august 2009


The Woodstock Experience, Then And Now

By David McGee

What, exactly, was the Woodstock experience? There are a million or so answers to that question, and odds are most of them would be positive remembrances/appraisals. Musically, too, the guess here is there would be surprising unanimity concerning the quality and variety of the fare offered. The original Woodstock film and its accompanying three-record soundtrack album captured that best, albeit in piecemeal fashion. But some important bands—such as The Band, such as Credence—were not represented either on celluloid or on vinyl. Columbia/Legacy's release of five individual, unabridged Woodstock performances doesn't go far towards correcting this oversight, nor is it supposed to. It does, however, dare to propose a different perspective altogether, one it doesn't editorialize about but simply suggests by the nature of its packaging decision. The series might have been more accurately titled "The Woodstock Experience, And Beyond," because each of these releases is in two parts—a disc of a live performance at Woodstock coupled with another disc containing each artist's/band's first post-Woodstock album release. Herein lies a tale.

The artists in question are Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Johnny Winter, Sly & the Family Stone. Now, we know part of the reason these were chosen is because Columbia/Legacy has the rights to their music from this period—all were signed either to Columbia or its subsidiary, Epic; the Airplane was on RCA, now also part of the Sony family. All but Johnny Winter made it into the superstar ranks, but at this time Winter was thought to be the next big thing and had a $1 million Columbia contract to prove it. Despite health problems stemming from his albinism, though, Johnny Winter has had an exemplary career as both artist and producer—we should all be grateful for what he did for Muddy Waters as a producer/sideman in the late '70s-early '80s—and he continues to preach the gospel of the blues exactly as he was back then. God bless Johnny Winter. His two discs here are nothing less than exhilarating electric Texas blues workouts, on Winter's strong original material and blues classics he positively reinvigorates—"Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Mean Mistreater," Robert Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend," B.B. King's "Be Careful With a Fool," et al. His band Winter was a basic, taut trio of himself, "Uncle" John Turner on percussion, and Tommy Shannon on bass (before he made his way into Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble), but on a couple of album cuts he got a little outside help: Chicago blues giants Willie Dixon (bass) and Walter Horton (harp) on "Mean Mistreater," a potent horn section on "I'll Drown In My Tears, along with a trio of background singers and his brother Edgar on piano, who returns with a couple of trumpet players to add some oomph to "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." Those who do not remember the excitement surrounding Winter's signing and the anticipation for his debut album may understand better when they hear how fresh and invigorating the artist's music was, how he took a familiar blues conversation and injected new energy and ideas into it with his blend of urban sophistication and roadhouse raucousness. On the live set (all but one cut previously unissued), it's pure, raw energy, his trio supplemented by Edgar on keyboards and apparently, if Winter's "We don't have anything planned!" comment is to be believed, playing off the cuff. Believe it—Johnny Winter was mostly rumor at that point, but after his eight-song set, and another blistering performance two weeks later at the Texas International Pop Festival, he was known to be the real deal, a new guitar god deeply invested emotionally, intellectually and spiritually in the blues. What he does with the electric 12-string on his own "Mean Town Blues" was possibly illegal it was so incendiary, but he also tore into Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" with a vision and a drive that not even inspired Berry acolytes such as the Rolling Stones could match. Again, God bless Johnny Winter.

Janis Joplin, 'Work Me Lord,' live at Woodstock

The other unknown entity at Woodstock in this batch of releases was Santana, then a little-known Bay Area phenomenon managed and aggressively promoted by Bill Graham, who made sure he got the group on the bill when the festival organizers appealed to him for some eleventh-hour help in getting the music together. Like Winter, the band's post-Woodstock word of mouth was off the meter, only to be enhanced when the festival film was released and offered the electrifying performance of "Soul Sacrifice" now entered into legend. Santana wasn't much about lyrics—neither Carlos himself nor keyboardist Greg Rolie, one of the less appealing characters of the time, were any great shakes at turning memorable phrases—but it was about musicianship, improvisational instrumental dialogue and genre fusion. Again, the music must be considered in the context of its time: the vast majority of Woodstock attendees, and the Boomer generation as a whole, knew about Latin, or Latin-influenced music, mostly from the periodic musical numbers Desi Arnaz, as Ricky Ricardo, performed on I Love Lucy. Many of those performances are remarkable, both for Arnaz's showmanship and emotional conviction, as well as his band's first-rate support (long before there was a Ricky Ricardo, Arnaz was a musical visionary who was in the forefront of a mambo craze that swept America in the late '40s and helped open the door for Latin-infused pop music as a singer and arranger—listen to his recordings from back then; the guy was simply awesome, in front of a microphone and behind a camera both). Santana, though, wasn't coming from the place where Desi lived artistically, or Xavier Cugat, or Perez Prado. Carlos had put together a band that more tipped its hat to the sizzling Afro-Cuban rhythmic explorations of Latin jazz giant Machito, updated for the rock 'n' roll age, and by extension, those of Mongo Santamaria. The group's Woodstock performance and subsequent debut album, despite containing the fairly ordinary "Evil Ways," which became a hit single, is interesting more for Carlos's interesting intertwining of multicultural phrasings on guitar, the spirited interplay between his guitar and the driving percussion, Rolie's R&B-drenched organ and 19-year-old drummer Michael Shrieve's energy and economy. This was jam band music before anyone had ever coined the term, and it set a standard that present day practitioners of the form would be well advised to study.

