Riffs: Numerous reissues celebrate Woodstock

Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 11:45pm

In a year distinguished by anniversary celebrations, none have gotten more ink than Woodstock's 40th birthday.

Generational sniping has broken out all over both the blogosphere and regular print world over whether the three-day event held at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York was transcendent or illusory, the culmination of a new, inspirational agenda of peace, love and brotherhood or the demise of '60s culture.

One's political views and personal memories will determine their view on those issues, but a host of new reissues confirm there was a lot of really good (and some not so good) music performed Aug. 15-18, 1969. While there remains a fair amount of material that hasn't found its way onto any release, the latest deluge of reissues ensures fans can hear many of the best numbers from the festival.

Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back To Yasgur's Farm (Rhino)
, a six-disc set, comes closest to giving listeners a feel for how the event unfolded. It starts with Richie Havens' explosive opening set and continues through Jimi Hendrix's climatic performance, gathering as many as four and sometimes as little as one song from the legions of those who appeared (or at least as many as they have clearances on).

There are some whose contributions enhance their profile (Mountain, Canned Heat, Incredible String Band, Country Joe McDonald), others who uphold their past reputations (Santana, Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Who) and some who have never appeared on earlier sets (Sweetwater, Quill, Grateful Dead, Melanie).

The sense of authenticity extends to the inclusion of various announcements (multiple warnings about avoiding bad acid for instance), plus weather updates, pleas for fans to come down off towers, etc. Woodstock 40 Years On is for either those who attended and want to recapture their memories, or those who didn't and want as much of Woodstock as possible.

The original releases Woodstock: Music From The Original Soundtrack and More and Woodstock Two (both Cotillion/Rhino) are also back in circulation. Each is a two-disc set geared toward more familiar names, along with now deceased greats and the most familiar, best remembered performances. If the expense of the bigger set is a consideration, these collections make a good substitute.

An alternative approach comes via another series of reissues from Legacy called The Woodstock Experience. These were compiled in conjunction with Epic, RCA and Columbia. The companies joined forces for two-disc pairings that combine one disc of material recorded at Woodstock (in many cases all or much of it previously unissued) with a vintage hit CD.

Leading the way are the sets by Sly & The Family Stone and Santana. Shortly following their Woodstock date would come the release of Stand!, a triumphant work of rebellion, joy and energy. The band offered scorching renditions of many of the same songs from that album at Woodstock. Seldom has their signature mix of soulful vocals, instrumental fervor and funky foundations ever been more effective.

Likewise, Santana was just exploding out of the West Coast underground, and their explosive numbers captivated the assembled audience. "Evil Ways," "Jingo" and "Soul Sacrifice" are now staples, but they were fresh creations in 1969, exhibit A of an embryonic blend of Latin percussion and rock edge that would soon became popular across the nation.

Following close on their heels are the Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter and Jefferson Airplane collections. Joplin's belting, wailing vocals sounded urgent and anthemic on the studio classic I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, and only an occasional rambling passage and tendency to repeat herself kept this set (much of it never on disc before) from being Joplin's finest live effort.

Winter plays blistering, incredibly fast licks and riffs and lengthy solos, repeatedly executing masterful blues statements on the eight songs (seven previously unreleased) on his set, which is arguably a slight bit better than his self-titled studio work (certainly as good). Given all the things happening that weekend and their reported participation in some of them, The Jefferson Airplane's live set is far more erratic than the definitive Volunteers accompanying disc. It's still fun to hear, even given some of the occasional problems with pacing, being in tune, and finding the right tempo that occur.

Each set also contains a bonus poster. Fans who want even more information and material can also check out the website Woodstock.com.

If that's not enough festival fare, Woodstock: 3 days of peace and music: the director's cut (Warner Bros). is the ultimate film for the Woodstock completist. The three-disc DVD set includes the newly remastered four-hour director's cut, plus three hours of bonus features. They range from a host of featurettes to new interviews, a 60-page commemorative Life magazine reprint, even a Woodstock fact sheet.

Songwriter, author, publisher and producer Bruce Pollock's By The Time We Got To Woodstock: The Great Rock and Roll Revolution of 1969 (Backbeat) evaluates the event within the framework of several other cultural presentations and political controversies and uphevals that made 1969 so monumental.

Pollock examines the unraveling of The Beatles, Dylan's embrace of Nashville and country music, Motown and soul music's creative evolution, and the emergence of heavy metal among the year's major cultural happenings. His book combines historical analysis, musical discussion, interviews, personal accounts and reflection into a work that's factual, comprehensive and memorable.

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