VINYL REVIEW - The perfectly imperfect soundtrack to Woodstock
By Ossie Bladine
August marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Rhino Records is releasing an anniversary box set containing almost every song (three songs missing) performed over three-plus days in 1969 on a dairy farm in upstate New York.
Producer of the upcoming set Andy Zax in a press release described the Woodstock tapes as “the sonic equivalent of heirloom tomatoes — slightly imperfect, but delicious.”
A similar sentiment was made half a century ago by Eric Blackstead, producer of the “Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More,” (1970, Cotillion/Atlantic Records), and the follow-up “Woodstock Two” (1971, Cotillion/Atlantic Records).
“Technical flaws, resulting from equipment failure as well as human overload are inevitable in a venture of this size,” Blackstead wrote for the original album’s back cover. “Just as inevitably, some of them occur in the material included in this album. Consider them like the scars in fine leather, proof of the origin and authenticity of the material in which they are found.”
Blackstead (who was in charge of sound at the festival; and is somewhat a mystery in many ways forgotten in music history) narrowed down 64 reels of 8 track tape -- around 75 hours worth -- into a three record set.
The album includes some of the most iconic performances of the festival, including Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” that leads into “Purple Haze & Instrumental Solo,” Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” a Sly & The Family Stone medley that reaches a crescendo with “I Want To Take You Higher,” and Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
Connecting it to the accompanying documentary film, the soundtrack offers several flavors of the festival, including stage announcements (beware the brown acid) and the two-minute-plus “Crowd Rain Chant.”
The flaws of the album isn’t just with the recording process. Neil Young thought so little of his set with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that he tried to have his name removed from the credits. It was just the group’s second public gig together, leading Stephen Still to famously state, “We were scared shitless.” Still, likely because of their popularity at the time, CSN&Y get 3 songs on the album. Furthermore, some performers included on the album were obviously affected by the wrong mix of influences.
Tied to the film documentary, the setlist also has some questionable inclusions and exclusions. Sha-Na-Na is included with “At The Hop,” while the likes of Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival are absent.
However, both albums are amazing pieces of musical history documented on vinyl that should be part of any record collection. By summer’s end, the list of unreleased Woodstock tracks will be down to three. But even with the treasure chest emptied, it’s great to return to the original compilation of this revolutionary moment of American culture.