Woodstock caught Janis in transition. She had fled Big Brother & the Holding Company and re-emerged on her second album with the Kozmic Blues Band, which included Big Brother's Sam Andrew on guitar but added to the basic band a full horn section of baritone and tenor saxes and trumpet. Big Brother was a famously ragged bunch, but they were (a) better than critics at the time would lead you to believe and (b) undeniably powerful behind Janis, regardless. Subtlety was not their thing, though, and you sensed at the time that Janis couldn't go places she wanted to go because of Big Brother's limitations (Big Brother naysayers need to check out the documentary 900 Nights, though; it makes a persuasive case that the band was catching up to Janis, and reliable sources such as Lenny Kaye offer rigorous, persuasive defenses of the musicians). Could she have cut something with Big Brother as poignant and delicately nuanced as the string-enhanced Rodgers and Hart pop standard, "Little Girl Blue" on I Get Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!? Well, Sam Andrew is playing a spacey, very Big Brother-ish guitar line all the way through it... Kozmic Blues the album has aged well, though. The bigger blues Janis attacked with the help of horns and band were as powerful as those on the Big Brother album, but with bolder emotional thrusts, courtesy the horns, that clearly inspired Janis to tap into deep emotional wells in response to the surging music, to the point where the studio version of "Work Me, Lord," written by one of Janis's favorites, Nick Gravenites, becomes an epic, tortured, multi-textured opus with multiple movements delineated by the horns soaring and falling back and Janis's alternately sensitive and tortured lyric readings. It's one of those album ending songs that flatten you right where you sit; you need some time to recover after it's over and then you wonder if you heard what you think you heard. On the other hand, the live set was typical of the Kozmic Blues Band shows—kind of all over the place, a bit loose around the edges, not necessarily flowing or building to a big finish. "Work Me Lord" has little of the grandeur of the studio version, despite Janis's best efforts to up the drama; the musicians only sporadically lock in with her, or with each other, for that matter. The set's final two numbers are horn-enhanced versions of her signature songs with Big Brother, a speeded up "Piece of My Heart" and a kind of rococo treatment of "Ball and Chain" remarkable almost entirely for the unbridled intensity of Janis's reading—she's singing with purpose and passion, real white heat, on such an emotional precipice that she does us the favor of making the clunky band incidental to the proceedings. The live album will remind those who were there or who saw Janis with this band how we were forced to endure her yielding the stage to sax man Snooky Flowers, whose wooden rendition of Otis Redding's "Can't Turn You Loose" rendered the song unrecognizable, and not in a good way. Sadly, what many will find striking about the live album is how young and sweet Janis sounded when speaking to the audience. For all her image as a hard woman, onstage she would show a tender-hearted side of herself, sometimes in the words she spoke, sometimes in her self-conscious giggles at her own act. It's impossible to experience the vitality of her live performance and demeanor, or to muse about the interesting artistic quest she was embarking on with the Kozmic Blues album, and not feel again, and keenly, the sorrow attending her death a little more than a year following this Woodstock appearance. She was really something.

