50 years ago a music festival took place in Bethel, New York, that changed lives and rock and roll history itself. Some performances became the most well-known of the artists’ careers. This was Woodstock.
The festival returned ten years later, then twenty years later. But it wasn’t until the 25th anniversary in Woodstock 94 that it lived up to the iconic original.
Now, the 50th anniversary of the festival has been planned but it’s in jeopardy as the financial backer for Woodstock pulled out, leaving the founders Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang to figuring out a way to keep the music alive.
There have been many iconic moments throughout the years. Perhaps because of its “hippie” origin, the festival has often been associated with drug use, and some of the performances have involved musicians on psychedelics. The 1994 festival however was defined by the weather. Rain created muddy conditions and festival goers and musicians alike embraced the mud bath. Mud moshing turned into mud fighting but it was all around a good time.
Woodstock wouldn’t be what it was without the problems they faced like huge traffic jams made by hippies, food shortages, and having only one porta potty for every 833 attendees. In that last instance, luckily, the festival was near a forest and a lake where people could do their business and wash up. There was also a lot of trash build up. Hippies weren’t as eco friendly as they are now so many people just threw their trash on the ground. On the clean up day, fields and hillsides were filled with abandoned tents, plastic bags, underwear, lawn chairs and a lot of trash. But in honour of the 50th anniversary, let’s look back at the iconic performances of 1969 and 1994.
The original 1969 Woodstock was called the “Aquarian Exposition.” It took place between August 15th and 18th. A crowd of 400,000 people were in a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York waiting for the festival that will change their lives. The organizers were very focused on the venue and performers so they weren’t as prepared for fencing, entrance gates and ticket booths needed to be set up and a performers’ pavilion, concession stands, bathroom facilities and medical tents built. By the time they were set up fans were already rushing in and found ways to sneak in. It was all so overwhelming that they decided to make the concert free. The festival was surprisingly peaceful given the problems and the amount of people attending it but there were two fatalities, one from insulin usage, and another caused in an accident when a tractor ran over an attendee sleeping in a nearby hayfield. There were also two births, one in a traffic jam and one in a helicopter. Excluding that, Woodstock 69 was a major success.
Everybody knows the greatest band on earth, The Beatles and how popular they were but surprisingly, they didn’t perform, so there was a substitute. On Day 3 of Woodstock ‘69 a relatively unknown artist Joe Cocker replaced them in a way, delivered a very soulful performance which put him on the map, a rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” He was not very popular before this, but this performance is now known as a historic moment in rock and roll history. In the course of performing, it seemed as if he was possessed by the music like it was taking control over him and that’s what makes the performance so passionate. He was like Otis Redding on LSD. In the words of rock and roll historian and Indiana University music studies professor Dr. Glenn Glass, “Cocker ‘became the music,’ solving the enduring question of ‘what is a frontman without a guitar supposed to do with himself?’ With ferocious, spasmodic movements, shuddering and writhing like a man possessed, Cocker ‘was just transported somewhere else.’”
Also in 1969, the Spanish guitar god, Santana gave another LSD-influenced performance. The iconic song of his setlist is entitled “Soul Sacrifice”. The groove is impossible not to tap your feet to, it kept the hippies dancing for hours. Santana’s so into the music you can see it in his face. He claimed that he was hallucinating that his guitar was a snake. Every band member is so involved in the rhythm and buildup it’s unreal. There is a massive percussion section of bongos being played throughout the song and it creates a tribal like feeling, plus the electrifying drum solo by drummer Michael Shrieve fills the song with anticipation and overwhelming excitement.
Woodstock is an iconic moment in the 60’s and in music history, and that’s because of what some people call the single greatest moment of the sixties, Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “Star Spangled Banner.”
Arguably the greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix gave one of the most electrifying shows ever. Woodstock was supposed to be three days of peace and music but due to rain and other problems delayed Hendrix’s performance till a fourth day on Monday morning at 8:30 am. The expected crowd of 500,00 dropped to 40,000. Those people that skipped out, missed one of the greatest shows of rock and roll history. It was a chaotic yet beautiful rendition full of sustained high gain notes and bends.
