Shortly after Woodstock 50 organizers announced the shambolic 50th-anniversary concerts were off after months of setbacks and holdups, Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang summed up the drama in six words: “It’s been a really bizarre trip.”
Over the last six months, Lang, 74, moved like a cat using all nine lives to make Woodstock 50 work. The first plan, to have an all-star concert with the likes of Jay-Z, Dead & Company, the Killers and more in Watkins Glen, New York, some 115 miles (185 kilometers) northwest of the original 1969 concert — was scuttled after the venue backed out. Then the plan was to have it in Vernon, New York, but organizers couldn’t get a permit. Lang finally found a location that would work — all the way in Maryland — but artists started to pull out of the festival and he decided to scrap the event and the anniversary concerts altogether.
“What can I say?” Lang said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “It’s not been surprising that we weren’t able to pull this off.”
If Lang could go back and do things differently, he says, he would have tried to get permits earlier. And he would have worked with a different financial partner.
On April 29, Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live announced it took back about $18 million — the remains of the $49 million it had put in — from the anniversary event, set to take place Aug. 16-18. In its statement, the company also prematurely said that Woodstock 50 had been canceled, and some media outlets reported it as fact. (Lang sued, and a judge ruled Dentsu couldn’t singlehandedly call off the show).
Lang said Dentsu’s decision “really put a halt to our efforts to get a mass gathering permit because all of the government agencies stopped working when they announced that. That nearly lost us about six weeks. That was a crucial six weeks.”
When asked about the official cancellation of Woodstock 50, Dentsu told AP it had no comment.
Lang said Dentsu approached him about coming on board to handle some of the finances, media sales and sponsorships. He said he isn’t sure why the relationship went left.
“I’ve been struggling with that all along. For them to walk away from such a big investment, frankly, it was puzzling,” he said. “I think because the permit was not completed, which I attribute to the fact that Dentsu just dragged its feet in getting our producing team in place and our booking team in place.”
Lang added that when it was leaked to the press that artists booked to perform were not paid on time, Dentsu might have thought he had done it. Lang said all the artists were eventually paid, and he denies leaking the info.
“That really sort of destroyed the trust that we might have had together,” he said. “It was probably one of the agencies who were just doing their job and trying to get their band paid.”
So he got a new financial partner, although the original venue, Watkins Glen International, pulled out, as did production company Superfly. And tickets were still not available for purchase.
Woodstock 50 organizers were denied a permit to hold the festival at the Vernon Downs racetrack and casino in upstate New York; it was filed too late and had problems. Local officials denied permit applications amid concerns about having 65,000 people come to a largely rural area on short notice.
And while Lang hoped to make the event work as a free concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, less than a week after announcing that location he announced that everything was canceled.
“Merriweather was just an attempt to do some good with some of the talent that were available,” he said.
Asked why he hadn’t worked with a touring juggernaut like Live Nation, which puts on hundreds of festivals successfully, Lang said: “We really wanted to keep it independent. That’s part of the character of our brand and our position in the world.”
Melanie, known as the first lady of Woodstock and scheduled to perform at Lang’s 50th celebration, said she noticed things were taking a turn when she couldn’t get in touch with him: “I have a personal line with Michael Lang, but after a while he stopped returning my phone calls.”
“Michael was just not focused on the power of what he had,” she said. “Not just get the biggest act, get the biggest crowd and the biggest people. Basically, he really could have had a festival with alumni and people who seem to, I don’t know, like Pearl Jam. People who have that sensibility.”
Scheduled performers for Woodstock 50 included contemporary artists like Imagine Dragons, Miley Cyrus and Chance the Rapper, along with acts who performed at the original festival, including Santana and John Fogerty.
“The thing lacked heart,” Melanie said. “He didn’t get the support because of that, really and truly.”
“Woodstock’s a living thing and you can’t package a living thing,” she added.
Melanie is one of the performers at WE 2019 Experience — another concert celebrating 50 years of Woodstock across two weekends at Saloon Studios Live in West Jefferson, North Carolina. WE 2019 producer Kenn Moutenot said he removed “Woodstock” from the name of his event after Lang’s lawyers sent him legal papers. Performers include Jefferson Starship, Ten Years After, John Sebastian, Greg Errico of Sly and the Family Stone, Corky Laing of Mountain, and Canned Heat at the shows on Aug. 9-11 and Aug. 16-18.
“I know what went wrong,” Moutenot said when asked about Lang’s festival. “I’ve done 5,000 concerts from Africa to Zimbabwe. I’ve been everywhere in the world … it’s second nature. Now Michael Lang has done five concerts in 50 years. The first one was really unorganized. It just happened to be peaceful.”
Moutenot said the important things are planning and organization. “Money doesn’t do it. … It’s not about, for me, making a dime. It’s about serving the artists. If we broke even, I’d be happy as can be. It’s not about me trying to pay Jay-Z a million dollars or pay Miley Cyrus,” he added.
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, New York, the original location of Woodstock, will also hold a celebration during the anniversary Aug. 15-18, featuring performances by Ringo Starr, Santana and Fogerty.
“I can tell you it’s consumed the last two years of our lives,” Darlene Fedun, CEO of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, said of planning for the Woodstock anniversary, which includes museum exhibits, film screenings and other activities. “Two of the days are pretty well sold out. The others are very, very close.”
Melanie said that despite Woodstock 50′s ending, the legacy will live on.
“Because it was canceled, does that mean that the sentiment, does that mean that peace and love has been canceled? Is that what the message is? Because it’s not,” she said.
Lang said he’s not worried that Woodstock 50′s troubles will hurt the brand’s legacy. Woodstock “still represents exactly the same motivations and important social issues that it reflected back then.”
And he’s still hoping there will be a Woodstock 50 at some point. “Maybe next year,” he said.