A Gargantuan Box Set Celebrates 1969’s Legendary Woodstock Festival

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Imagine a graph with two lines, one showing the rising net worth of Baby Boomers over the past half century, the other indicating how the size or price of music box sets has risen over the same period. The two lines, one suspects, would be rather parallel. Remember the days when a three-LP collection was a big deal? Now we have releases like Bob Dylan’s The 1966 Live Recordings (36 discs, a bargain at about $90) and Pink Floyd’s The Early Years (28 discs, plus assorted odds and ends, around $500), not to mention all the gigantic—and gigantically priced—anthologies that issue from Germany’s Bear Family label.

And then there are the recordings that have preserved material from the legendary 1969 Woodstock festival. First, a year after the concert, came what seemed at the time like a massive triple-album film soundtrack. A two-disc collection of tracks that hadn’t made it into the movie soon followed. The event’s 25th anniversary, in 1994, brought a four-CD package with lots more music while the 40th anniversary witnessed the release of The Woodstock Experience, a 10-CD box containing complete performances by five artists. 

But that wasn’t the end of it. Now—for you hedge-fund managers out there—comes a 38-CD, 432-track set called Woodstock: Back to the Garden—The 50th Anniversary Archive. It will set you back $800, which is considerably more than the $21 (about $147, adjusted for inflation) that some people paid for tickets to the actual three-day event. (The festival was ultimately declared to be free, so many attendees paid nothing.)

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The set is limited to 1,969 numbered copies (get it?), which are available directly from the Rhino label. Alternatively, you can opt for a new 10-CD $150 version, which unlike any earlier releases includes performances by every performer at the festival. There’s also a $150 five-disc vinyl set and a $35 three-CD edition. Another option, from Sony Music, is downloadable versions of the complete sets from Tim Hardin, Melanie, Mountain, She Na Na, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Your interest level—not to mention the size of your wallet and how quickly the big box sells out—will determine whether you buy any of these collections and, if so, which one. But the 38-CD edition is quite something. If the Woodstock festival has meaning for you and/or you care about the lion’s share of its performers, it is well worth considering, despite the eye-popping price tag. It gives you just about everything from the festival except the mud, the rain, and the traffic jams. 

Virtually all the performances by all the artists featured in the concert are here in chronological order, plus lots of stage announcements. (I say “virtually,” because one Sha Na Na song is missing due to a tape gap and Jimi Hendrix’s estate asked that two of his numbers be cut for “aesthetic reasons.” Look for all three of these performances on the inevitable 100th anniversary edition.) Total playing time is almost 36 hours, and that includes nearly 20 hours (267 tracks) of previously unreleased material. Some of the acts here were not represented at all on earlier Woodstock releases; others that showed up only briefly on the earlier albums are allotted a full disc or even two.

The set comes in a screen-printed wooden box along with a replica of the show program, 8×10 prints by rock photographer Henry Diltz, a Blu-ray copy of the movie about the festival, and assorted other goodies, including a leather guitar strap, a reproduction of an attendee’s handwritten diary, and a hardcover book that’s loaded with interesting details. (The Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, the Moody Blues, and Iron Butterfly were all booked to perform but cancelled, for example; Melanie wasn’t scheduled but wound up playing, anyway.)

If you didn’t attend the festival, you probably associate it just with the music you saw in the film or perhaps with what you heard on one of the modestly sized earlier anthologies, which not only featured inferior audio but incorporated all sorts of fake sound effects, deceptive edits, and even performances that didn’t actually come from the Woodstock event. If so, you’re in for a treat—actually, lots of them. The music was arguably not as revelatory at the time as that at the earlier Monterey Pop Festival. But much of it is nevertheless excellent; and given how famous the Woodstock event is and the fact that it was virtually all preserved on tape, it’s amazing how much of that music has not been heard for half a century. 

There are far too many highlights to mention them all here, but Jefferson AIrplane’s nearly two-hour set—which includes a 22-minute version of “Wooden Ships” and a 16-minute take on “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil”—is terrific. So are the performances by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who (performing much of the then recently released Tommy), and many others. And what a kick to hear full concerts by Tim Hardin (backed by two future members of the great jazz group Oregon) and the unjustly obscure Bert Sommer.

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Not surprisingly in a collection this big, not everything is a gem. Country Joe, for example, delivers an engaging solo set but a later performance with the Fish mixes good stuff with a few bona fide bombs.

Listening to this box set, you’re continually reminded that Woodstock happened a full half century ago—and that a lot has changed since then. For one thing, so many of these performers are no longer with us: Sommer, Hardin, Hendrix, and Joplin are gone, for example, as are Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Keef Hartley, three members of both the Band and Jefferson Airplane, and two members of both the Who and the Grateful Dead. 

For another, well, just listen to the evocative stage announcements that are sprinkled throughout the first 37 discs and that fill much of the 38th. They conjure up a world that seems totally foreign today, not to mention a great deal of LSD use. The brown acid is “not specifically too good,” we’re told, while the flat blue acid is “poison…that’s deadly serious, man,” and takers of the green acid are advised to head straight for the hospital tent. On the other hand, the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick announces from the stage that “we got a whole lot of orange and it was fine. Still is fine.”

6908-woodstock-adWoodstock is remembered as the last big manifestation of the hippie dream before it started to fade with events like California’s Altamont concert, less that four months later. That’s understandable: there was a lot of positivity at Woodstock and a lot of music about peace and love; and half a million people really did get along for three days without any major disasters. 

But it’s not just the announcements about bad acid here that hint at something less than total harmony and bliss. There are repeated (and apparently largely ignored) pleas for people to move away from areas where they are obscuring views for others or posing danger to themselves, for example. And there’s the time Yippie Abbie Hoffman jumps onstage in the middle of the Who’s set to proclaim, “I think this is a pile of shit while [White Panther Party leader] John Sinclair rots in prison!” Replies Pete Townshend: “Fuck off my fucking stage!”

The producers worked on assembling this collection since 2005, and the job wasn’t easy. As coproducer Andy Zax reports in the accompanying book: “Reconstructing the Woodstock audio has been a long series of challenges, the most time-consuming of which has been the seemingly basic job of figuring out where everything is. Eric Blackstead’s liner notes on the back cover of the original Woodstock soundtrack mention that the original set of Woodstock tapes consisted of 65 multitrack reels (the actual number was probably slightly higher), but that doesn’t include the additional 100 or so soundboard reels the crew recorded. There was never a single moment when all of those reels were assembled in one place. Some were removed before the festival had even ended. Still more tapes were sent to various labels, managers, and the artists themselves. Others just vanished.”

Once Zax and coproducer Steve Woodard located everything and put it in chronological order, they faced the additional large task of cleaning up the sound, which they did masterfully. Clearly, they treated the material as the valuable historical artifact that it is. One evidence of their attention to detail is in the liner notes, where they apologize for the sound quality of Melanie’s set (which isn’t really all that bad) and explain that while they’ve included all the festival’s live music, licensing difficulties prevented them from also featuring the recordings that were played over the sound system between sets. (They do name them, however, for the sake of any fanatics who’d like to replicate that experience at home.).

What is included is a ton of great music. And you won’t even need an umbrella to stay dry while you experience it.

Woodstockpla

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