The performance was a protest. In a promotional video Hendrix said “The world is nothing but a big gimmick, isn’t it? Napalm bombs, people getting burned up on TV”. In the same clip, he was asked for his own view on the police. “American cops? Oh man, it’s really great, man, they’ve got some really groovy uniforms, stripes down their pants,” he answered, a smile that can only be interpreted as ironic flashing across his lips. “Clubs in their pockets—wow, outta sight. Guns!” While many were protesting against the Vietnam War, they risked huge consequences. Hendrix and his band were threatened with violence if they were to perform “Star Spangled Banner” on a tour in Dallas.
Hendrix still performed and was not punished for it. Instead, it ended up being one of the greatest performances of all time. After the rendition, he continued with a jaw-dropping setlist which included songs like, “Purple Haze”, “Foxy Lady”, “Voodoo Child” and more.
Michael Lang, the organizer of Woodstock said,
“There wasn’t anti-American sentiment. It was anti-war sentiment. He brought it home to us in a way nobody ever had.”
One major component of Woodstock ‘94 was the mud. Due to the immense downpours, there was a lot of mud produced on the ground which covered the fans.
During Green Day’s performance the audience started throwing patches of mud and grass at them, soon covering the whole stage, the instruments, amplifiers, microphones and the band members. The band continued to play and finished their set anyway. Security guards had to hold up a tarp to protect the camera equipment. Green Day’s singer, Billie Joe Armstrong was very involved, throwing mud back into the crowd, pulling his pants down, and chanting obscenities. Armstrong’s mom was very displeased with these acts and even sent Armstrong what he called a “hate letter” saying if his father was still alive he would be ashamed.
Similar to the Green Day concert, Nine Inch Nails’ career-defining show started with them already covered in mud. Before the show, NIN’s singer, Trent Reznor was roughhousing the band members when bassist Danny Lohner pushing Reznor in the mud. Soon the whole group joined in and got covered. In 69’ this would result in playful and happy vibes whereas in 94’ it resulted in a violent, misanthropic, chaotic show. In the beginning ominous sounds and screams were being played through PA speakers. Anticipation was rising and a distorted, elongated version of their song “Pinion” started playing. Then you can see five silhouettes appear from the fog and Reznor emerging with unnatural movements. This led into the explosive performance of “Terrible Lie”. Despite the fact that none of the mics or instruments were working properly, it still was an amazing live performance.
Another great performance of Woodstock 94’ was the psychedelic, drugged-out show by the late Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon. He appeared on stage with smudged mascara, two barrettes in his hair, yellow sneakers and a white long dress which belonged to his wife. He gave a spectacular performance and looked good doing it too, all while tripping on LSD. Hoon would flail around the stage screaming song lyrics sometimes out of tune. During the song “Time,” he laid on the ground hugging a conga drum and rubbing the mic in circles on it. Later he threw it into the crowd and security quickly retrieved it, but that didn’t stop Hoon. He ended up throwing two more conga drums and they made it into the crowd. Also while performing “Time” he would exclaim odd phrases, repeating, “Lots of pretty pretty pretty colours” and “Look at you” over and over again. Later he starts screaming “Let me go!”
There was rumor that the band wouldn’t be able to perform because Hoon had some afflictions in his own life at the time. Apparently, he just got out of drug rehab right before the performance. He died of a cocaine overdose a year later.
Whether or not the magic of Woodstock continues for Woodstock 50 is uncertain due to its current financial problems. If the festival does happen this year, it won’t have the same raw rock and roll energy as previous years since they have new pop artists performing such as Halsey, Jay Z, and Miley Cyrus, although the planned 50th anniversary Woodstock does have some rock performers as well, like The Raconteurs, Greta Van Fleet of Led Zeppelin, and Gary Clark Jr.
The iconic performances of Woodstock 69 and 94 can never be recreated but maybe we can come close to them in Woodstock 50.