Much has been written and mythologized about Woodstock that it often seems beside the point that any music was actually performed. It’s not so much a concert as it is a watershed moment in modern history and popular culture, one defined more by the idea of the event than the actual performances themselves. Now, 50 years on, we’re afforded the chance to fully reevaluate the performances that anchored the landmark Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Hearing what was taking place on stage is even better than having been there – from a musical appreciation standpoint, that is – given the notoriously shoddy sound that was made all the more so by the countless weather delays, festival oversights, drugged-out performers and myriad other issues associated with an outdoor event. The 10-disc Woodstock – Back to the Garden – 50th Anniversary Experience offers, while not a complete picture, a nonetheless exhaustively curated look back at the music performed during that long weekend back in August of 1969.

The main draw of Back to the Garden will be the fact that, for the first time, recordings from every artist who performed at the festival will be represented across the collection’s 162 tracks and 10 discs. By no means the complete picture of the festival, most of the lesser acts receive rather short shrift in terms of actual representation, while all of the bigger names naturally receive a larger bulk of time – albeit still somewhat abridged. Where several of the larger name groups’ performances were contractually forbidden from being filmed for the Woodstock concert film (The Band, CCR and the Grateful Dead to name a few), Back to the Garden allows fans of the film a chance to hear what they missed out on seeing. While not a complete audio document of their performances, The Band, CCR, the Dead, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the Incredible String Band are all well represented here, their performances obviously lacking the visual component, but losing none of the overall impact.

As with any major music festival, it is the headliners who are remembered for having performed, the also-rans of the day being relegated to little more than footnote status. Because of this, when we think of Woodstock we tend to think of the bigger names who made appearances: Jimi Hendrix; The Who; Janis Joplin; Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young); etc. Virtually forgotten are groups like Sweetwater, who held the second slot on day one after Richie Havens’ legendary festival-opening performance, or Quill, who opened the iconic second night. Finally being given their due, these third and fourth tier acts can be enjoyed alongside their far more well-known and revered peers, making Back to the Garden not only the finest aural document of the event, but also the most enjoyable in terms of sheer variety and supplementation of the overly-familiar.

Of course, this also means that, unfortunately, there’s the usual spate of insufferable hippie-dippy bullshit (Bert Sommer is particularly forgettable with tunes like “Jennifer” and a cringe-worthy read of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” while Melanie threatens to float away on an annoyingly twee breeze), but also just as many pleasant surprises. Chiefly among the latter, Sweetwater’s particularly incendiary set which, heard within its original context, sounds light years ahead of its time, bordering more on a post-punk approach than the starry-eyed hippie idealism surrounding them. And then there are the moments that seem so incongruous with the idea of Woodstock that they need to be heard to be believed. For example, during his rather lackluster performance, Tim Hardin finds a moment to bitch about the exponentially expanding sea of humanity not listening to his coffee-house musings.

Most entertaining are the announcements from the stage given by either John Morris or Chip Monck. The former rather unintentionally adds an air of authority to the myriad person-to-person communiques delivered over the festival system in the pre-cell phone era. These recordings add more to the overall ambience of the festival and time period than many of the more forgettable performances (while Ravi Shankar is no doubt a genius on his instrument, the nearly 18-minute “Raga Manj Kmahaj” overstays its welcome by a good 14 minutes or so, particularly following Hardin’s interminably dull performance). Morris’ explanation of the festival becoming a “free festival” is particularly moving, his clear-eyed plea to all in attendance to honor and respect one another wholly transcending the peace-and-love platitudes to become something far more profound.

One of the most culturally significant performances, that of Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner,” has all but lost its original impact thanks to years of pop cultural misappropriation. Having been so thoroughly co-opted by popular culture, its original radical reading is forever lost, the context no longer there for modern listeners to appreciate the transcendent nature of the moment. At the time, however, it was a radical gesture coming at the end of a period of unprecedented change and violence both political and social. Hendrix essentially set to recast his nation’s national anthem within a more sonically appropriate context, exploring the horror, frustration and feelings of utter futility that the end of the 1960s had brought about. Hearing it within its proper context does little to correct the years of having the edges worn smooth, but it does help illustrate just how far ahead of his peers he truly was, particularly coming, as he does, immediately after Sha Na Na’s anachronistic 1950s pastiche.

Half a century on, Woodstock still looms large in the popular music landscape in terms of what it represented to an entire generation of listeners and what it managed to accomplish (and lose in terms of being a complete and total financial disaster). Hearing each and every performer all together for the first time is a thrill, the facts finally being fully extricated from the fiction: the Dead didn’t sound nearly as bad as has long been claimed due to the weather and extreme drug intake; Pete Townshend having a go at Abbie Hoffman (“Fuck off! Get off my fucking stage!”) is just as good as you’d imagine; and Grace Slick sounds as totally out of her mind as has long been rumored. In a year sure to be full of Woodstock think pieces and dewy-eyed nostalgia, it’s best to simply go back to the source (back to the garden, if you will) and hear it for yourself as it was, warts and all, and appreciate it within the context of itself. You can wax philosophical about it all you want, but at the end of the day it was simply a music festival with a pretty great lineup.

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