Woodstock at 50: The 12 Best Performances From the 1969 Festival

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Carlos Santana (right) and David Brown of the band Santana perform at Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, New York on Aug. 16, 1969.

When we think about the first Woodstock, we think about the hippies. The mud. The brown acid. The helicopters. The chaos that became a utopia and a definitive statement for the ideals of '60s counterculture.

And, oh yeah, the music.

The artists -- three days of 'em -- were, of course, the primary draw to the festival, and Woodstock boasted a lineup of formidable names in 1969. Through the Academy Award-winning 1970 documentary and an array of music releases -- both individual titles and multi-disc compilations, including this year's Woodstock Back to the Garden -- 50th Anniversary Experience -- we've come to know their sets well, which has kept a little whiff of The Garden fresh during the ensuing 50 years.

Amidst turbulent conditions there were amazing, historic performances, all the way through the impromptu Monday morning music. As Woodstock approaches its official 50th on Aug. 15, these are our picks for the dozen most iconic sets on Yasgur's farm.

12. Mountain

Talk about a set-up. The quartet had established local notoriety but its debut album wouldn't be Climbing! for another seven months. But Leslie West staked a claim as one of the best guitarists in Woodstock's august ranks, raising Mountain's stock exponentially.

11. Ten Years After

Though "Going Home" is what lives on in split-screen glory in the film, the British blues-rock troupe played five other songs during an eclectic hour on stage, showing its ensemble strength beyond Alvin Lee's lightning-fingered guitar heroics.

10. Creedence Clearwater Revival

In the midst of a hit-filled three-album run, CCR was able to load its set up with favorites such as "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising" and "Green River." "Keep on Chooglin'" and "Suzie Q," meanwhile, showed that the quartet could jam with plenty of fire, too.

9. Sha Na Na

What exactly were a bunch of Columbia University students, dressed up like '50s greasers while playing Danny and the Juniors, doing at Woodstock? Entertaining those that remained into Monday morning, of course, with enough crazy choreography to make any festival-goer surmise that those hand-out sandwiches may well have been dosed.

8. Richie Havens

The first man on, somewhat reluctantly, got Woodstock started with a furious, passionate performance whose highlights -- "Handsome Johnny," covers of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Hey Jude" -- and medley of "Freedom" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" established that something special was about to go down in Bethel, NY.

7. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

The quartet's second show suffered a bit for the late hour (3:30 a.m. Monday) and its own nervousness ("We're scared shitless," Stephen Stills told the crowd), but the blend of acoustic and electric sets was a key part of launching a supergroup that would go on to great, and mythological, heights.

6. Country Joe McDonald

The first of McDonald's two performances at Woodstock helped him test the waters for a solo career, without the Fish. He certainly didn't squander the opportunity, making indelible history with his "Fish Cheer" ("Gimme an F!...!"), while the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" is a fixture for any Woodstock playlist.

5. Joe Cocker

Not many knew who the British singer was when he and his Grease Band opened Sunday’s portion of the festival. By the time Cocker finished with his indelible, spasmodic take on the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," no one could forget him.

4. The Who

Tommy in its near-entirety, for a start. Pete Townshend whacking Abbie Hoffman off the stage with his guitar for a second. You couldn't ask for a more eventful performance, with bookend rarities ("Heaven and Hell," "Naked Eye") that sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

3. Jimi Hendrix

With a new and under-rehearsed band, Hendrix's closing set was admittedly shambolic. But if anyone could pull something worthwhile out of such circumstances, it was Hendrix. And turning "The Star-Spangled Banner" into a psychedelic opus ensured that it would be legendary, regardless of any other shortcomings.

2. Sly & the Family Stone

The rainbow coalition group from San Francisco wanted to take Woodstock higher, and it did with a nine-song, wee-hours performance that brought Woodstock to life as assuredly as any good DJ does at a late-night rave in current times.

1. Santana

The element of surprise gave this other Bay Area troupe an edge on Saturday afternoon. Some knew Carlos Santana from The Live Adventures of Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper, but the release of his own band's debut album was still a couple of weeks off. But the sextet killed it, putting some rocket fuel into a career that's still paying dividends 50 years later. 

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