Sometimes even the most famous and devout "peace and music" gathering calls for a bit of slapping around.
Among the tidbits resurrected on the mammoth new six-CD boxed set Woodstock — 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm is the famed meeting of The Who's Pete Townshend and activist Abbie Hoffman. While The Who was tuning between songs from its just-released album Tommy, Hoffman grabbed the microphone to utter a quick protest rant about the jailing of militant activist John Sinclair on a drug charge. Townshend let Hoffman talk for 20 seconds before shoving him offstage. The guitarist returned to the microphone, politely said to the crowd, "I can dig it," and ripped back into one of festival's most galvanizing performances.
Such a moment affirms that the times weren't a-changin' with quite the level of unity everyone had envisioned. But in the end, with the idealism of the '60s drawing to a close, Woodstock was about music. And if some drug-addled hippie was going to invade Townshend's performance space (Hoffman later admitted he was on LSD during The Who's set), then there was going to be a reckoning. Or, at least, a shove and a slap.
What 40 Years On seems designed to convey isn't so much an enforcement of social or activist standings of the era but a more complete sampling of the music that brought nearly 500,000 people together at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York. Sure the social tension is underscored time and again within the music. But those moments — The Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers, Country Joe McDonald's I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Wooden Ships — have been documented repeatedly in previous Woodstock collections that date to the early '70s.
The joy of 40 Years On comes from hearing how the times were integrated more fully into the music, be it through the white-hot, two-minute blast of merry apocalyptic fire within Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bad Moon Rising, the fanciful nine minutes of acoustic British folk that is the Incredible String Band's When You Find Out Who You Are, the 19 minutes the Grateful Dead takes to explore the more leisurely psychedelic Dark Star or the full, unedited 28-minute Woodstock Boogie marathon by Canned Heat. 40 Years On marks the first official release for all of these performances.
The boxed set also seeks to implement a little corrective history. The most noticeable switch is changing out the version of Arlo Guthrie's drug-smuggling anthem Coming Into Los Angeles from the original 1970 Woodstock album and film (which wasn't actually from the concert) with a more ragged but honest take (which was). On the other hand, Neil Young's Sea of Madness, included on the initial Woodstock album but long rumored to not have been played at the festival — the recorded performance, some say, came from a tour several months later — is still here. That mystery goes unaddressed.
Glaring omissions, of course, are British prog-blues rockers Ten Years After, prominently featured in the film and initial album, and The Band, which appeared on a boxed set that marked Woodstock's 25th anniversary in 1994.
It seems, then, that even with six discs, Woodstock still can't be contained. But 40 Years On expands considerably the recorded snapshot of a mid August weekend when a half-million youths thrilled to the music of a very fleeting moment.