Top 10 Woodstock Performances
The grounds were muddy, littered with hippies and smelled like an uninviting combination of reefer and feces. But the Woodstock Music & Art Fair — which took place in Bethel, N.Y., on Aug. 15-18, 1969, featured a ton of great music. More than 30 artists performed over the three-day weekend. Some were established stars, others were just getting their start. And most of them had breakthrough performances at the festival. Even if their sets weren’t all that great, they were elevated by their association with the granddaddy of all music fests. These are the Top 10 Woodstock Performances.
By the time Jefferson Airplane got onstage at around 8AM Sunday, they, as well as much of the audience, were wiped out. The band has never sounded so raw and frayed. Their 100-minute set was made up of familiar hits like ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘White Rabbit,’ but the early-morning performance took a toll on them. Still, they spring to relative life for three glorious minutes during ‘Volunteers,’ finding community and jam-band spirit in the song’s tireless groove.
‘The “Fish” Cheer’ / ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag’
A three-hour downpour following Joe Cocker’s set (see No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Woodstock Performances) delayed the music for a while. When things started back up, the drenched audience was ready for anyone. They got Berkeley-bred psych-rocker Country Joe McDonald and his ragtag band. They weren’t very good, but their set-closing song is one of the festival’s defining moments: a crowd-cheering chant of ‘f—‘ gives way to ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,’ an antiwar cut that fired up the Vietnam-weary Woodstock nation.
‘Going Up the Country’
If you ever needed proof that Canned Heat could be really damn good at what they did when they wanted to be, check out their hour-long Woodstock set from Saturday afternoon. It’s raw, brittle and at times almost out of control, but the band held it together with a superb mix of expert playing and blues-rock exuberance. ‘Going Up the Country’ pounds home the point.
The Who were touring ‘Tommy’ when they played Woodstock at daybreak Sunday morning. So most of their set — which ran for a little more than an hour — consisted of an abbreviated run-through of their rock opera plus a few of their older classics. The highlight comes near the end, as the band tears into a seven-minute version of ‘My Generation’ that erupts in a fiery display of guitar heroics by Pete Townshend.
Neil Young joined his new bandmates onstage for a couple of songs during their Sunday night / Monday morning set. But he didn’t play the acoustic portion and skipped most of the electric set too. Stephen Stills told the audience, “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people. We’re scared s–tless” — which probably explains their wobbly performance. But seeing as they took the stage at 3AM, their defining set-opening take on ”Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ fits the lethargic hour.
‘I Want to Take You Higher’
Unlike several of the artists on our list of the Top 10 Woodstock Performances, Sly & the Family Stone were already stars when they took the stage at 3:30 Sunday morning. But they had recently released their first classic album, ‘Stand!,’ and were at the tightest point in their career. Their early-morning show is a bit sloppy, but the blurry-eyed delivery digs into the dirty, nasty pull of the music. Their entire 50-minute set is pretty remarkable, but the stumbling-toward-ecstasy drive of ‘I Want to Take You Higher’ is the highlight.
Joe Cocker was already generating some buzz for his debut album, which came out four months earlier, when he stepped onto the Woodstock stage. But his 90-minute show super-sized it. Cocker and the Grease Band covered Bob Dylan and Traffic, but they completely floored the Sunday-afternoon crowd with their intense performance of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ (also the title of Cocker’s debut LP), which took the Beatles‘ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ cut to spiritual new heights.
Like several of the artists on our list of the Top 10 Woodstock Performances, very few people knew who Richie Havens was when he walked onstage. But his festival-opening set Friday afternoon, particularly the rousing ‘Freedom’ (which closed his two-hour show), typified the hippie ethos of the period. Rocking an acoustic guitar, with some help from a percussionist and another guitar player, Havens got the audience on its feet and became Woodstock’s first breakout star.
Santana were pretty much unknown when they took the stage for a 45-minute set on Saturday afternoon (their debut album was still a week or so from release). By the time they left, they were one of the festival’s breakout acts. Most of the songs they played were from their self-titled LP, including the instrumental ‘Soul Sacrifice,’ a percussion-fueled dynamo that was about as funky as things got all weekend.
More than any other performance during those three storied days in August 1969, Jimi Hendrix’s festival-closing set at 9AM Monday helped shape the sounds and images that still define Woodstock almost 45 years later. Near the end of his two-hour show, Hendrix pulled out his electrifying version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ complete with guitar pyrotechnics — designed to sound like dropping bombs and machine-gun fire — which blow the mind from thousands of feet away.