Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Update: A Woodstock Interlude

On Sunday, with the 50th Anniversary just a few days away, I once again had the opportunity to get to Woodstock for a book signing, and more specifically to Bethel Woods where the festival actually took place (some 50 miles away). I wasn't there in '69, I would have been 8 years old (wouldn't that have been a hoot?), still there was a great sense of emotion that I shared with those at the museum and in town, and those who had been there or more readily experienced the era. Not to mention the ability to share that emotion, or the awe of it, with my son. As a Californian, I would have been much more likely to gravitate to Monterey Pop, but honestly, despite its immensity and my California bias, Monterey was a concert; Woodstock was a life-altering event, even for those us who weren't there. When you read Miles From Nowhere, you'll get that sense of wonder as well.*

A man with a long white beard sat next to my son on a psychedelic school bus made to emulate the Merry Prankster's Further. During a short film inside the bus, the man said, "That was the music they were playing when I came home from Vietnam." "So you didn't get to Woodstock?" my son asked. He said, "My country had something else in mind." It was the kind of buzz that permeated the building. I would maintain that many of the performances - Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, Janis - were better in Monterey, but if that kind of vibe was evident in a museum on a chilly fall day, 48 years hence, I can't even imagine what it was like to have been there.

One of the museum's key attractions is a 40-foot film screen surrounded by scaffolding reminiscent of the stage at the Aquarian Exposition. The festival's history is told through interviews of concert goers, locals and promoters. Joe Cocker’s cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," which turned the lightweight Ringo ditty into a bluesy, cataclysmic rocker, is featured prominently. His soul-baring version of the song was arguably the highlight of the generation-defining festival, rivaled only by Jimi Hendrix' electric version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Interestingly, Cocker was a virtual unknown before his performance at Woodstock, at least in the U.S., despite a successful debut LP. No one knew of his quirky stage presence, and few were prepared for the emotional aura that Cocker would create that day.

Joe Cocker's voice has always been highly praised or even more severely chided, but one cannot overlook the musicianship of the Grease Band. Alan Spenner (bass), Chris Stainton (keyboards), Henry McCullough (lead guitar), Neil Hubbard (rhythm guitar), and Bruce Rowland (drums), all as obscure as Cocker at the time, sound like an R&B Symphony. Spenner and McCullough's fretwork is raw, Stainton fills the gaps with his B-3 and Wurlitzer piano, and Rowland covers the job of a full percussion section. It is possibly the best performances by a band no one knew, in a time when there were plenty of those (Big Brother and the Holding Company come to mind).

Having been on the road and touring, Joe and the Grease band were well-rehearsed, with incredible arrangements of Dylan's, "Just Like A Woman" and "I Shall Be Released" that have intense emotional overtones few young singers could match (Dylan included). His take on the classic "Let's Go Get Stoned," is far superior at Woodstock to even the fine version on the live album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen. "I Don't Need No Doctor," the hit, "Feeling Alright", and tunes like "Dear Landlord” made for a set that was far superior to any of the parts, magnificent as many of them were. The set ends, of course, with Cocker’s majestic take on "With A Little Help From My Friends," a performance that essentially stole the show and put Cocker on the map as a major rock 'n' roll draw. When one thinks of Woodstock, Joe Cocker, in his multi-colored tie-dyed t-shirt, is the most enduring symbol of a historic musical event. I can hear him now in my head.  

AM is supported through the sales of Miles from Nowhere and from Jay and the Americans. Read both for free on Kindle Unlimited, or get the Kindle edition (Miles - $2.99; Jay - $5.99) or the trade paperbacks (Miles - $10.99; Jay - $12.99) by clicking the link in the sidebar.

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*I must have been six when my mother and her beau, a studio musician, took me to the KFRC Fantasy Faire in Marin County. I proceeded to get lost among the hoards and my mother spent the day frantic, looking for me. I wasn't lost at all, in my book, just on a journey. My mother tells that story all the time, never once mentioning that during her search, The Doors were playing in the background. That she says she doesn't remember.

Update: BETHEL Woods – As you already know, Miley Cyrus and Jay-Z were to perform at the Woodstock 50 commemoration, scheduled at a racetrack in upstate New York, then Maryland, IDKm was canceled and I'm a bit relieved. I don't believe those entertainers, dismissing my tastes for music, fit the ideology, but there are many who would argue. Nonetheless, it was destined to be another Firefly of Bonaroo and why? Luckily, we're spared but we can still get up to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts to see a 50th celebration more in tune with the original spirit. Santana and John Fogerty are among those scheduled.