After efforts to stage a massive event celebrating Woodstock’s 50th anniversary failed to materialize, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York’s Catskills region became the only game in town. For months, organizers quietly promoted a weekend of concerts that would put the focus on the 1969 event and its musical and cultural importance — without the drama, and with no shame about appealing almost exclusively to nostalgic instincts.
“I remember the smells, the crowd, the mud,” said Nick Ercoline, who along with his wife Bobbi, were both there in 1969. They’re not your average Woodstock attendees: Before they married two years later, the Ercolines were immortalized as the hippie couple on the cover of the “Woodstock” film’s soundtrack album. Speaking to Variety just before Arlo Guthrie went on outside the venue’s amphitheater pavilion on Thursday, the weekend’s opening day, Nick added: “My favorite band was Sly & the Family Stone. They woke everybody up.”
However, Nick doesn’t recall the iconic photo being taken by Burk Uzzle. “A buddy bought the album and showed it to me,” he says. “I recognized the blanket and saw the butterfly. It wasn’t a big deal until 20 years later.” Today, married 48 years — they only started dating three months before the original festival — the Ercolines have put on a few pounds and sport cropped haircuts, but still look still look spry at 70. Many fans stopped by to say hello and take photos with them.
But as Guthrie took the stage, the focus was once again on the music. Famous for telling the Woodstock horde that “the New York State Thruway is closed — that’s far out!” and that he “was rapping to the fuzz, can you dig it?,” Guthrie mused about coming back to Bethel for the weekend’s opening night. “I had visions of people using walkers and canes,” he joked after opening with “The Motorcycle Song.”
Before going into his 1969 song “Coming Into Los Angeles,” which appeared in the “Woodstock” movie directed by Michael Wadleigh and on the triple-disc soundtrack album, Guthrie said he wasn’t featured on stage during the movie because his microphone was off for the first part of the number. “There are a lot of cutaways of people smoking dope” during the song, he added. “They couldn’t synch it.”
After performing his biggest hit, “City of New Orleans (No. 18, 1972), written by Steve Goodman, Guthrie launched into his father Woody’s Americana classic, “This Land Is Your Land,” which he took out of his set list for a few years but quickly restored after an avalanche of fan complaints asking, “What were you thinking?”
Plans to screen the “Woodstock” movie on the field were scrapped that night because of an impending storm and moved to the concert pavilion. (Rain may have been a hallmark of the hallowed 1969 festival, but not everything needs to be relived.) As one highlight performance after another by the Who, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and others rushed by in a collage of diverse sounds and kaleidoscopic images, fans cheered and applauded. Behind the pavilion, white light flashed and rain began to fall. But many people stayed until the lengthy director’s cut of the movie ended well past midnight.
Many of Woodstock’s great heroes are long gone, starting with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who died not so very long after the festival made them household names. The second show of the weekend featured a sparse showing of key Woodstock veterans. Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band were booked as the headliner. Of course, the Beatles did not appear at Woodstock, but the drummer has made a solo career of extolling peace-and-love homilies, so he was a somewhat appropriate choice.
The latest version of Ringo’s All-Starrs includes Gregg Rolie, an original member of the Santana band that rocketed to fame after their incendiary performance of “Soul Sacrifice” appeared in the movie and on the concert album. Opening for Ringo were Woodstock alumni Edgar Winter, who was 22 years old when he joined his blues-guitar-playing brother Johnny for a midnight set, and Blood, Sweat & Tears, the then-popular jazz-rock band. However, no current members of the group were with them in 1969.
Before the show, Variety spoke with Starr, Rolie and Winter in a quick, jovial session.
“They put flower power on the map.” Starr exclaimed about 1969 festival. “I was in England. It was great to look at, all that peace and lovin’. The people who came off that stage just skyrocketed. Jimi Hendrix, let’s talk about him. Do you have two hours?”
Winter said Woodstock changed his life. “With the whole social backdrop of civil rights, I started to think maybe I could have something to say, have a voice,” he recollected.
“Woodstock was against the war in Vietnam, that was obvious,” keyboardist Rolie reflected. “As a player, my music was never political. It was music to me, getting people alive and feeling.”
The horn-heavy Blood, Sweat & Tears played seven songs from the group’s Woodstock set list, including “Spinning Wheel,” “You Made Me So Very Happy,” “More and More,” “And When I Die” and “God Bless the Child.” Lead singer Keith Paluso joined the band in May after a stint on “The Voice.” Prior to that, he worked as a park ranger and in law enforcement. Paluso did a reasonable impression of the scratchy-voiced David Clayton Thomas, who has long been out of the group.
Winter reprised a number he did with Johnny, “Tobacco Road,” and also dusted off his 1973 hits “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.” Winter, reccognizable as ever with his trademark long white hair, moved deftly from keyboards to saxophone to drums, all while singing in a piercing falsetto.
