clearwater Revival are unnecessary if you already own the more famous versions (The Dead’s is on Live/Dead) but nevertheless are a relief after much of the tedium that preceded them. It’s easy to hear why Santana’s set made the band’s career; it’s even easier to hear why Sly & The Family Stone and The Who walked away with their reputations bolstered further, the former via a scorching medley, the latter thanks to stun-gun selections from Tommy as well as Pete Townshend bonking Abbie Hoffman with his guitar, which in a moment of true compilation inspiration is given its own track title, “Abbie Hoffman vs. Pete Townshend.”
Day three is more of a mixed bag. Jefferson Airplane blazes through “The Other Side Of This Life” and “Somebody To Love,” but runs out of gas during “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” and “Volunteers,” one of those ’60s songs that prompts disbelief that anyone ever took it seriously. (“Got a revolution!” they sing. Like, wow.) Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright” and “With A Little Help From My Friends” capture the event’s spirit with real ardor, though at four decades’ remove, his clear debt to Ray Charles makes him seem a little gratuitous. Country Joe returns with his band The Fish for a blazing “Rock & Soul Music,” but six selections is at least two too many. And Jimi Hendrix caps it all off with a medley that begins with “The Star Spangled Banner,” which everyone knows and should know.
But the rest? Eh. Maybe you had to be there. Credit Zax for including some of the most evocative announcer audio: It’s genuinely moving to hear Max Yasgur praise the kids befouling his land for showing us the path to a better way. But Blood, Sweat & Tears and Sha Na Na didn’t belong in Woodstock so much as they belonged in Vegas. Eventually, so did some of the other performers here. But for one weekend, they all happened to be picked up by a state-of-the-art Ampex tape machine. A few made history. The rest made background noise for half a million kids who behaved really, really well. That’s one for the books, all right—but not necessarily one for the ears.