Woodstock — the event, the myth, the hype, all of it — celebrates its 40th anniversary in two months. But what fueled the landmark cultural gathering was its music. And it all began with these two albums.
Sure, Woodstock was set against the social inferno of 1969 — the draft, the Vietnam War and a generation that wanted nothing to do with either. But as a time capsule of often astounding rock, folk and soul, it remains invaluable.
The Woodstock "soundtrack" — the live album Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More designed to accompany Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning documentary of the three-plus-day outdoor concert — was a No. 1 hit when it was released in 1970. It also cracked the Top 20 of the R&B album charts, thanks largely to a career-defining pop-funk medley by Sly and the Family Stone. Other acts might have had agendas. Stone's was simply to groove. From the instant he kicks into Dance to the Music, Woodstock loosens its collar and becomes a party.
The original Woodstock also introduced numerous artists to the pop mainstream, from Joe Cocker to Richie Havens to Crosby, Stills and Nash. But none took fuller advantage of Woodstock as a stepping-stone event than Santana. Through nearly 12 minutes of Soul Sacrifice — which, in its remastered state on this new edition, sounds positively tribal — the band tossed percussive soul, jam-savvy rock, a monster guitarist in Carlos Santana and heavy psychedelia together and managed to redesign the role of Latin music in progressive pop in the process.
And then there was Hendrix. As the finale act, Jimi Hendrix played Monday morning and reinvented The Star-Spangled Banner as a respectful but frightening guitar rampage.
What exists on Woodstock 2, released in early 1971, was an initial listen to the remaining 120 hours of tapes recorded at the festival. With the exception of Mountain, a wonderfully noisy riot, and Melanie, a hippie folkie delivering a coarse, flat set, it simply expands on artists introduced on the first Woodstock album.
But there are numerous delights here, including one of the first serious looks at Hendrix's deglamorized band Gypsy Sun and Rainbows (the performance has since been released in near-entirety by Hendrix's estate), a fortuitous set that matched Crosby, Stills and Nash with Neil Young, and the ultra trippy Jefferson Airplane tune Saturday Afternoon which, as it turned out, was played during the band's set on Sunday morning.
Woodstock 2 has few highlights to match Sly Stone, Santana or even The Who's thunderous Tommy finale from the first record. But it also has none of the former's gaffes. Nearly 40 years later, one is still hard-pressed to explain how a '50s revival act like Sha Na Na made its way onto the first Woodstock singing At the Hop. Wasn't that part of what everyone was rebelling against?
In the coming months, albums will surface that unearth the complete Woodstock sets by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter and Sly and the Family Stone. And on Aug. 18, during the actual anniversary, comes a six-disc box set to chronicle most of the acts omitted from — for whatever reasons — the initial Woodstock albums. Among them: The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Incredible String Band.
But the journey started here, with two albums that captured the music and dubious magic of Woodstock in all of in muddy, fascinating and topical glory.