Recording of October 2019: Woodstock: Back To The Garden – 50th Anniversary Experience

Various Artists: Woodstock: Back To The Garden – 50th Anniversary Experience

Rhino Records A 587817 (10 CD). 2019. Andy Zax, Brian Kehew, reissue prods; Dave Schultz, reissue mastering; Eddie Kramer, Lee Osborne, engs. TT: 12:42:23

Performance *****

Sonics ***

Fifty years, man! By the time you read this, the dates will have passed during which promoters had hoped to stage a 50th anniversary Woodstock Festival—sadly, they failed in their effort—and Woodstock mania will have peaked and died—even pieces of the Woodstock stage are available to buy (I have two!). And yet the artifact that will always remain at the center of the era-defining event is this extensive and amazing audio document that the organizers had the foresight to record.

A variety of packages is available for the 50th anniversary, ranging from the exhaustive limited-edition 38-disc set (1969 copies released, naturally) to a three-CD recap. In between is a 5-disc vinyl collection and this 10-disc CD set, which is also available as three 24/96 HD downloads. On the 38-CD set are 432 tracks, of which 267 are previously unreleased, with just three short performances missing: one from Sha Na Na (the tape failed—no big loss) and two by Hendrix (his estate would not give permission—bigger loss). I ended up with the 10-disc version, which seemed just right. The uninitiated will be surprised how intimate many of the performances sound. Early on, Richie Havens, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, and—later—John Sebastian provide simple-yet-charged sets that would feel at home around a campfire.

But as the crowd grows over the next couple of days, so does the grandeur of the music and the stature of the musicians, until we’ve rumbled through some of rock’s greatest acts, including Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Janis Joplin, the Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally Young), capped with Jimi Hendrix wailing away to the bleary survivors still left in the trash and mud. To their credit, this new set’s producers decided to present the sound of the original analog tapes in a largely unaltered state, which they describe as “the sonic equivalent of heirloom tomatoes—slightly imperfect, but delicious.” At the festival, famed recording engineer Eddie Kramer and assistant Lee Osborne endured three continuous 18-hour sessions, recording 64 1″ tapes on a pair of Scully 8-track machines. The stage crew also recorded more than 100 reels at the soundboard, providing plenty of impromptu moments to piece things together.

As Kramer sorts out the audio feed, the result is sonically rough and thin-sounding in spots. But as singers start to wail, the custom Shure mikes (similar to an SM58) rarely overload and you can hear what’s on stage better, probably, than the audience ever did.

At this point in our program, some of you may be asking, “I’ve got the original soundtrack, I’ve seen the movie, I’ve got the reissues from 10 years ago,” or even, “I was there and got the T-shirt/sunburn!”

“Do I really need this set?”

Yes, you do. The new versions sound so different from what has come before that you may think these are alternate performances (and in fact some takes are indeed different than the re-recorded versions previously released). The relaxed, you-are-there transparency is breath-taking when everything aligns. The occasional faint ground-loop hum hardly seems to matter when the recordings feel so alive, as when Crosby, Stills & Nash drop into the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” or Santana launches their set with timbales blazing.

Not everything holds up artistically, and I’m guessing most of you will only play Melanie’s performance once. But gems that previously were only available as low-quality bootlegs are plentiful here. We hear never-heard-before tracks from Creedence Clearwater Revival [see the review of their Woodstock set elsewhere in this issue], and more of the long-sought-after set from the Grateful Dead, which Jerry Garcia famously panned, saying the festival was great but the band was worn out. It’s not peak Dead, but what a snapshot!

Other bands missing from earlier releases finally surface, their legends having grown over time. Sweetwater turns in a decent performance, and Quill, who were kept out of the movie by technical issues, finds a groove and stomps it. The Incredible String Band captures the Woodstock hippie vibe perfectly. There’s also the Keef Hartley Band and an energized Blood, Sweat & Tears, whose managers regrettably stated, “no recording until the band gets paid.” Kramer recorded it anyway, and we’re all the better for it.

Also included is a big helping of Woodstock’s famous stage announcements, which permeated the counter-culture for years. All the favorites are here: “Good morning! What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand.” Having everything sequenced properly (which the original movie and soundtrack failed to do) adds to the sense of how this astonishing event evolved to accommodate the teeming crowds.

And please, stay off the towers!—Jon Iverson

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