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CD Review: Various Artists Woodstock—40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (Rhino)

I swear, someday they’re going to run out of new Woodstock stuff to put out…but not yet! Just in time for the 40th anniversary of the storied event comes the most ambitious and expansive video and music packages yet.

I swear, someday they’re going to run out of new Woodstock stuff to put out…but not yet! Just in time for the 40th anniversary of the storied event comes the most ambitious and expansive video and music packages yet. If you already own the original Woodstock albums, the greatly expanded 25th anniversary set from 15 years ago, and now you buy Woodstock: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD package, and this six CD-set, and the special “Woodstock Experience” series of CDs that combine the full Woodstock sets of Sly & the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and others with remastered versions of whatever their current album was back in 1969, you’ll almost have the complete three-day festival at your fingertips—but not quite. Maybe they’re saving the whole shebang for the 50th anniversary.

It’s easy to be cynical about the unending exploitation, but here’s the thing: The more the merrier! It all should come out. After all, it was one of the watershed events of the late 20th century. It’s time that Burt Sommer, Sweetwater and Quill got their due. Who? Those are three long-forgotten acts that played at Woodstock but were never represented on previous music packages until now. Not that the world was crying out to hear this stuff, but hey, the approach of this one—like the original live album sets of 39 years ago—is to document the festival on and off stage (all your favorite raps are here, from the infamous “brown acid” to the “no rain” chants, plus many new ones—like the “blue acid” and “green acid” warnings!) and give a broader picture of what went on there. As for those three unknowns, Sweetwater plays meandering hippie folk-rock with a prominent flute (a deal-breaker for me, I’m afraid); folkie Sommer is more to my liking—he’s got a haunting high tenor voice and all three of his songs have a nice vibe to them. In fact, I’m surprised the cheery “Smile” didn’t make it into the movie! Quill is indescribable and borderline unlistenable—their first tune is a sort of quirky, herky-jerky art-rock thing that’s a pretty tough slog; no doubt they’d heard the Mothers at some point.

What’s cool about this box is that it gives us more by many of the top bands, including a number of tracks that have never appeared on previous Woodstock sets. Herewith, 10 cool tracks that are new to Woodstock sets and worth checking out:

1) Ravi Shankar: “Raga Puriya-Dhanashri.” Recording quality is only so-so, but the music is sublime.

2) Joan Baez: “Hickory Wind.” A beautiful version of Gram Parsons’ classic ballad.

3) Canned Heat: “Woodstock Boogie.” At nearly 29 minutes, this is an awful lot of a pretty good thing—everyone gets to solo endlessly—but the good parts are really good. Al Wilson’s slide guitar work is amazing, and second guitarist Harvey Mandel also astonishes in places.

4) Grateful Dead: “Dark Star.” The Dead thought they played horribly at Woodstock, but these 19 minutes of the group’s best-known improvisational vehicle is actually quite powerful and inventive. Too bad it fades out before its conclusion.

5) Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Bad Moon Rising.” A straight but exciting version of their hit. What’s more awesome is the following track, their version of “I Put A Spell on You,” which was on some previous release, I guess, but I didn’t remember it. Wow!

6) The Who: “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” This is the first time the full Woodstock version of this classic anthem from Tommy has appeared on disc.

7) Jefferson Airplane: “The Other Side of This Life.” This fine Fred Neil song was one of the cornerstones of the Airplane’s repertoire in the ’60s and it’s always good, showing off the blend of voices and the power of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady.

8) Joe Cocker: “Feelin’ Alright.” As rough and ragged as Cocker’s epic “With a Little Help from My Friends,” this pumped version of Dave Mason’s tune really gets Joe’s blood goin’, too.

9) Country Joe & the Fish: “Silver and Gold.” As a big fan of CJ&TF, I’m thrilled by the inclusion here of five previously unreleased tracks, of which this is my clear favorite. It’s a beautiful and trippy tune that would appear on their underrated 1970 album CJ Fish.

10) Johnny Winter: “Leland Mississippi Blues.” Time to give this guy a little love—what an amazing blues singer and guitarist!

Needless to say, there’s tons more over the course of six CDs, including previously unissued numbers by folks like Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie, Blood Sweat & Tears, the Incredible String Band, Mountain, the Butterfield Blues Band and Sha Na Na. Very conspicuous in its absence, however: Ten Years After’s “I’m Goin’ Home.” Whassup with that?

Produced for release by Andy Zax, Mason Williams and Cheryl Pawelski. Mixed by Eddie Kramer at LAFX Studios (North Hollywood) and Brian Kehew at OFR Studios (North Hollywood). Additional mixing by Allan Sides at Ocean Way (Hollywood) and Vic Anesini. Mastering: Dave Schultz/Digiprep.

Note: The release date for Woodstock—40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm is August 18, 2009.