The 14th incarnation of the All-Starrs includes Rolie, Colin Hay (Men at Work), Steve Lukather (Toto), Hamish Stuart (Average White Band) and multi-instrumentalist Greg Bissonette, who’s been in the band since 2008. Starr introduced “Don’t Pass Me By” by explaining, “When I joined the Beatles, I’d written a lot of songs. None of them were recorded, except this one.”
Starr opened with a lesser-known Beatles hit, “Matchbook,” from 1964, and his own solo number “It Don’t Come Easy” before heading to the drum kit and giving way to a parade of jukebox favorites by his compatriots.
The hit parade — Rolie’s bluesy “Evil Ways” (1969), Lukather’s homage to “Rosanna” (1982), Stuart’s funky instrumental “Pick Up the Pieces” (1974) and Hays’ ode to Australia, “Down Under” (1981) — went on somewhat interminably as Starr peppered in more solo tunes like “You’re Sixteen” and “Photograph,” both hits in 1973, and several offbeat Beatles classics he sang lead on before moving into the writers’ chair with “Don’t Pass Me By”, including “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Act Naturally” and their 1963 cover of the Shirelles’ “Boys.”
The two highlights were the crowd singalongs to “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” — or, as the air-guitar playing Joe Comer referred to it on stage, “With a Little Help from Me Friends” — even though, surprisingly, Starr did not mention that the latter Beatles song was memorably covered by Joe Cocker at Woodstock. He closed out the weekend’s uneven second night, both hands over his head showing the “V” peace signs, with a rousing finale of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”
There was more local flavor to Woodstock’s memorial weekend than just the Bethel Woods shows. A mile down the road off New York’s 17B, at the farm formerly owned by Max Yasgur, a hippie encampment dug in with tents and colorful vendors grilling cheese and selling garments and trinkets. Yasgur famously came to the aid of the original festival by allowing his property to be trampled upon by the horde of young people.
Over the years, the Yasgur’s Road Reunion has shown the true face of what Woodstock spawned. As you drive up the road to the farm, you see two sign posts. One reads: “The one piece of Yasgur Farm still held by the family. Mrs. Yasgur sold all but 1 sq. ft. of the farm. This last piece will always remain in her family.”
The other says: “The former home of Max and Miriam Yasgur. Elliot Tiber brought Woodstock Ventures to this home in 1969 to lease the festival site.”
The fight over the Woodstock property kept Bethel Woods at bay until the local officials finally decided to parcel it off to Cablevision founder Alan Gerry. Many locals felt the property should remain untouched, a landmark to that epochal ’60s moment.
One of the original Woodstock performers who was not invited to the Bethel Woods festivities (but who had been booked to play the ill-fated Woodstock 50), folk singer Melanie, played a short set on the stage tucked in the woods Friday night. On Saturday, she crossed the road to the Catskills Distillery Company and reprised her previous evening’s set.
“I walked on that stage a relative unknown and walked off a celebrity,” Melanie said about her appearance at Woodstock, echoing Starr’s comment about the skyrocketing effect of the event. “Some people get real cynical about the word Woodstock. To me, Woodstock happens every day in little moments.”
Using a cane, Melanie, 72, whose last name is Safka, has a support team of her son and daughter. Two of the songs she played at the Distillery — “Beautiful People” and the 1970 No. 1 hit “Brand New People” — were part of her Woodstock set.
Back across the road at the sprawling Bethel Woods concert venue (which includes a terrific counterculture museum as well as the amphitheater), a new group of aging concertgoers, many wearing tie-dye shirts with the Woodstock dove emblazoned on them, were readying for the Day 3 concert featuring Santana and the Doobie Brothers, who are currently on tour together. A light rain sprinkled between 6 pm and 7 pm.
While the Doobies have no connection to Woodstock whatsoever, Santana — the band named for the Mexican-born guitarist Carlos — has long been viewed as one of the festival’s biggest breakout stars. Unknown outside of the Bay Area in 1969, concert promoter (and their first manager) Bill Graham insisted the Latin-rock contingent get booked, especially if the producers wanted to secure other San Francisco heavy hitters like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, which is exactly what happened. Santana was reportedly paid $2,500 for their 45-minute Saturday afternoon slot.
During a CNN interview on Friday, Santana called Woodstock “a journey. It was like going to the jungles of Peru and taking ayahuasca. I was giving birth to myself in front of 100,000 people. I was naked in front of everyone.”