Jefferson Airplane, "We Can Be Together," studio recording with live footage

The Airplane's early morning—5:30 a.m.—Woodstock set was described at the time and in years since as something of a disaster, unappealing to band and audience alike. Hard to jibe that with the music heard here. What may surprise some is how much of a jamming set they offered, with long expanses of interplay between guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassady as a bit of a prelude to their Hot Tuna offshoot. It does sound like everyone was in a hurry, though, hence, perhaps, the decades-long negative aspersions cast on this set. But the Airplane was at a moment in time when it would be, for some brief period, the finest band in America—maybe you needed to be at one of their concerts to know this, but for a moment their politics, their craft, their smarts and their energy produced towering, almost frightening music, so powerful was it on stage. Some of that is captured on the studio album following Woodstock, the politically infused Volunteers, on which they were aided by Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Nicky Hopkins on piano (who's also sitting in with them at Woodstock), Steven Stills on Hammond organ, and David Crosby on vocals. Stills's epic "Wooden Ships" is debuted at Woodstock in a magnificent, texturally rich arrangement in which the voices of Paul Kantner and Grace Slick intertwine and cut loose from each other with a jolt, and Kaukonen gets way out there on guitar. Grace alternately howling wordlessly or declaiming "I want to be free! I want to be free!" amidst the swirling, intense music is riveting, the Airplane at its most powerful with all the elements functioning in perfect synchronicity and with unassailable conviction. Whereas rock & roll was the order of the day for the Airplane—and why not? Listen to Kaukenon frailing those military chords at the outset of "Volunteers" and you just want to lose yourself in revolutionary fervor—it's nice to hear Jorma step up with a slow, grinding, Delta-influenced treatment of "Uncle Sam's Blues" (an anti-war missive perfect for the moment) after the tumult of "Wooden Ships," and to lead the charge on a bristling blues jam, "Come Back Baby," near set's end. Volunteers, the Airplane's first post-Woodstock album, was the best of times and worst of times for the band. Politically charged, it opened with a call to arms, the insistent march of "We Can Be Together," with its beautiful, soaring chorus and idealistic summons to generational unity ("we are all outlaws in the eyes of America") along with curious assertions such as "all your private property is target for your enemy/and your enemy is me." Leave it Jorma to offer some measured solace, by way of the graceful groove and soothing vocal he imparts to the traditional hymn, "Good Shepherd," which gets an infusion of bracing energy by way of Jorma's sizzling guitar solos in between verses. There's some down-home country in the form of Paul Kantner's "The Farm," a celebration of the agrarian lifestyle complete with Garcia's sprightly pedal steel lines and Hopkins's ebullient, honky tonk piano, and later on the album the band returns to wafting, Gram Parsons-style country on drummer Spencer Dryden's old-timey lament, "A Song for All Seasons." Jorma has another nice, bluesy turn in contributing "Turn My Life Down," on which Marty Balin and Grace blend their voices in the triumphant harmonies that were the band's vocal signature as much as anything else. The sizzling title track closes the album, and for all intents and purposes closes out the story of the Jefferson Airplane as we had known it since Surrealistic Pillow. The song's call to revolution and to "volunteers to America" was pretty vague, no matter how forcefully articulated, and maybe a couple of years too late, too. Things started disintegrating for the band post-Volunteers, but it would return with a #3 single in 1975, renamed Jefferson Starship, with the catchy heart tugger, "Miracles," and it managed to continue charting singles through the rest of the decade and into the next (minus Slick from 1978 to 1981, and Balin, circa 1979 on), before reconstituting itself simply as Starship, with Slick back in the fold. But the story told from Surrealistic Pillow to Volunteers, at least, was important and enduring in rock history chronicles—a wild, incestuous ride (read Slick's biography) that produced some of the best rock & roll of its time.

Jefferson Airplane, "Won't You Try," includes Grace Slick's wake-up call to the crowd to announce this sunrise set

