Friday, 21 August 2009

News, Views and Music Issue 41 (Top Five): AAA Bands At Woodstock

Woodstock. What a name for us collectors. The moment in time where, more than any bother, we went from being a fringe society of musical monkeynuts collectors to being at the very heart and soul of mainstream life. Three days of peace and music. Three days of proving that there really were this many people who loved feedback-hugging guitars and silly costumes. OK, so I wasn’t actually there – I was minus 13 at the time or I would have gone, no question – but luckily for me and thousands like me somebody had the sense to film it (well, eventually they had the sense – the film part was decided a bit late in the day according to all the documentaries). So, seeing as there were five AAA members who played at woodstock it seemed natural to include them in this week’s top five, the best AAA Woodtsock performances and which of the three DVD packages (Woodstock Director’s Cut, the new 4-disc Collector’s Edition and the old three-part Woodstock Diaries) you can find them on.

1) Crosby, Stills and Nash. You can see ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ in both versions of the film, hear rare remixes of the studio tracks ‘Long Time Gone’ and ‘Wooden Ships’ while the stage is being built at the beginning of the film and see ‘Blackbird’ on ‘Woodstock Diaries’.  Famously, Neil Young hated Woodstock and everything to do with it and refused to appear in the film so what we get here is a compromise – two songs from CSN acoustic and a hapless announcement that ends in mid-sentence (‘Crosby, Stills, Nash...’). The only way late-comers would know about Neil’s performance is if they heard the soundtrack album – and the storming version of the unreleased ‘Sea Of Madness’ on Volume One doesn’t actually come from Woodstock. So far, so confusing. What is made absolutely clear at the start of the trio’s performance is that this is the band’s second-ever gig – and that’s no exaggeration either. Given that fact, it’s understandable that CSN’s performance is as ragged and raw as they ever were and its a crying shame that only Stills gets an original song recorded for posterity. But ‘Suite:Judy Blues’ is still magic, the trio’s harmonies are so good and the song so epic and unlike anything else played at the festival that it’s easy to see why the newspaper’s that week practically all proclaimed that Woodstock was ‘CSN’s festival’. If only the band would release more material we might be able to understand why even more. Overall rating: 7/10.

2) Grateful Dead. You can see a 35-minute (yes that’s not a mis-print!) version of ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ and a more compact ‘Mama Tried’ on the 4-disc collector’s edition DVD of Woodstock. (Note – the whole of the Dead’s Woodstock appearance came out as part of their hundred-fold fan re-issue series, but I couldn’t find it while researching!) By their own admission, the Dead hate playing big crowds and felt that this set and their all-but-forgotten one at Monterey were among the worst they ever played. Sadly, given what DVD footage we have, they were right: the Dead merely amble their way through ‘Love Light’ at half speed and aren’t helped by the politically-minded announcer who seems to have decided the Dead are his back-up band, much to Pigpen’s chagrin. ‘Mama Tried’ is much better, up to ‘Skulls and Roses’ standards in fact, but this Merle Haggard cover about a guilt-ridden gangster who wants to do good is a strange choice to sing to a crowd of rebels and it would have been far better to have had a Dead original in the set to savour. Garcia doesn’t get to sing either, which is a pity, although Pigpen and particularly Bob Weir do their best to make up for it. Overall rating: 3/10.

3) Jefferson Airplane. You can see ‘Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon’ and ‘Uncle Sam Blues’ on the director’s cut of the film, ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’ on ‘Woodtsock Diaries’ and ‘3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds’ and ‘Volunteers’ on ‘The Collector’s Edition’. We’ve had six songs from the Airplane’s Woodstock appearance released in the past 15 years and they’ve all been gems. The band were in a strange place in 1969, with the band reduced to appearing together on record as little as possible and left with their old 1967 material to prop up their set rather than new songs. But you can’t tell that by their 1969 set – ‘Won’t You Try’ is revelatory, merging from tentative and ragged to soaringly united as Kantner, Slick and Balin forge their own way through the song before meeting at the end. ‘Uncle Sam’s Blues’ is probably the only song played at Woodtsock that was never recorded or released on anything else – it’s not one of Jorma Kaukanen’s best, but its anti-Vietnam parable is a perfect for the love-in crowd and its title line ‘Uncle Sam ain’t no woman but he sure can take your man’ is one of the best of the Jefferson’s career. ‘Somebody To Love’ is nicely updated for the 1969 crowds and has a jazzy opening that goes in hundreds of directions before finding the familiar riff. ‘Rabbit’ ‘3/5s’ and a striding ‘Volunteers’ are closer to the records, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Overall rating: 9/10.    

4) Janis Joplin. You can see the superb ‘Work Me, Lord’ on the director’s cut of the film (strangely it wasn’t in the original, given that it might well be the highlight of the whole bang lot for me) and the evergreen ‘Ball and Chain’ plus ‘Try’ on ‘Woodstock Diaries. (Note – the Woodstock version of ‘Ball and Chain’ plus the otherwise unissued ‘Piece Of MY Heart’ are both available on the CD re-issue of Janis’ ‘I Got Dem Ole Kozmik Blues Again Mama’). Janis played her set with the under-rated Kozmik Blues Band and was mainly plugging her ‘Kozmik Blues’ album from that year – and a shock it must have been at the time, too, for the audience was more used to seeing Janis with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Not everything in Janis’ spirited set quite comes off – with ‘Work Me, Lord’ the highlight by a long margin – but even though the horns sound out of place the vocals were not and Janis seemed to be having fun. Alas she died in between the film being recorded and screened, in early 1970 (so it’s doubly weird that she wasn’t in it until the 1990s director’s cut came out) and its one of the last performances of her we have (although not the last – there are a couple of Dick Cavett Show appearances after this). Overall rating: 7/10, mainly for ‘Work Me, Lord’.

5) The Who. You can see ‘See Me, Feel Me’ and ‘Summertime Blues’ in both versions of the film, plus ‘My Generation’ on ‘Woodstock Diaries’, ‘The Collector’s Edition’ and The Who’s own ‘Maximum R and B’ DVD, plus ‘Sparks’ and the complete unedited ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ on ‘The Collector’s Edition’. The Who were on cracking form in August 1969 and enjoying the new life that their recent ‘Tommy’ had given the band. In fact, so on form that it’s hard to remember that very few Americans in the audience wqould have known who The Who were – they never really broke that big in the USA until their smashing (in both senses of the word) Monterey appearance in 1967 and 1968 had been an awful year for them sales-wise in just about every country (‘Magic Bus’ was their biggest hit – and that only reached #32). This is The Who reclaiming their legacy, with Daltrey fresh from his new hairdo (letting it grow naturally long and curly instead of treating it with hair gel as all good mods were meant to do) and going bare-chested for almost the first time, Townshend and Moon at their over-the-top best and Entwistle keeping the whole thing together and barely blinking at the mania going on around him. The moment everybody talks about is the un-choreographed end to the set where the sun comes up during ‘See Me Feel Me’, the end of ‘Tommy’. It’s pretty stunning in the film, even if the music’s got a bit disjointed by then (the band are much tighter on the other songs in the set), but the musical highlight is ‘Sparks’, the death-defying tightrope walk of skill, which makes you wonder a) where the tapes of the song’s other half – Amazing Journey – is and b) why Warner Brothers waited 40 years to release it. Overall rating: 8/10.

Well, that’s it from us for another week – we’ll see you on August 28th for our 1st birthday issue!

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