Fifty years ago this summer, more than 400,000 fans convened at Max Yasgur’s farm for a music festival that would come to define not only the era, but the entire ethos of music festivals to come. With every passing decade, the magic of Woodstock has been celebrated and, indeed, re-marketed to new generations of music fans. The ’90s saw two new Woodstock-branded festivals and an array of 25th anniversary products, including a compilation called Woodstock Diary and a 4-CD box set. To mark the festival’s 40th anniversary in 2009, yet another box was compiled, this time with six discs. Along the way, labels released standalone collections of individual artists’ performances and the festival became a brand unto itself. Here we are, half a century on, and Rhino has released a new, chronologically sequenced 10-CD collection called Woodstock – Back To the Garden: The 50th Anniversary Experience. When news broke of yet another collection, the usual questions arose: “How much Woodstock is too much Woodstock?” “What could this box bring that the others didn’t?” Well, the answer is simple.
With better technology, new research, and a team of curators and audio wizards dedicated to presenting the festival as it was, Back To the Garden is the most comprehensive view yet of the iconic festival. Previous anniversary collections had left out artists entirely (in many cases due to a tangled web of rights restrictions), effectively erasing them from public perception of the festival. That issue is rectified here, as every artist who took the stage that weekend is present somewhere on the 10-CD, 162-track, 13-hour-long set. (And for those with deeper pockets, the entire weekend will be released on the mammoth 38-CD/1-Blu-ray “Definitive Archive” version on August 9.) Compilation producers Andy Zax and Steve Woolard and their team of audio specialists have also made wise sonic decisions that remain more faithful to what’s really on the tapes than any Woodstock collection has before. In short, Back To the Garden brings listeners closer than ever before to being there at Yasgur’s Farm – minus the mud, the tent, and the traffic!
See, despite all the Woodstock-branded releases we’ve seen in the past fifty years, the general perception of the event is mostly based on the mythology that followed the concerts, shaped by the editing choices of director Michael Wadleigh’s documentary film crew and the often head-scratching audio decisions made for the original Woodstock soundtracks and other tie-in albums (to say nothing of the erroneous accounts that performers would tell in interviews for decades to come). While some box sets have attempted to set the record straight, a number of issues have remained, until now.
The original Woodstock soundtracks on Cotillion – Woodstock in 1970 and Woodstock Two in 1971 – sold in droves. Each sought to rekindle the feeling of being at the event, but tape research issues, faulty recording practices, and questionable curatorial decisions meant that the collections weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Fake applause was flown in, tracks were edited and overdubbed, and the compilers even used recordings that weren’t from Woodstock! Ravi Shankar also released what was purported to be a live album from the festival but – that’s right – they were all studio recordings dubbed over with canned applause and sold to an unsuspecting public.
As Woodstock’s anniversaries were celebrated over the years, and historians and compilation producers sought to present a more accurate view of the historic weekend, listeners have been treated to better collections. But the four-disc, 25th anniversary box set still relied heavily on Frankenstein’d creations, overdubbed additions, and non-Woodstock performances. The 6-CD, 40th anniversary collection from 2009 presented a more faithful overview of the three days and set the record straight with regard to who performed what and when, but some issues remained. Licensing frustrations meant that producer Andy Zax’s original vision for the set – to release every recording from the entire weekend – wasn’t to be. Some artists weren’t represented at all, despite the existence of their Woodstock recordings. The new Back To the Garden: The 50th Anniversary Experience adds some 7 hours more material than was present on the 40th anniversary set, and all the tracks sound better than ever before.
In 2009, technology hadn’t caught up to what Zax and the team wanted to do, which was to deliver audio that was clean, sensibly mixed, immediate, and a proper representation of what really happened. Part of that challenge lied in how to address the sound quality of the tapes. In 1994, noise reduction software promised miracles, but it was in its infancy and was often used too liberally, causing actual detriment to the sound of the recordings. Significant advancements in audio clean-up tools in the last decade have allowed engineers to be exponentially more precise in their work, and the team involved on Back To the Garden took extra care to be as judicious with the technology as possible.