Like the Airplane, Sly & the Family Stone had emerged and prospered in the '60s; Woodstock, on stage and certainly in the electrifying performance clip of "I Want To Take You Higher" in the festival movie, was a crowning moment of public acclaim, with the greatest critical plaudits still two years away, upon the release of the monumental There's A Riot Goin' On album, the group's last stand before drugs and megalomania destroyed it from the inside. No matter—at Woodstock it was about high energy, high spirits and getting higher, Sly and the family taking no prisoners in a set of unrelenting intensity and gospel fervor. After a few seconds of funky, inconsequential noodling on the organ upon being introduced, Sly shouts/chants, "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" and the musicians are stomping into "M'lady" and never letting up. What to say but that it's an incredible live performance? Positive, self-affirming messages abound in Sly's songs—"Stand!," "You Can Make It If You Try," "Everyday People," "Love City"—but the stridency that made some of the Airplane's message songs ineffectual is completely absent in Sly's songs, supplanted instead by an irresistible, life-affirming groove and ebullient spirits, lots of tricky, energizing vocal percussion, pumping horns and, in the singing, an urgent sense of seizing the moment to the hilt. Stand, the album, built upon this energy and vision, turning into an extended experiment in funk, soul, rock and gospel both fused and distinct from one another as directed by Sly with his unerring mastery of the recording studio as a creative tool. If you don't think Michael Jackson listened hard to Stand before cutting Off the Wall, think again. As he would do more subtly on There's a Riot Goin' On, Sly was allowing a defiant, militant attitude to inform his writing. Look no farther than the explicit funkified testifying and signifying of "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," wherein he also reverses the title sentiment to make the point about getting along a tad more bluntly than he does later in the more idealistic "Everyday People." A Jimmy McGriff-like burbling organ, a wailing rock guitar solo, a bluesy harp line and an infectiously driving polyrhythmic thrust were not the usual foundations of black music in 1969 when Sly crafted another cautionary tale about the dangers of, shall we say, rushing to judgment, "Somebody's Watching You," but they would find their way into the common language soon enough, especially on MJ's aforementioned Off the Wall, practically a Sly tribute album.

Santana, "Soul Sacrifice," live at Woodstock

Of course, as things go in rock & roll, the aftermath of the Woodstock Experience for these artists was not so sweet. Janis was dead by November 1970, of a drug overdose; the Airplane was splintering post Volunteers and in the Starship configuration with Grace in 1985 offered one of the worst songs in rock history, "We Built This City," inexplicably a #1 single for three weeks; Santana soldiered on, band members went their separate ways, Greg Rolie wound up in Journey, Carlos became a guitarist's guitarist but in 1999 was backing...Rob Thomas...on the biggest hit of his career, the frat boy's wet dream that was "Smooth"; Sly was a drug casualty before the '70s ended and has remained terminally weird in his comeback efforts in recent years. Though health issues keep Johnny Winter from performing regularly, he remains active recording and is a revered veteran in the blues world, welcome whenever and wherever he can show up and play the blues like nobody's business, still.

Simon & Garfunkel, live 1966, 'Sounds of Silence'

Simon & Garfunkel's Live 1969 has nothing to do with Woodstock, per se, but certainly applies to the Woodstock Nation, such as it is/was. The 17 songs on this disc were compiled from various performances recorded on what turned out to be the duo's final tour, in November 1969, ahead of the release of their Bridge Over Troubled Water album in late January 1979. The plan at the time was for a live album to follow the Bridge album, but their split put an end to that idea. By now the acrimony between the partners at that time is well documented, but if there is any tension evident in these graceful performances, or in the between-songs banter, someone please point it out. If Paul and Artie didn't know they were near the end of the collaboration, they could hardly have signed off with a more moving coda to a decade they had helped define. The harmonies are impeccable, the humor is fully present, Simon's guitar accompaniment is energetic and atmospheric, and the songs, well, what can you say? "Homeward Bound," "The Boxer," "The Sound of Silence," "I Am a Rock," "Mrs. Robinson," "The 59th Street Bridge Song"—for those of a certain age, talk about the soundtrack of your lives, it's right here, all the alienation, the dislocation, the giddiness, the self-affirmation; even the self-conscious poetry of "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" (sung by Garfunkel in his pristine high tenor, sure pure and aching it's startling still), "Why Don't You Write Me" and "Kathy's Song" hits it emotional target dead on simply on craft alone. The big moment, though, is track 12, at Carnegie Hall, on November 28, 1969, when the audience heard "Bridge Over Troubled Water" for the first time. The next year, in February and March, it and the Beatles' "Let It Be" would both top the charts (for six and two weeks, respectively), and sound for all the world like the spiritually resonant postscript to the previous tumultuous decade, truly the end of the '60s, "lullabies to kids burned out by the cataclysm of the times" to cop a phrase from this publication's contributing editor Christopher Hill. It's chilling to hear "Bridge" now, in one of its first public performances, before the record was released, and to try to make sense of the riotous applause greeting its closing notes. Did the Carnegie Hall audience sense it was hearing the final exhalation of a slain President's summons to service and civility articulated on January 20, 1961? Was it wondering what, if any, progress had been made in seeking the newer world the slain Robert F. Kennedy envisioned? Was it judging its neighbors by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as Martin Luther King had hoped for the nation in which his children were growing up? Or were they happy to just let it be?


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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