Today in Grateful Dead History: August 16, 1969 – Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Bethel, NY

woodstockI’m not going out on a limb when I say that the Grateful Dead have a (sometimes self-described) reputation for not living up to expectations when the spotlight is hot.  Exhibit A is today’s show from perhaps the brightest stage of the 1960’s – Woodstock.

If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you know what Woodstock was, but just in case you missed rock history 101, here is the six sentence summary.  In August, 1969, hundreds of thousands of young people gathered on an old diary farm in upstate New York for a legendary concert that featured almost all of the important rock and roll bands of the time.  Originally a ticketed event, so many people showed up that they closed the interstate and let the ticketless masses in for free.  It rained.  A lot.  Massive quantities of drugs were ingested, some of them of not so good quality.  But yet, almost everyone had a good time and the festival became a touchstone of the hippie movement and an era-defining event.  In other words, Woodstock was built for the Grateful Dead.

Of course, if something was built for the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead had a bad habit of blowing it, which they did at Woodstock by showing up and doing what everyone else was doing – ingesting incredible quantities of acid.  Since the folks running the show were also dosed to the gills, things weren’t proceeding in a timely manner, which made everything a little glitchy to begin with.  I’ll let Jerry Garcia take it from here in a 1971 interview in Jazz and Pop Magazine:

The weekend was great, but our set was terrible. We were all pretty smashed, and it was at night. Like we knew there were a half million people out there, but we couldn’t see one of them. There were about a hundred people on stage with us, and everyone was scared that it was gonna collapse. On top of that, it was raining or wet, so that every time we touched our guitars, we’d get these electrical shocks. Blue sparks were flying out of our guitars.

So reading this you’d think, well of course Jerry was seeing sparks and thinking the stage was moving – he was on acid.  But apparently, all of this was true and then some.  The stage was so loaded with people and equipment that it literally moved across the mud and the wind blew the scaffolding like a sail.  Other, more sober people expressed serious concerns that the electricity was actually going to kill someone.  And yet the Dead soldiered on.

The band began their set with St. Stephen, which is truncated on every available recording of the performance on the Archive but can be seen in the various available YouTube videos of the Dead at Woodstock.  Then they played a passable version of Mama Tried, with Bob Weir blowing the very first lyric of the song and never really recovering.  After a ten minute delay replete with lysergic poetry screaming and  general confusion, the boys actually managed to string together a decent Dark Star that has several interesting passages in the middle third.  This muddles into High Time, not exactly the uplifting choice that a festival audience might crave at eleven thirty on day two of a three day bender.

Which leads us to Turn on Your Lovelight and Pigpen.  Now Pigpen, unlike his band mates at the time, was a boozer, not an acid head, which made him the defacto captain of the sinking ship.  So it fell to him to try and salvage whatever he could by doing what Pigpen did best – seizing the reins and fronting a forty-seven minute blast of pure blues power.  Really, forty-seven minutes of Lovelight.  But unfortunately for Pigpen, one of the countless freaks on the stage (rumored to be Ken Babbs, one of the Merry Pranksters), grabbed a mic and rambled before, during and after Pigpen’s initial Lovelight rap.  Which just made things fall apart even quicker.  Then, about thirty-five minutes into the song (I can’t believe I just wrote that), Phil’s bass amp started broadcasting radio signals into the PA feed, melding the voices into the performance itself.  It’s as bad as it sounds.

But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.  That’s the takeaway here, folks.  Yeah, there are countless performances from 1969 that are better than this, but I swear to God this show is not nearly as bad as some of the half-baked nonsense I’ve heard from the mid 90’s.  At least there’s some energy and feeling here.  In spades.  Which makes it deserving of a listen.

Once you’re done with the Grateful Dead’s night on the big, wet stage, make sure that you check out the other, good performances from Woodstock.  Like Hendrix, the Who and Santana.  This was the high water mark for the hippie movement. The Dead, incidentally, would also play a role at Altamont, when the tide rolled back out.  But that’s another festival, and another story entirely.

Listen to the magic here:  https://archive.org/details/gd1969-08-16.sbd.gmb.95856.flac16

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