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Fifty years after Woodstock: a redux in 38 discs

  • Release of a limited-edition 38-disc box set marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival
  • It carefully reconstructs every moment of the historic festival and the sets by the 32 acts that played there in 1969

An iconic image of a young couple, Nick Ercoline and Bobbi Kelly, at the Woodstock music festival, shot by photographer Burk Uzzle.
An iconic image of a young couple, Nick Ercoline and Bobbi Kelly, at the Woodstock music festival, shot by photographer Burk Uzzle. (Photo: Alamy)

Next week will mark the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, an epochal event in the history of contemporary music and culture. In the five decades since it took place between 15-18 August in 1969, the three-day (it actually spilled into a fourth) festival—which was held on a sprawling farm in Bethel, New York, attended by an estimated 400,000 people, and originally called “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days Of Peace & Music"—has attained near-mythical proportions, fuelled chiefly by the 1970 film Woodstock and its soundtrack, which was released as a triple-LP album the same year.

Two things happened last week to bring Woodstock back in focus. The first, and not totally unexpected, was the cancellation of a 50th anniversary celebratory concert for various reasons, including the reluctance of its main sponsor to go ahead with it. But second, and more important, was the release of a limited-edition, colossal 38-disc box set, Woodstock—Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. The set has 432 tracks, nearly every song (Jimi Hendrix’s estate withheld two tracks that the late guitar genius performed during his set) played at the festival by the 32 acts that took part at Woodstock. It has, in addition, almost every stage announcement, crowd banter, and other ambient aural sounds. And it comes with 88 pages of liner notes by producer Andy Zax that document the research, restoration and myriad facts, many of them hitherto unknown, related to the festival.

For generations of rock music fans, the Woodstock film and its soundtrack have been like the Holy Grail, usually early in their listening lives. For millions across the world, the film’s depiction of rock stars such as The Who, Hendrix, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, as well as the footage of the crowd and the atmosphere, have left indelible memories of Woodstock and a feeling of having been there even though they weren’t. Everyone has a favourite segment from that film. For me, it is the medley in the Richie Havens acoustic set where he segues, toothlessly and with charged passion, from Freedom to Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.

But even if you have watched the film and listened to the accompanying soundtrack, which I assume you have multiple times, nothing will prepare you for the box set that has just dropped. The 38 discs are a totally immersive experience, recreating the festival more authentically than anything before. More than half of the 432 tracks have not been heard previously, including some by artists you may not have realized had performed at Woodstock.

Zax spent 14 years delving into recordings and visual footage of the festival to come up with what is a historic recreation, albeit aurally, of an archive of rock music’s crucially important happening.

The restoration was painstaking. The original tapes, mainly with eight tracks—two of which were reserved for the film’s soundtrack and audience sounds, respectively—were old. The sound was often distorted and badly mixed. In his liner notes and in interviews (including a brilliant 52-minute National Public Radio podcast that is freely available), Zax explains the excruciating effort that has gone into the making of the box set. For example, to get the right soundscape, his fellow workers and he studied visual footage of bands to see where each player was standing on stage so that they could recreate the mixing to get the right overall soundscape.

The box set revealed many surprises for me. I didn’t have a clue about Creedence Clearwater Revival’s (CCR’s) set at Woodstock. In 1969, the band were at their peak of success and at Woodstock they played a long set—11songs, including Born On The Bayou, Bad Moon Rising, Proud Mary and Suzie Q, none of which you see or hear in the film. CCR had lamented that their set at Woodstock was not up to grade; on the new box set, however, it is a powerful 50-minute delight. In the film, you hear one track by the British band The Who (We’re Not Gonna Take It); on the box set, you hear the entire set, all the 24 songs they played. You also hear the little incident where hippie activist Abbie Hoffman walked on to the stage while The Who were playing to exhort the crowd with his political activism. Irked by this, The Who’s lead guitarist Pete Townshend famously walked up to Hoffman, bonked him on the head with his guitar and unceremoniously asked him to “F%^k off".

Elsewhere in the box set, you hear announcements (there are cautioning calls; offers of medical help; lost and found notices; bandmates’ banter, etc.), all recreating the atmosphere of what was inarguably the biggest free music festival. Most of all, however, you get to hear the music as it was—authentic, unfiltered and goose-bump-inducing.

The Grateful Dead, already a cult band then, have always complained that their set was a sonic disaster, partly because of the incompatibility of their equipment with the festival’s. They went unfeatured in the film except for a short clip of frontman Jerry Garcia holding up a joint and saying: “Marijuana, Exhibit A". But the restored version of their set (they did four songs, ending with a mammoth 40-minute version of Turn On Your Love Light) proves that it was far from the debacle the band thought it was.

The box set in its entirety is not cheap. It could set you back nearly $800 (around 55,000). In any case, it is sold out (only 1,969 copies were produced). But if you do lay your hands on it, it could be a priceless archival reminder of what rock music was, is, and will be forever.


Five tracks to bookend your week

1. ‘Woodstock At 50: The Unheard Recordings’ by NPR from

2. ‘America’ by Bert Sommer from ‘Woodstock—Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive’

3. ‘Raga Puriya Dhanashri/Gat In Sawarital’ by Ravi Shankar from ‘Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive’

4. ‘Dark Star’ by The Grateful Dead from ‘Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive’

5. ‘Keep On Chooglin’’ by CCR from ‘Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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