The Band at the Woodstock Festival
Woodstock. The name evokes half a million hippies gathered in a field, cars abandoned on the road under the heat of August, and naked people sliding cheerfully in the mud. Yet, until the summer of 1969, before being associated with the most famous festival in history, Woodstock, in the Catskills, was known as the adopted hometown of Bob Dylan and The Band. The album Music From Big Pink, released by The Band, in July 1968, had led to a musical movement aspiring toward simplicity. Back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell would write in the song Woodstock.
1969 was rich in history. The moon landing and the Woodstock Festival are inseparable from each other; these events happened three weeks apart and changed the United States forever. The summer of 1969 was magical on the East Coast, but it was different in Los Angeles, where the Manson Family created a climate of fear. Joan Didion resumed this anxiety in her book The White Album. “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”
It’s hard to reconcile these words with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair set in a pastoral landscape a week after the murders. When the idea of a music festival popped into Michael Lang’s mind, The Band was a myth. In the spring of 1969, almost a year after the release of their influential album, they finally gave their first concert. Why this interval? Because Rick Danko had suffered severe injuries after a car accident, and he was in traction for weeks, which stopped The Band from touring. This silence had generated curiosity from the public, and with their inaugural show at Winterland in San Francisco, they stopped being an enigma, at last.
Meanwhile, Michael Lang and his partners had been trying for months to find a place to hold their Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Only a month before the beginning of the festival, they made a deal with Max Yasgur, who owned a dairy farm in Bethel, in the Catskills. As Michael Lang wrote in his memoir, The Road To Woodstock: “The Band was to be a part of the festival from the beginning. Music From Big Pink had broadened the musical landscape and made a deep impact on me.” Of course, because Bob Dylan always kept the mystery about him, even more than his old bandmates from the 1966 tour, rumors soon spread about his appearance at the festival. The Band was scheduled to play on Sunday, August 17, and the hope about Dylan’s appearance grew as the days passed.
A big thunderstorm broke on Sunday when Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson arrived at the festival. The site had nothing to do with the bucolic fields they were barely a few days ago. The Band played between Ten Years After and Mountain. Friday night had been dedicated to folk music, and Joan Baez and Melanie had amazed the crowd, playing acoustic guitar and singing beautifully. But when The Band came up on stage two days later, the audience had seen The Who, Janis Joplin and Santana among others. Perhaps for that reason, the sophisticated music of Richard, Rick, Levon, Garth and Robbie didn’t connect with the audience. As Greil Marcus explained, “Now, no doubt that in terms of prestige, The Band was king that night, to the other musicians if not to the audience.”
They played seven songs from Music From Big Pink and a bunch of covers that would become their favorites over the years — Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, Ain’t No More Cane, Don’t Ya Tell Henry. The Catskills were their territory, yet what they experienced at that moment wasn’t the quietness they had been sharing with Bob Dylan for two years. At the festival, they were a part of history, and it was intimidating. Touring the world with Bob in 1966 hadn’t prepared them for that crowd — that city spread in front of them. They had known chaos with Bob three years ago, but Woodstock was on another level. It was a blend of madness and peace, bad acid, and people making love in the mud. Robbie Robertson wrote: “Most performers on the show wanted to take you higher, but we took the stage at 10:00 p.m. and proceeded to play a set that we might have done in the living room at Big Pink… talk about settling things down.”
The heartbreaking Tears Of Rage took a peculiar resonance on that rainy August night, sounding almost like a eulogy. The quasi-spiritual atmosphere that surrounded The Band made them inaccessible to the audience, but backstage, among the musicians gathered there, their talent shone. They had influenced many of them with Music From Big Pink, and they would be remembered as the finest musicians of the festival. It wasn’t the same thrill as shouting Higher with Sly Stone or watching Pete Townshend and Keith Moon smash their instruments while the sun rose behind them. It was more profound. The song We Can Talk, so joyful, captures perfectly the spirit of the festival. Listening to it now, decades later, we can feel the ecstasy of that night. Toward the end of the concert, Richard Manuel, whom many considered as the soul of The Band, gave all his heart with the beautiful I Shall Be Released. It could have been the anthem of the festival, but somehow, it didn’t happen.
The performance of The Band was filmed, but wasn’t included in the movie that would come out in 1970. Many reasons led to that decision, shared by the members of the group and their manager, Albert Grossman. Levon Helm explained, “This is because we were offered half our fee for the movie rights to our performance, and Albert naturally said no.” Richard Manuel added, “There were no shots showing all of us onstage, just two or three of us at a time. So we let it go.”
The members of The Band offered an incredible performance that was released in 2019, on the 50th anniversary edition of The Band, also known as The Brown Album. Professionals as they were, they didn’t show their discomfort. When we hear them, we are comforted in our false beliefs that the Woodstock Festival was an Eden. While listening to these recordings, it’s easy to imagine the festival was the beginning of a new era. Sadly, it wasn’t. Once the festival ended, when Jimi Hendrix’s last notes had died and gave way to silence, nothing remained of those three days of peace and music. Only ruined fields, mud, and heaps of trash.
The people who went to Max Yasgur’s farm created a community in those fields. It was a different world that couldn’t have existed in another time than during that exceptional summer where Apollo 11 and the Woodstock Festival became associated with each other. The image of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon is merging with Jimi Hendrix, playing The Star-Spangled Banner as nobody did before.
The movie Woodstock opened with a local merchant from Bethel, Sidney Westerfield, saying these words: “It was too big for the world. Nobody has ever seen a thing like this.” Woodstock was more than the music; it was also the people who gathered in Max Yasgur’s fields for three rainy days in August. The musicians who played on stage became the soundtrack of those days — for those who could hear them, that is. Perhaps The Band was, to repeat Sidney Westerfield’s words, too big for the world.
They came on stage with their humble attitude and played haunting melodies. Even though they were still in the Catskills, the town of Woodstock must have appeared far away that night. They all had evolved since their musical sessions with Bob Dylan in the Big Pink basement. When they played at the festival, they probably realized how much their lives had changed — and it was only the beginning.
The Woodstock Festival represented a milestone in history, proving that half a million people could spend three days peacefully listening to music. But it was also a turning point for The Band. Nothing would be the same for them, but they didn’t know that when they played on that August night. They still had a part of innocence. Fame and addiction hadn’t taken its toll on the members of The Band yet. Perhaps it’s why hearing them sing those songs at Woodstock is so emotional. We know that, like in California, the Sixties would end on the East Coast as well. Laurel Canyon had lost its innocence, and Woodstock, the town where Richard, Rick, Levon, Garth and Robbie had found a sanctuary, would lose it soon, too.
Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide
Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band
Joan Didion – The White Album
Michael Lang – The Road To Woodstock
Robbie Robertson – Testimony