By DAVE NORMAN
It's impossible to overstate the importance the Woodstock Music & Art
Fair (its real, full name - and actually located in nearby Bethel,
N.Y.) has taken on in our history.
Whether it deserves it or not as an actual music event, Woodstock
towers above all other concerts. It was a watershed moment of the
counter-cultural revolution - a time when innocence and naiveté led
to a dawning awareness of the power in numbers to change what once
One of the performers that played there eventually made his home in
the actual town of Woodstock. An Arkansas native who hooked up with
four Canadians to form the immortal The Band, LEVON HELM built a
house and barn there that's having its own renaissance period. More
on him and the barn later.
And so, on Woodstock's 40-year anniversary, we get the inevitable
retrospectives, including a new movie (not so well-received) and a
new release of the actual event, "WOODSTOCK: 40 YEARS ON: BACK TO
The folks at Rhino Records have been doing heroic work over the years
in the archival trenches and this might be their finest hour. Over
the span of six(!) CDs and 95 tracks - including all the groovy stage
announcements - this box set lays out the sonic part of the happening
like never before.
Besides containing all of the original Woodstock albums (I and II)
and a 1994 box, the set gives us 38 previously unreleased tracks. The
only significant omissions, ironically enough, are The Band and Ten
Years After (contractual issues - damn lawyers).
We get three righteous Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, more of
The Who and their decidedly anti-pacifist roar (with a priceless
limey smackdown of an Abbie Hoffman rant), more Crosby Stills Nash &
Young, a deleted Dead jam, Johnny Winter, Bert Sommer - an obscure
singer-songwriter who died 20 years ago - and much, much more.
There are many clunkers, of course. Quill deserve their obscurity,
Janis Joplin wears out her welcome fast and Arlo Guthrie still makes
my teeth hurt. But even these mediocrities are forever part of the
legend and demand a place in this, the definitive history to date.
And for every dull Mountain, there's a Santana burning brightly, a
Joe Cocker belting out his bluesy defiance and a CSN&Y defining the
whole event and time with its distilled brilliance.
The booklet, replete with many photos and encyclopedic liner notes
from Bud Scoppa, is very worthy, too.
LEVON HELM has (as of this writing) beaten throat cancer, regained
his lost voice and is giving every indication of living as if reborn.
The barn next to his house is now the scene of fairly frequent
get-togethers with musical pals, old and new. He calls these
"Midnight Rambles" and they're becoming legendary. He's got recording
equipment installed (lucky us) and the barn's churning out some
mighty fine product, including his new one, "ELECTRIC DIRT."
It follows last year's "Dirt Farmer," which was nearly all-acoustic
and all rustic.
Helm's voice was still a little strained, but it was no strain to
enjoy it on its own terms even without the sentimental back-story.
This record greatly expands the range, harkening back to his early
solo days and its blues and R & B workouts. A horn section (starring
the MVP trumpeter Steven Bernstein), female backing vocals (featuring
his daughter, Amy, of Ollabelle) and a tick-tight backing band
support Helm and his exultant vocals. The joy is palpable.
He gets things off to a rousing start with "Tennessee Jed," mixing
equal parts Appalachia and New Orleans. The Staples Singers' "Move
Along Train" gets the spine tingling as only gospel can, while two
Muddy Waters classics satisfy the soul.
Bluegrass testifying on Ralph Stanley's "White Dove" reminds us where
Helm comes from and how seamlessly he treats music of different
genres, erasing arbitrary boundaries.
"Growin' Trade" is a moving tale of a farmer making do in an
unconventional way. "Heaven's Pearls" is a gorgeous litany of earthly
tribulations transformed into the title's jewels, and "I Wish I Knew
How It Would Feel To Be Free" closes the set with blessed zest.
I mentioned the barn had guests, remember? Those include The BLACK
CROWES, who recorded their latest, "BEFORE THE FROST/UNTIL THE
FREEZE" at Helm's barn before a live audience of specially-invited -
and lucky - guests. Cool idea, great execution.
Can it be that the addition of the North Mississippi Allstars' front
man, guitarist/singer Luther Dickinson has given a booster shot to
the band? For, like their last effort, "Warpaint," this one shines
from beginning to end, with hardly any fluff.
The first part of the release is the band at full-tilt boogie,
all-electric and all-swagger. The pace is modulated, to be sure, but
the temperature stays on the hot side.
Standout tracks include "Good Morning Captain," a bracing wake-up
call; "Appaloosa," a country-leaning pastoral; "A Train Makes a
Lonely Sound," a chugging rocker; and "Make Glad," a riff in search
of a song, which the chorus delivers.
The second half, obtainable as a free download once you buy the CD -
or as part of the entire download online - is all-acoustic. Inspired
no doubt by their surroundings, the band gets all backwoods and even
hillbilly on us.
They don't forsake their spacey hippy side either ("Aimless Peacock")
but the mood is more traditional than adventurous ("Garden Gate" and
"Roll Old Jeremiah").
A great deal and a great time - both for the live audience and for us.
Real music played in earnest with love and whimsy, in surroundings
that pay tribute to the music and those who make it - can there be
any better reason to celebrate?