By Don Heckman
“The Heroes of Woodstock.” It wasn’t a title that seemed consistent with what that unforgettable, summer of 1969 event at Yasgur’s farm in New York’s Sullivan County had really been all about. Not, that is, without the presence of Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix (among others). And, as it turned out, a lot more was missing from Sunday night’s performance at the Greek Theatre, as well.
The funny thing was that, on my drive to the big, outdoor amphitheatre, I suddenly encountered a major traffic jam and a shut down area along Fountain Avenue, one of the venue’s main feeder streets. So, along with many others, I had to take a circuitous, traffic-heavy route to reach the theatre. It wasn’t quite like having to park my car along a road and walk to the venue the way I did at the original Woodstock, but it nonetheless called up a few memories.
And memories, of course, were what drove this heavily publicized program: a 40th anniversary, touring assemblage of bands aimed at provoking the interest, either of those who were at Woodstock, would like to have been at Woodstock or who lie about having been at Woodstock. Given that focus, it would have been foolish to expect anything more than a four-decades-later, greatest hits revisitation. And thats pretty much what “The Heroes of Woodstock” was all about.
The problem was how to make even that fairly limited goal happen — at least with a reasonable modicum of musical believability. Each of the four bands on the bill — Big Brother and the Holding Company, Canned Heat, Ten Years After and the Jefferson Starship — had at least one of the original members in the line up; some had more. But significant headliners were missing: Joplin from Big Brother; Alvin Lee from Ten Years After; Bob Hite from Canned Heat; Grace Slick, Marty Balin and everybody else, other than Paul Kantner, from the Jefferson Airplane. (The billing underscored some of these absences by noting that Big Brother’s set featured “the music of Janis Joplin,” and that the Jefferson Starship would perform “the music of the Jefferson Airplane.”)
Completely going against the grain, the opening set by Big Brother was the most unexpectedly convincing of the night. Janis Joplin is utterly irreplaceable, but singer Sophie Ramos grabbed the Joplin style, kept the most familiar elements, and added her own remarkable skills to the mix. The result — even with such Joplin-possessed songs as “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee” (and, yes, the latter was a post-Woodstock Joplin hit) — was a set of tunes that exploded to life. Ramos has been around for a while without gaining much visibility. She clearly has the passion, the presence and the musicality to step out on her own. (And how ironic — yet oddly appropriate — it would be if it was her Janis Joplin simulation that launched her career.)
Canned Heat’s personnel has varied widely over the years, but this version included such early members as Fito de la Parra, Larry Taylor, Harvey Mandel and Barry Levenson. The music, as a result, sizzled with the band’s trademark affection for the blues, which coursed through such familiar items as “Let’s Work Together,” “On the Road Again” and “Going Up To The Country.” Harvey “The Snake” Mandel’s “psychedelic” sounds (ie. a morass of feedback, fuzz and distortion) were no more intriguing than they were in the band’s early years. But — more than any other group on the bill — Canned Heat offered a believable representation of past glories.
Like Big Brother, Ten Years After, in its original form, was framed around the work of a single front person — guitarist Alvin Lee in their case. The Lee era ended in 1974, with the band occasionally reuniting in the ’80s and ’90s. For the past six years, guitarist/singer Joe Gooch has taken the group’s center stage role. Slim, adept, even charismatic at times, Gooch delivered items such as “I’d Like To Change the World” with believable efficiency. But, even at its best, the band’s performance suffered from the sort of slick, pre-packaged quality that wasn’t always absent in the Lee Ten Years After, either.
The program’s biggest disappointment was saved for the final group — the Jefferson Starship. I’ve always felt that the Jefferson Airplane, despite its popularity, was never fully acknowledged for what an extraordinary band it really was. At its best, it was a solid core rock group that was also capable of exploring unusual textures and timbres, improvising with the inventiveness of first rate jazz artists, and producing provocative but memorable songs. The Jefferson Starship offered a few classic items — “The Other Side of This Life,” “White Rabbit,” “Somebody To Love,” “Wooden Ships” — with Cathy Richardson singing the Grace Slick leads. But the only aspects that recalled the originals were the melodies and the rhythms. with the Airplane’s layered subtleties lost in Richardson’s lusty, over the top readings. And the attempt to transform one of the Starship’s tunes into a jam environment to accommodate a guest appearance by former Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten was no doubt a commercial decision by the event’s producers. As was the decision to inexplicably wrap the Starship’s set with a Joe Cocker-styled version of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
On the upside of this odd tribute to one of the most extraordinary events in the history of American music (and American culture, for that matter), Country Joe McDonald’s between bands contributions provided the evening’s most credible connection to Woodstock 69. He sang “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die.” of course, but he also added “The Ring of Fire” and “Save the Whales.’ And, in the concert’s only direct connection with the subtext that was fundamental to Woodstock, he read the names of the servicemen from Sullivan county (the location of the original Woodstock Festival) who have died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a much-needed moment that acknowledged the true “Heroes of Woodstock.”