Finally, mixing tools that were unthinkable even a few years ago have now revolutionized the world of reissues. James Clarke at Abbey Road has developed a new “de-mixing” software process that has the capability to precisely extract the individual instruments from a mono source. The game-changing software allowed Zax and audio wizard Brian Kehew to present rich and beautiful stereo mixes of tapes that were originally captured in mono. The results are on full display on Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Manj Kmahaj,” which, yes, was recorded at the actual Woodstock Festival!
The commitment to authenticity is what has guided the team’s every move for each iteration of the Back To the Garden 50th anniversary sets. For example, the instrument placement in Brian Kehew’s new stereo mixes is based off extensive photo research that determined where members were situated onstage. The music is largely sourced from the existing multitrack masters, and the team has chosen to restore previously edited performances to their original, full-length glory.
The compilers also elected to leave in several fascinating stage announcements from John Morris and Chip Monck, as well as a lesser-known political speech from Abbie Hoffman before the famous Pete Townshend confrontation, plus banter, audience reactions, and other cinema verité elements caught by the all-important audience microphone. Check out the rain sequence at the end of Joe Cocker’s set. The beautifully constructed four-minute piece drops the listener right into the audience as a rainstorm engulfs the crowd. Between the sounds of the wind and rain, we hear panicked pleas from the MCs, audience members urging people off the teetering towers, Barry Melton keeping folks optimistic with the “No Rain” chant, stagehands covering equipment and cutting the power, and finally, the sound of a particularly squeaky-voiced spectator hollering out: “Hey, Joe Cocker! Isn’t the rain beautiful? Joe?!”
As a result of all the realism, listeners who are used to older, doctored-up Woodstock collections may wonder what happened to that extra reverb, the flown-in applause, the beefed-up “Fish Cheer,” or any number of studio effects that marred the presentation of the legendary recordings. The team’s resolve to strip away those unnecessary excesses – while keeping the occasional feedback and hums that really happened – has paid off, making Back To the Garden an indispensable and significant collection.
In some cases, the team had to utilize existing mixes. Melanie’s four songs are sourced from a mono soundboard tape, Richie Havens’ and Mountain’s sets come from vintage mixes, and the Jimi Hendrix material was prepared by Eddie Kramer for Experience Hendrix. Despite this handful of disparate sources, the sonic identity of Back To the Garden remains consistent throughout all 10 CDs. The set has been impeccably mastered by Dave Schulz, who chose to – you guessed it – remain faithful to the sound of the reels by avoiding peak limiting and only using compression when absolutely necessary. According to a post from Zax on a popular music forum, the team’s approach to mixing and mastering was “reparative and restorative when necessary, and try-to-leave-it-the-hell-alone the rest of the time.” For the first time, the goal has been to let the music of Woodstock speak for itself, and the results are revelatory – especially when it comes to those legendary performances that are forever a part of Woodstock’s mythology.
“Hello! Can you hear?” So asks Richie Havens before launching into his now-iconic opening set that brought him to the mainstream. Havens treated the audience to a medley of Jerry Merrick’s “From the Prison” and the peace-and-love anthem “Get Together,” alongside hits and improvisations. With increased fidelity and an engaging stereo mix, listeners can indeed hear all nuances of his performance. Even the most familiar songs, like “Handsome Johnny” and “Freedom,” remain fresh here.
But even more enjoyable are the tracks from lesser-known acts, like the energetic pop-rock sound of Sweetwater, the anti-establishment zaniness of Quill, and the folksy Bert Sommer. Sweetwater followed Richie Havens with a set of folk-rock that’s been largely forgotten to time. In fact, the first time they were included on a Woodstock collection was in 2009. The two cuts from that box set – energetic folk-rockers “Look Out” and “Two Worlds” – are repeated here, and supplemented with a brief and delicate, “Ruby Tuesday”-like slice of baroque pop called “Day Song.” Together, they show the range of a group that was long written out of the Woodstock mythology. In the same vein comes Sommer, whose lilting opener “Jennifer” and breathtaking, previously unreleased rendition of Paul Simon’s “America” are two gems from the collection.
