We know Woodstock 1969 as the encapsulation of its decade, an explosion of creativity, talent and, of course, peace and love. But a new, exhaustive boxed set transports listeners to the real, unedited Woodstock: every blaring stage announcement about the dangers of brown acid, peal of stage feedback and whir of helicopter blades restored.
Andy Zax, co-producer of Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, believes that Woodstock has been misrepresented for the last 50 years. Just watch the 1970 film Woodstock, in which director Michael Wadleigh took wild liberties with the timeline for drama and flow. He left out lesser-known acts like Mountain, Incredible String Band and Keef Hartley Band and sometimes used studio recordings in lieu of the real deal. Woodstock compilations, too, have largely been mixtape-style samplers, not capturing the experience of the whole festival.
“There’s a lot of sweetening, cutting, overdubbing and substitution of non-Woodstock material without telling anybody what it was,” Zax tells Billboard. “If there’s any kind of indignity or fraud that could have been perpetrated on this material in the last 50 years, it has been perpetrated.”
Now, fans can experience the entire, unedited festival for the first time with Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, a massive new box set out Friday (August 2). Topping out at 38 discs and 432 tracks, Garden contains every existent recorded moment from Woodstock, restored to its proper chronology in audio vérité fashion.
Zax’s holistic approach sheds light on some lesser-known acts who riveted Woodstock but never became household names. Some, like Ten Years After, are still kicking, if quietly. Others, like Bert Sommer and Tim Hardin, weren’t so lucky, burning bright in the 1960s before fading away due to professional and sometimes drug-related issues.
If you’d rather stick to the well-known, classic performances by Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, all are there in their glory on Garden. But its vast array of 267 previously unreleased tracks is just as worth exploring. To that end, here are 10 highlights to check out. And please keep in mind that these YouTube embeds are fan bootlegs rather than the boxed set’s cleaned-up, official audio.
Richie Havens, “Strawberry Fields Forever”
A Greenwich folkie signed by Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, Richie Havens didn’t just warm up the crowd at Woodstock — he pulled out everything he had. While act after act was delayed due to highway congestion, Havens ran out of material and famously improvised “Freedom,” which would become his signature tune. Just as lovely is his loose, sprawling version of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” drawing out John Lennon’s introspective verses into a hypnotic welcome.
Sweetwater, “My Crystal Spider”
Stuck in traffic while Havens tore up the opening slot, Sweetwater eventually arrived via helicopter and proceeded to set the bar high for weird. An eight-piece band that ditched guitar in favor of flute, conga and wraithlike screams, Sweetwater peaked early with an unhinged free-jazz melee about a missing arachnid with mercury eyes. The band is mostly forgotten today, but “My Crystal Spider” must be heard to be believed.
Bert Sommer, “America”
With boyish good looks and a crisp, punchy tenor, Bert Sommer was a commanding performer who struggled in the studio. He had all the ingredients for stardom, but too many chefs in the kitchen led to cluttered, confused albums like 1969’s Inside Bert Sommers. His Woodstock performance is his true legacy; he knocked Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” out of the park, and earned Woodstock’s first standing ovation.
Tim Hardin, “Once-Touched By Flame”
Tim Hardin possessed one of the most exquisite male voices of the 1960s and wrote many of its standards, like “Reason to Believe,” “Misty Roses” and “If I Were a Carpenter.” His first two albums are essential for any folk-rock fan. By 1969, though, his heroin addiction had taken a toll, and it’s obvious in his slurred Woodstock set. Most of the set is simply frustrating, but “Once-Touched by Flame”, from that year’s mea culpa to his wife and son, Suite for Susan Moore and Damion, is simmering and spectral, like he’s caught between the light and the dark.
Joan Baez, “Take Me Back to the Sweet Sunny South”
Despite a bummer 1 a.m. start time, Joan Baez played a sprightly and charming Woodstock set, often in duet with bandmate Jeffrey Shurtleff. Most of her set is already out there; her bell-like version of the 19th century standard “Take Me Back to the Sweet Sunny South” was lost until now. Her banter at the end is wonderful: “I think it’s amazing that you people are still awake,” she says, upbeat, over a smattering of applause.
An arty Boston band mostly scrubbed from the collective memory of Woodstock, Quill could have gone on to be a 1970s prog-rock juggernaut like Yes, Genesis or Emerson, Lake & Palmer if they didn’t break up in a year. The unreleased Woodstock performance of “Driftin’” is their “Toad” or “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” basically a showcase of their instrumental prowess orbiting around an extended drum solo. Despite all their fire, Quill was a commercial nonstarter.
Keef Hartley Band, “She’s Gone”
Hartley was a drummer and bandleader who replaced Ringo Starr in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes when Starr joined the Beatles; his band still registers as a “who?” among Woodstock’s pantheon. No matter: “She’s Gone” is a wah-fueled blues on a boom-bap beat that shows the Keef Hartley Band could briefly could go toe-to-toe with the best; they broke up after their 1972 album Seventy-Second Brave flopped.
The Incredible String Band, “Come With Me”
The Incredible String Band were one of the most otherworldly, lysergic bands of the 1960s, but they came across as a peaceful hippie community rather than an ego-tripping rock band. Coming off the heels of their 1968 masterpiece Wee Tam, the band’s sound was a meandering river compared to Woodstock’s blues-metal storms; the box’s lost version of “Come With Me” is a lovely example of their tranquil vibe.
Canned Heat, “Rollin’ Blues”
From the sound of their studio output, it’s hard to think of Canned Heat as an especially heavy band; one thinks flutes and croons and boogie shuffles. But they were ruthless at Woodstock, with Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson’s choirboy tenor given new grit and the rhythm section bearing down like a steamroller. Check out the previously unheard “Rollin’ Blues” — it crushes any fey ideas of the band under a thousand-pound weight.
Mountain, “Dreams of Milk and Honey”
Any fans of Deep Purple, Blue Cheer or other proto-metal bands would be remiss to not familiarize themselves with Mountain. Though they didn’t make the film or its soundtrack, they rampaged Woodstock like Godzilla and audibly thrilled the crowd. Back to the Garden restores their entire performance in its glory; “Dreams of Milk and Honey,” featuring a long, wailing showcase from lead guitarist Leslie West, is a lost highlight for the lava-lamp set. Mountain have held on into the 2010s, but never touched the garment of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath commercially.
As Back to the Garden shows, Woodstock wasn’t just a victory lap for the decade’s biggest rock bands — it was replete with question marks and what-ifs.