Woodstock: Back to the Garden

Various Artists

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Woodstock: Back to the Garden Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Woodstock: Back to the Garden (50th Anniversary Experience) rises above its predecessors. A considerable expansion of Rhino's 2009 six-CD set Woodstock 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm, 50th Anniversary Experience is also a distillation of the gargantuan Woodstock: Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, a box that re-creates the entire three-day festival over the course of 38 CDs (all that's missing are two Jimi Hendrix tunes his estate chose not to license, along with some Sha Na Na that never was taped). While the 38-CD set is an immersive, transportive experience, it's also by definition a box set that appeals only to archivist, scholars and fanatics-the kind of listeners who don't think twice at digging through a weekend's worth of music and stage announcements. This ten-disc set, however, is a great choice for listeners who want to get a feel for the entire sprawling festival without devoting more than a day of their life to listening to Woodstock.

50th Anniversary Experience draws from the same mixes producer Andy Zax and sound producer Brian Kehew assembled for the 38-disc box, mixes that differ from the 2009 box. Like the 2009 set, this 2019 box follows the same chronological order, opening with Richie Havens and closing with Hendrix. Zax's decision not to sweeten or fix the original tapes doesn't mean the set sounds rocky. On the contrary, the sound is vivid and alive, lending a kinetic kick to both rock bands and folk singers, yet it still sounds like a document of a specific time and place. Its documentary elements are the most attractive element of 50th Anniversary Experience, even in this truncated form, the festival unspools at the pace it did in August 1969, touching upon every artist on the bill and filling in narrative details with stage patter. Ten Years After and the Band chose not to participate in the 2009 set, nor was the Keef Hartley Band present, but all three are included here among the fifty-plus tracks making their official debut on this box.

While there are gems to be heard among these rarities -- gems coming from both cult figures like Bert Sommer and heavy hitters like Janis Joplin and the Who -- the appeal of 50th Anniversary Experience lies in its cumulative impact. Listening to the set gain momentum as it turns from hippie folk to over-amplified psychedelia and rock & roll, with its pace sometimes slowed by the rantings of John Morris and Chip Monk, seems as ungainly and wooly as attending a three-day musical festival. It also has the side effect of puncturing some long-held myths cultivated by both Michael Wadleigh's 1970 film and decades of chatter. For instance, both the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival sets are much better than their reputation suggests, while the whole weekend sounds exploratory and adventurous in a way that years of nostalgia have obscured. It's that latter revelation that makes Woodstock: Back to the Garden (50th Anniversary Experience) worthwhile even for the skeptics: the comprehensive nature changes our perception of an event we all thought we already knew.

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