Promoters find it hard to reroll the '60s
Apparently recapturing the musical spirit of Woodstock 40 years after the fact has proved as elusive as finding somebody who actually saw Jimi Hendrix’s early-morning set that capped the epochal 1969 event — long after most of the half-million throng had departed, leaving the 600-acre site in Bethel, N.Y., a sea of mud and debris.
That’s not to say there’s any shortage of concert tributes that are capitalizing on Woodstock’s landmark anniversary. In the final analysis, though, recruiting musicians the caliber of Hendrix, the Who, Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in their prime might amount to a pipe dream in today’s pop/rock landscape.
The current Heroes of Woodstock tour, featuring 40 U.S. dates — including a stop at the original Bethel site Aug. 15, the date the 1969 event kicked off — has so far sold 70%-80% capacity in the three Midwest stops it played, in venues ranging from 2,000-8,000 capacity, according to Gen-X Entertainment’s Tim Murphy, one of the tour’s co-producers. Just north of 10,000 tickets have been sold for Bethel, which has 15,500 available seats.
Many of that traveling roadshow’s Heroes, most of whom played at Max Yasgur’s farm four decades ago, might be considered operating at partial strength: the Jefferson Starship playing Jefferson Airplane songs without Grace Slick (co-frontman Marty Balin appears at some dates but not all); Big Brother and the Holding Company without the late Janis Joplin; Levon Helm, appearing sporadically on the tour, without the Band; etc.
Similarly FestWest, slated for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Oct. 25, boasts Denny Laine but not Wings; Lester Chambers but not the Chambers Brothers, Ray Manzarek but not the Doors. FestWest is, however, the one free event sanctioned by one of Woodstock Venture’s original Gang of Four, Artie Kornfeld, the so-called “Father of Woodstock,” who has been promoting this particular gathering of tribes on his weekly Internet radio show, “The Spirit of the Woodstock Nation,” which he says reaches 10 million listeners a week.
Two other events — WoodFest ’09 (Aug. 14-16), in Davis, Okla., and the Woodstock Illinois Tribute (Aug. 14-15) — are featuring an array of bands that mimic the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater.
Kornfeld’s ex-partner Michael Lang — the curly haired, ever-youthful entrepreneur who was immortalized in Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 documentary about those Three Days of Peace & Music — told Variety that what might have come closest to an official 40th anniversary celebration fell short due to lack of funds. (The other two principals in the original Woodstock Ventures were Joel Rosenman and the late John Roberts.)
“It required sponsorship at a pretty hefty level, and the sponsors had to be green,” says Lang, whose memoir, “The Road to Woodstock,” written with Holly George-Warren, was recently published. “And it’s just the wrong year for sponsor budgets. They just don’t exist, because of the general state of the economy.”
Lang’s plans had called for a free, eco-friendly music event in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Aug. 26 designed to piggyback on New York’s Climate Week, a five-day program of events scheduled for Aug. 21-25, meant to address the need for action on climate change.
The initial blueprint called for surviving Woodstock talents, along with stylistically similar groups such as the Dave Matthews Band and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to appear on the bill. But the current sociopolitical landscape, as well as a fragmented music industry dominated by corporate rock and decidedly anti-Flower Power rap, has rendered anything resembling the original event an anachronism.
Granted, music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo might have seemed unimaginable without Woodstock paving the way. But attempts to revive the Aquarian flame, as evidenced by key anniversary events in 1994 and 1999, have proved either disappointing or disastrous (the 1999 event was marked by unruly crowds, violence and fires).
“How can you do a Woodstock 2 with Pepsi-Cola and a record company sponsoring it,” asks Kornfeld, whose upcoming book “The Pied Piper” chronicles his multifaceted career in the music biz. “I can’t do a 40th anniversary unless it’s free.”
The for-profit Heroes of Woodstock was limited in its ability to attract top acts. Murphy admits that such Woodstock veterans as Santana, the Who and Joe Cocker “were too expensive,” with the producers’ aim to keep most ticket prices in the relatively low $30-$40 range. And, he adds, it’s not just baby boomers who’ve attended so far. At the tour’s recent stop in Michigan, “probably 20%-25% of that crowd was under 30 years old.”
The antiwar movement and the sexual revolution made Woodstock ’69 as much a free-speech platform — epitomized by Country Joe McDonald’s trenchant “Fixin’ to Die Rag” and Hendrix’s incendiary “Star-Spangled Banner” — as it was a musical phenomenon. And the free Bay Area event in October might come closest to approximating the undercurrents that made Woodstock such a cultural touchstone, with planned appearances by original members of the Yippies, the Black Panthers and Beat poets like Michael McLure.
And just as Woodstock was so deluged by crowds that organizers eventually declared it a free event, FestWest could tax Golden Gate Park, not to mention the city of San Francisco, beyond its capacity.
“We are expecting over 100,000 people at this event,” says organizer Boots Hughston, FestWest’s primary mover and shaker, who bases the figure on his “40thAnniversary of the Summer of Love” two years ago, which attracted 100,000 people. “This event has even larger buzz.”
Whether all the hoopla over Woodstock will have died down by October is anybody’s guess.
“What I’m trying to do is rebuild the spirit of the Woodstock nation,” says Kornfeld. “If you can get people together in peace for a day in this world, then you’ve done a good thing.”