Fantastic performances are at a surplus here, but some of the most noteworthy are Arlo Guthrie’s “Coming Into Los Angeles”; Mountain’s “Theme for an Imaginary Western”; and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Wooden Ships” and “Sea of Madness.” These tracks appeared on the original soundtrack albums, but the performances were not from Woodstock. Arlo’s iconic scene in the film incorporated audio from a performance at the Troubadour in L.A. from four months after the festival, while the CSNY came from the Fillmore East in September 1969 and Mountain from an unknown show. On the actual multi-track tape of Woodstock, Guthrie’s vocal mic feed is absent until the second verse. To remedy this, Kehew and company blended the mono PA mix with the stereo multi-tracks, yielding a convincing result that’s still 100% Woodstock.
Along similar lines, Ten Years After’s performance was subjected to technical issues so their powerful “I’m Going Home” received drum overdubs from Larry Bunker (not Corky Laing, as is often reported) to beef up Ric Lee’s performance for the soundtrack. Back To the Garden presents the track overdub-free, and it’s still just as incendiary.
Indeed, the most famous Woodstock performances – Sly and the Family Stone’s medley, CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and The Who’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me” medley among them – are present here in their definitive versions. But it’s the wealth of previously unreleased material that makes this set a must. For fans of folk, there’s Richie Havens laid-back, half-hummed “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Tim Hardin’s impassioned, jazz-inflected “Misty Roses” and “Reason To Believe,” Country Joe’s ode to a lovely lady called “Janis,” Joan Baez’s country-rock interpretations of “Last Thing on My Mind” and “I Shall Be Released,” and The Incredible String Band’s non-album track, “Gather ‘Round.” Horn rock mavens will savor the selections here from Blood, Sweat & Tears’ set, including the hits “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel,” both sounding better than ever thanks to advancement in polyphonic tuning technology.
Previously unheard highlights include Grateful Dead’s take on Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Canned Heat’s slow-building, 11-minute jam on “On the Road Again,” The Who’s rollicking versions of “I Can’t Explain” and “Shakin’ All Over,” alongside a lengthy set-closing jam on “My Generation” that teases their not-yet-completed “Naked Eye.” Keef Hartley Band delivers the jazz-rock epic “Half-Breed Medley,” while The Band is represented by four unheard tracks: “Chest Fever,” “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and “I Shall Be Released.” In all, there are 35 tracks making their CD debut on Back To the Garden. Each offers a new glimpse into an event that we thought we knew.
Accompanying all the music is a beautiful hardbound book designed by Masaki Koike that houses the discs and liner notes. It’s illustrated with rare photos from official festival photographer Henry Diltz, memoribilia, press clippings, and tape box images. Inside, compilation producer Andy Zax details his mission for the set and the efforts that the team made to deliver such an all-encompassing set. Jesse Jarnow also contributes an essay detailing how the festival unfolded, placing the reader at the festival as expertly as Zax and Co. do with the music. It’s all wrapped together with a burlap strap, a key design component that’s meant to fray over time, evoking that mission to “Get ourselves back to the garden.”
Woodstock – Back To the Garden: The 50th Anniversary Experience accomplishes everything that a great historical box set should. It’s meticulously researched, thoughtfully and faithfully presented and, most importantly, thoroughly enjoyable all the way through. The team involved in this labor of love has finally given fans a comprehensive look at the Woodstock Festival as it actually was, in a collection that’s aurally and visually stunning. This box set is one for the ages – as both a beautiful sonic journey and significant document of our cultural history – and it’s one that belongs in every music fan’s home.
NB: If you’re craving more Woodstock after purchasing, you can also look for Woodstock Three and Woodstock Four, two new vinyl compilations that include further highlights from the upcoming mega-box, including a few that weren’t present on this 10-CD set. The 38-CD/1-Blu-ray Back to the Garden: The Definitive Woodstock Archive mega-box ships August 9.