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Various Artists - Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive Music Album Reviews

Fifty years after the three-day concert made rock’n’roll history, a gargantuan, 38-disc set attempts to tell the full story of the event for the very first time.

The mythological status of 1969’s Woodstock Music and Arts Festival can sometimes feel overpowering. The festival is the ultimate expression of the 1960s. Moments from the three-day concert have crystallized as symbols of the era, with details like Richie Havens’ acoustic prayer for freedom, Roger Daltrey’s fringed leather vest, or Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” held up as sacred countercultural relics.

Partly to blame are both Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary film and the accompanying triple-LP soundtrack, which multiple generations of fans encountered through older relatives or at midnight showings at revival houses. The truth about what happened on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York is vastly more interesting than the myth, but for years, there was no counter-argument available.

With the festival’s 50th anniversary, producers Andy Zax and Brian Kehew made the case that this was the time to set the record straight and get it right. As Zax writes in the liner notes, “If we’re still thinking and arguing and opining about the meaning of Woodstock after half a century, shouldn’t we at least have a set of baseline facts about what happened there?” The result is the limited edition 38-CD set Woodstock - Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. (Several abridged versions—10xCD, 3xCD and 5xLP sets—were released in June.)

Over the course of the set’s 432 tracks, producers Zax and Kehew unveil an exhaustive, end-to-end reconstruction of the festival in precise chronological order, the result of 10 years of careful research, audio reconstruction, and debunked myths, as Zax relates in the 88-page liner notes. But the true revelation of this release is simply how great the newly restored recordings sound. Zax and Kehew approached the mixing by referring to photographic documentation, which allowed them to situate the performers within the mix based on where they were standing onstage. Comparing the original soundtrack to the 2019 product is like switching from black and white to Technicolor: The compression and flatness that choked the life out of the original release is gone. The result is a sonically welcoming experience that is as immersive as you could want; it is a joy to listen to.

A glance at the complete lineup drives home the fact that there was an abundance of talent onstage at Woodstock. The stretch from late Saturday night into early Sunday morning stands out in particular, beginning with Creedence Clearwater Revival at 12:30 a.m., then Janis Joplin (who took the stage to an enormous roar at 2 a.m.), Sly and the Family Stone, and the Who, finishing as dawn broke purple behind the stage, with Jefferson Airplane (who were on the orange acid, as opposed to the brown acid featured in the now-infamous warning over the PA), providing what lead singer Grace Slick proclaimed “morning maniac music!” at 8 a.m. The experience of hearing these sets back to back is extraordinary. As ’60s rock chronicler Ellen Sander says in the liner notes, “Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more fabulous, it did. It was like being in the heartbeat of a mythic beast.”

Almost all the artists involved allowed their full, actual sets to be included this time around. (The lone exception was Jimi Hendrix: The owners of his catalog held back two songs from his set.) John Fogerty complained for decades about Creedence following the Dead, but their set turns out to have been 50 minutes of high-octane choogle, including three recent Top Ten singles. The Band’s set, originally rejected by the group because “it wasn’t totally up to our standard,” proves to be delicate, gorgeous, and heart-wrenchingly evocative. Crosby Stills & Nash substituted tracks from a later Fillmore East performance on the first Woodstock album, but their set at the festival was better, transmitting an ebullience and energy that feels more like they’re singing together for the first time in Joni Mitchell’s house than onstage in front of half a million people; both “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone” have an electric depth that still resonates 50 years later. And the Dead’s longtime assertion that they were a disaster is greatly exaggerated, even if 40 minutes of “Turn on Your Lovelight” is a little much, even for Deadheads.

Also restored and contextualized in this release are all the legendary stage announcements from production team members John Morris and Chip Monck—each one of which, writes Zax, might serve as “the start of a miniature novel”: Louis Price is summoned with a number to call in Washington, D.C.; Wheat Germ is told that the bag containing his medicine is in the possession of Holly; Edward Shea needs to meet Barbara at the car right away. Special mention goes to the idiots who climbed the lighting scaffolding and spent the festival being admonished twice an hour by an increasingly annoyed-sounding Monck. The mundanity and humanity of these details draw you in, and it’s a much more believable scenario than the Wadleigh documentary with its triple-split-screens and jump cuts. Ultimately, the announcements are the mechanism that places the attendees within the story. As the Who’s Roger Daltrey astutely (and affectionately) notes, “The stars of Woodstock were the audience.”

The one negative of this project is its inaccessibility. Rhino only manufactured 1,969 box sets; each one retails at $799.98, and there are no plans to make the 38-disc version available on streaming services. For those with smaller budgets, the 10xCD version is still worthwhile, as it’s the first Woodstock compilation to feature every artist that appeared at the festival, and was assembled with the same intent of conveying the experience of the three days. What the 38-disc box set succeeds at is not just righting the record, or presenting a mammoth set of live songs, but in creating an environment that effectively transports the listener to that muddy pasture in upstate New York. In the spirit of the original event, that experience should be extended as widely as Woodstock’s influence.

View my Flipboard Magazine.

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