The release of Santana’s eponymously titled first album two weeks after Woodstock was the beginning of a long and fruitful recording career by the guitarist and the group that now includes their 25th studio album, “Africa Speaks.” Santana experienced a second peak in 1999 with the star-studded “Supernatural” album, which bore two No. 1 hits, “Smooth” with Rob Thomas and “Maria Maria,” and was capped with eight Grammys in 2000, including album and record of the year. They’ve won two additional Grammys over the years and have been nominated 14 times.
Led by co-founders Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, the Doobie Brothers offered a perfunctory set of mostly hits like “Black Water,” “Long Running” and “Listen to the Music,” omitting the No. 1 “What a Fool Believes,” originally sung by Michael McDonald, though “Takin’ It to the Streets” made it into the set.
Santana’s 13-piece ensemble opened with their Woodstock classic “Soul Sacrifice,” “Jingo” and “Evil Ways,” all from the first album. But when the latter segued into John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” it was clear that the band would be all over the place. Carlos Santana’s heroes — Coltrane, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon — all received nods throughout the 140-minute set.
During a lengthy version of Marley’s “Exodus,” for which the Doobie Brothers joined Santana on stage, the song veered off into Marley and Peter Tosh’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and then War’s “Slipping into Darkness.” Similarly, “Hope You’re Feeling Better,” an album track from 1970’s “Abraxas,” included a rap by Andy Vargas and quoted the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” and “Satisfaction,” the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me N—–, Whitey.”
In an attempt to give some meaning to his return to Bethel Woods, Santana called the event “ground zero for unity and harmony” and told the crowd, which had begun its own exodus, “You are light. You can create miracles. This is the real Woodstock right here.”
The show ended on a dubious note: Santana’s version of the Youngbloods’ hippie anthem “Get Together.”
As the older crowd struggled to walk up the hill to the exit, congregants danced in the mud, hippie style, over at Yasgur’s Farm. Joints were passed back and forth — it was hard to find one at Bethel — while the jam band Pink Talking Fish offered a playful set of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and Phish songs. The small stage tent was reminiscent of the one the Hog Farm erected at Woodstock, where Joan Baez played when she wasn’t on the main stage. This felt like the real remnant of Woodstock.
It took four shows to find the right mix of bands to bring out the best in Bethel Wood’s Woodstock celebration; while the previous nights featured all-star acts, there was a feeling of just another show, even with Santana.
On Sunday, a quick storm blew through, delaying the 6 p.m. start by 75 minutes. The temperature dropped 15 degrees into the 60s and fans sitting on the lawn draped themselves in slickers and tarps.
This program had a better plan. Rather than non-stop classic rock, the openers, Vermont belter Grace Potter and the rock ’n’ soul outfit Tedeschi Trucks Band, appealed to a younger crowd. Led by husband-and-wife team Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, TTB are known for their deft cover choices and didn’t disappoint, opening with Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and closing with a raucous tribute to Sly & the Family Stone (“Sing a Simple Song” into “I Want to Take Your Higher”).
After the set, Tedeschi, who wasn’t born yet when Woodstock happened, told Variety, “It was a beautiful opportunity for us to pay tribute to a lot of the musicians who influenced us over the years. It was an honor. A lot of good came out of Woodstock, a lot of progress for human rights. It showed that music is healing with all the unrest that was going on at that time.”
Trucks said he was “glad that it wasn’t some massive festival with a bunch of bands that maybe weren’t in the right spirit,” referring to the Woodstock 50 event that hogged the headlines for months. “I’m happy it was kind of trimmed down. It was intimate and about music. Otherwise, it can get a little impersonal.”
Both were thrilled to share the bill with Woodstock veteran John Fogerty, whose band Creedence Clearwater Revival played in the wee hours of Sunday morning at the original festival. Fogerty likes to tell the story that the Grateful Dead put the crowd to sleep before CCR went on and there was this lone fan way in the back of the audience who encouraged them to go on. “Creedence was smoking that night,” he reminded the rapt Bethel Woods crowd, “but it was falling on deaf ears.”
Fifty years later, Fogerty, minus his Creedence mates, had the audience’s complete attention as his “50th Year Trip” show cruised through hit song after hit song (“Looking Out My Back Door,” “Proud Mary”). From 1968 to 1971, CCR had an incredible roll of Top 10 tunes, all 13 of which he played along with beloved album tracks like “Born on the Bayou” and “Keep on Chooglin’.” Fogerty, who sang and played guitar alongside his son Shane, also paid tribute to Woodstock originals like Sly & the Family Stone (“Everyday People” into “Dance to the Music”) as well as Joe Cocker (“With a Little Help from My Friends”). Shane added his rendition of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
Earlier in the night, following the rain, the skies lightened up and suddenly a rainbow spanned the horizon over Bethel Woods. It was a magical moment, like when Joni Mitchell wrote about bomber jets turning “into butterflies above our nation.” For Woodstock Nation, or what’s left of it, it represented a fleeting sign of hope and renewal.