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Woodstock Redux   Print

by Neil Gladstone
Philadelphia CityPaper
August 20, 1998

Woodstock devotees could purchase a peace necklace made out of the original fence that surrounded the festival site for $20.

Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed go up the country.

"It Only Took 29 Years" read the wooden placard propped by the side of the dirt road that leads to the back of Max Yasgur's old farm. Down a stretch, opposite the weathered green barn, is the hill where half a million rock hippies convened in 1969 for a three-day music festival that borrowed its name from the neighboring town of Woodstock. Whether or not this plot in Bethel, NY, should be considered hallowed ground is up for debate, but most rock fans will tell you something special definitely happened here. Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Canned Heat, Sly Stone, Joan Baez and a host of other rock icons cranked out the grand finale to The Age of Aquarius. Years later, its spirit gave birth to Lollapalooza, the Lilith Fair and Warped Tour.

"A Day in the Garden" on Aug. 14-16 was the first Woodstock-like music festival to take place on the site since '69, and it may lead to construction of a permanent summer music pavilion. The current owner of Yasgur's farm, Alan Gerry, a cable TV billionaire, is already talking about 12 to 15 more days of music next summer and a 30th anniversary Woodstock bash. After years of contention, locals have warmed to the idea of Yasgur's farm being a destination that will bring in money to economically depressed Sullivan County.

(Woodstock II, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the concert in 1994 and featured modern rockers such as Green Day and Nine Inch Nails, was staged in nearby Saugerties by Woodstock Ventures, which owns the Woodstock name but not the hillside.)

The entertainment for A Day in the Garden was divided roughly by decade. Friday's headliners, Stevie Nicks and Don Henley, were obviously '70s. Sunday's lineup of Joan Osborne, Marcy Playground and Third Eye Blind promised to be very now. Saturday's acts - Melanie, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed and Pete Townshend - were notably '60s. The original price for daily tickets to A Day in the Garden was $70 but the amount decreased to $35 when early sales turned out to be disappointing.

"The vibe is similar, but it's much smaller," said 47-year-old Jonathan Statt on Saturday; he'd just graduated high school in 1969 when he attended Woodstock for free. Statt's ballpark estimate sized this crowd at about one-twentieth of the half-million people that were here in '69. The current space, fenced off with a wooden railing, holds 30,000 comfortably. "It's also a lot better organized," added Statt. His company, Unity Ambulette Corp., provided transportation for several of the Garden acts.

In '69, the traffic jam caused by Woodstock attendees closed down the New York State Thruway. This year, state troopers were at every checkpoint along the roads into the site. In stark contrast to the original event, portable toilets were plentiful at A Day in the Garden. At Woodstock, food supply and money were so scarce people were starving. At the Garden, a Fleet Bank ATM truck assured that you could get cash for the numerous food and souvenir vendors.

Along with burritos and falafel sandwiches, you could also buy an ear of corn (for $2) and a bowl of pasta cooked to order (for $8).

Former Marine Sgt. Manuel Carvarho was spreading the word about the new book Hell, Healing and Resistance, in which vets speak about the mental anguish caused by war. "There are a lot of Vietnam vets walking around here, sharing stories," said Carvarho. Woodstock devotees could purchase a peace necklace made out of the original fence that surrounded the festival site for $20.

Though Saturday's lineup of seminal '60s artists might suggest this day was a Woodstock reunion, the crowd proved otherwise. Sure, Dave "Won-Ton" Jacobs looked like Wavy Gravy's bearded brother in a purple and green bathrobe, flashing the peace sign in every direction. But colorful characters of his ilk were hard to come by. There were plenty of college kids in Grateful Dead T-shirts who've probably clocked more time at frat parties than in Volkswagen buses. Several baby boomer parents treated their children to a facepainting (admission was free for anyone under 12). Odds are, the sleepy-eyed teenage girls wearing overalls and crowns of flowers were likely inspired by VH-1 specials. (Who am I to talk? I was one year old in '69.)

Still, when Richie Havens feverishly strummed his acoustic guitar and cried out "Freedom!" I felt like I'd been transported back in time (of course, a little bit of the ol' brown acid would've helped). Havens had opened Woodstock with a three-hour set. His sideman, lead guitarist Bill Perry, directly referenced the old concert by redoing Jimi Hendrix's explosive version of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Unlike most of today's festival acts, the artists at A Day in the Garden were given more than 40 minutes each of stage time, and no one played just the hits and left.

Lou Reed (who wasn't invited to the original) began with an instrumental overture of scraped and plucked guitar notes and eventually fell into a dry, heavy version of "Sweet Jane." A booming bass drum thickened up the bottom end and squealing riffs pierced the crunching rhythm guitar. Old favorites like "Vicious" and "Perfect Day" were interspersed with newer numbers such as "Dirty Boulevard," "Ice Cream" and a couple of numbers Reed recently penned with director Robert Wilson for the musical Time Rocker.

Though Reed's songs were more about urban angst than peace and love, the audience was a mellow sanctuary. No mosh pit, no one dripping with attitude or shoving to get to the stage. As I maneuvered up close, a balding dude turned to me and said, "Hey, welcome to the party."

Joni Mitchell never made it to Woodstock, but was so moved by it she wrote a tune that later became its unofficial theme song. "My generation was given a pocket of liberty like no other," said Mitchell before playing "Woodstock." "For a while, we were all a minority, regardless of our color, and that experience should have carried us for a lifetime."

Not one to wallow in the past, Mitchell played new tunes such as "Happiness is the Best Face Lift," about entering middle age gracefully. The arrangements layered lap steel and trumpet on top of her brand of majestic and reflective folk. Mitchell delivered most of the numbers, including "Big Yellow Taxi," "Black Crow" (from Hejira) and a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" with a sassy torch panache.

Pete Townshend may have been the most surprising inclusion in the whole festival. For years The Who guitarist has said he hated playing Woodstock.

"What happened at that concert took a long time to land with me," said Townshend, in between numbers from the stage. "If you had asked me to play here even last year I would have probably said no." But he seemed thrilled to be back, lunging and wriggling as he served up a set of reworked Who classics such as "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Magic Bus" and solo numbers from his album Empty Glass.

Townshend displayed an appreciation for drum 'n' bass rhythms, using a drum machine and percussionist instead of a drummer with a traditional rock kit. The reinterpretations replaced the oomph and bash of these songs with trancey house grooves. Few seemed to mind that Townshend was still experimenting with his old music. Blues legend Taj Mahal joined him for a cover of Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country" (a Woodstock crowdpleaser). Townshend seemed to be making peace with his past as he dedicated "I Am An Animal" to Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Revolution. To help with the closer, "See Me, Feel Me," he brought out a large gospel choir. Though the moment could have easily floundered into pretentiousness, the refrain "Listening to you I get the music/ Gazing at you I get the heat/ Following you I climb the mountain/ I get excitement at your feet!" morphed into a non-secular spiritual.

"A lot of people say they want to go back to those days," mused Townshend at one point. "I don't. I think a lot has happened since then and this country is better for it."

 

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