"It was beautiful,” the late great Richie Havens said years after his Woodstock opening set that established a high bar for all the musicians who followed. Havens had been literally pushed onto the stage much earlier than his scheduled set time to settle the rowdy crowd – none of his backing musicians had even arrived yet. The outsider folk singer-songwriter delivered an unforgettable solo acoustic set that included “The Minstrel from Gault,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Hey Jude.”
Following four or five encores, Havens said he had no more songs to give the music-hungry crowd. That’s when he composed “Freedom,” which may be his most beloved tune ever, on the spot and completely from scratch. It was one of Woodstock’s many magical moments.
Not to be confused with Michael Wadleigh’s almost four-hour 1970 documentary, Woodstock, Barak Goodman’s (Oklahoma City) and co-director Jamila Ephron’s (Far from the Tree) 2019 documentary Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation delivers a comprehensive education behind the cultural event told from the perspective of attendees, the event’s founders (Woodstock co-founders John Roberts and Joel Makower, who borrowed money from the Polident fortune) and Bethel, New York residents of the time. Made in conjunction with PBS, the film hit theaters in time to commemorate the event’s 50th anniversary.
At one point, Max Yasgur, who is described as a conservative dairy farmer, is invited on stage to address the large crowd of concert goers spread out like a sea of ants before him. “I guess 500,000 young people can get together for fun and music,” he said. “And nothing but fun and music.” Yasgur felt that Woodstock epitomized the kind of freedom he believed in, which many kids were drafted and supposedly dying to protect in Vietnam.
As a business venture, it was apparent that Woodstock had died about a week before the first hippies pitched tents on the grounds – there was no money or materials left to build a complete gate around the perimeter. But after the money guys accepted that fate, it became a cultural movement that lives on in the memories of the attendees and the musicians who were a part of it.
Here are 10 of the many magical musical moments that helped to define one of the mothers of all music gatherings.
1. Joe Cocker’s rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is probably even more well-known than The Beatles’ original. Cocker’s spastic movements and perpetual faucet of sweat elevates the version higher through a soulful cloud of R&B rasp and emotion.
2. Jimi Hendrix’s morning set that closed the event blew minds and continues to blow minds. The 19-song set features “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Red House” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” But the guitar king’s re-creation of the “Star Spangled Banner” will always run through the veins of rock and roll history as an amazing piece of art.
3. Richie Havens’ set-ending performance of his then-new tune “Freedom.” It was a moment that many described as knowing they were witnessing something special, groundbreaking and definitive of the entire event.
4. Many attendees admitted that they had no idea who Carlos Santana was when he came on stage. Following a percussion-heavy tribal version of “Soul Sacrifice,” Santana had instantly obtained a half-million mesmerized fans.
5. “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?/ Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam.” Before Country Joe and the Fish went into their anti-war classic “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” they had a half-million folks chanting “F-U-C-K” against the Vietnam War and all the senseless killing.
6. Electric blues guitar extraordinaire Alvin Lee of Ten Years After delivered mind-altering riffage during the outfit’s closer, “I’m Going Home.”
7. Sly and the Family Stone’s 3:30am soul-shaking, electrifying set sounded like it took place at prime time. The groove and the funk that came through on hits like “Stand!” and “You Can Make It If You Try” and “Everyday People” had everyone shaking booties until sunrise.
8. It was Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first time ever performing for a live audience together. Midway through the set, which opened with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Neil Young joined the trio.
9. Joan Baez’s set began at 1am. In the middle of her performance of “Joe Hill,” the sky opened up to a light drizzle, which no one seemed to notice. The songstress played several more tunes before closing with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “We Shall Overcome.” The First day of Woodstock had ended.
10. The Who’s monster 5am set included Tommy in its entirety. Following “See Me, Feel Me,” the Brits closed out with “Summertime Blues,” “Shakin’ All Over,” “My Generation” and “Naked Eye.” Between Roger Daltry’s swinging microphone and Pete Townsend’s windmill guitar playing, the audience was blowing in the wind.
A motif relayed from attendees: “If 400,000 people could get together and have absolutely no violence, absolutely no conflict… we could change the world.”
WOODSTOCK: THREE DAYS THAT DEFINED A GENERATION 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30pm Thursday, June 13. Osio Theater, 350 Alvarado St., Monterey. $8-$11. 901-3119, osiotheater.org