Crowd has a groovy time at Woodstock anniversary, But '60s nostalgia artists pale Next to those who moved on
Naivete isn't pretty in the middle-aged. So how could a bunch of grown-up artists possibly comport themselves at the 29th anniversary of Woodstock, one of this century's most starry-eyed events?
Two approaches arose at "A Day in the Garden," an event which took place this past weekend at the original site of the biggest music festival and the worst traffic jam in the history of New York. The News attended Saturday's show since that day featured the most artists who had appeared at the original (Pete Townshend, Melanie, Richie Havens), plus one who rarely plays live at all (Joni Mitchell, who hasn't appeared locally in 15 years).
By contrast, the event's first day offered frequently seen stars associated with the '70s, like Stevie Nicks and Don Henley. Day three displayed an array of totday's stars who'll double as tomorrow's one-hit-wonders, like Third-Eye Blind and Marcy Playground.
Saturday's 10-hour show divided neatly into sets by artists out to defiantly recycle the messages of the '60s without amendment, and those who used the Woodstock context as an excuse to show how far they've traveled in the time since.
Melanie, who opened the day, still bellows odes to "sisters in the sun, and intones "that all men can be brothers." The tie-dye-clad listeners in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who dominated the crowd, treated it all like a ride at a hippie theme park of the mind. At least the dreamy singer still owns a powerful set of pipes. Donovan's hit-packed set also remained a period piece. He's still got that echo'd tremelo and can claim songs ranging from the sweetly camp ("Mellow Yellow") to the stupendously silly ("Atlantis"). At one point he told the crowd to "close your eyes and visualize the future of peace."
Richie Havens stayed in the time warp, too, serving up Woodstock I songs like "Handsome Johnny."
Things didn't get interesting until Lou Reed took the stage. Using a stripped setup of two guitars, bass and drums, Reed delivered the day's first explosion of stone cold rock. His crack band proved so coiled and sinewy that even the weekest material, like "Egg Creme," burst with life. Injecting Reed anthems like "Vicious," and "Kicks" into the world of Woodstock proved perversely inspired. Reed's earliest work alwasy contrasted the media image of hippie earnestness with a more decadent, ironic and interesting underbelly of the '60s counterculture. Here his scathing playing made his middle age seem anything but mellow and this event anything but nostalgic.
Joni Mitchell had no intention of looking back, either. As in her recent West Coast shows, her 15-song set stressed an uncompromising jazz bent. Armed with her own oddly tuned electric guitar, along with Larry Klein on pedal steel, Mark Isham on trumpet and a woozy rhythm section, Mitchell created a gorgeous murmur of a sound. Her voice, ever-deepening
through her unrepentent smoking, now sounds closer to the jazz great Annie Ross. Opening with "Hejira," Mitchell stressed rare material, like 1983's "The Man at the Window," "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and three songs from her upcoming album. She also delivered Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" with inventive phrasing, and a taut "Big Yellow Taxi." But she really spiked the punch by re-casting "Woodstock" as a dark and mournful ode to botched opportunities and human limitations.
Pete Townshend clearly holds equally few illusions about the '60s. While toasting his experience in the era, he said, "I don't want it back." He treated his old just as irreverently, using them as jumping-off points for jams with a spare backup band featuring synthetic percussion. His at-times-chaotic two-hour set veered from an expansive "The Kids Are Alright" to an endless "Save It For Later." Certainly, the result had spontaneity on its side. But is also showed a rich personality. Like the smartest artists here, Townshend drew on the past and his youth only to hammer out something experienced and new.