This August marked the 50th anniversary of the iconic Woodstock Festival, and though the proposed commemorative concert failed to materialize, Rhino Records put out a nearly complete chronicle of the original this summer.
And I, noted Woodstock obsessive, couldn't afford it. And only 1,969 were made. And it sold out within weeks. And they're not making more. Ever. As stagehand Muskrat intoned on the original triple album, "Hmm. Bummer, bummer!" Want to weep along with me? Here's a glowing review of that 38-CD set.
But! The good Lord intervened just in time. First, I discovered a geeky forum replete with fellow obsessives: some who'd bought the box, others who wished they had. And a few days before the anniversary, some kind soul posted this magic sentence: "Full Woodstock recording to air on WXPN at exact time of original festival."
Like many FM stations, WXPN streams live, 24/7—one of the advantages of living in 2019, not 1969. The advance notice gave me a few days to figure out how to connect my Zoom H1, laptop and speakers. I also did a test to make sure my Zoom would record without shutting off for eight hours, because some sets would be broadcast while I was asleep. I was in it to win it. And on Thursday, August 15, 2019 at 5:07 p.m. EDT, 50 years to the second, my three and a half days of recording began with Richie Havens' opener, "From the Prison."
Variously dubbed "Woodstock as It Happened: 50 Years On" and "XPNstock," the extravaganza preempted much of WXPN's regular programming; they broadcast 37 of the 38 discs. (Disc 38 contains no music, consisting of stage announcements and other ephemera that the producers couldn't place in chronological sequence.) And thanks to WXPN, Rhino Records and whoever else conspired to create this wondrous occurrence, I captured it all. Yes, it's a compressed radio stream, not quite the pristine audio found on the CDs, but for zero dollars, I'll take it. Happily.
Little did I know that my raw recordings would be but the start of my odyssey. At a bare minimum I had to clean up the start and end of each set, having hit "record" early and "stop" late to ensure I got everything. I also brightened the sound a touch with some judicious EQ while rolling off some murk on the bottom end. The stream went down only once, during Arlo Guthrie's "Wheel of Fortune" on Day 1. Thankfully, I was able to patch that song in from my copy of the 40th anniversary box set. There were also numerous instances of stream stutter to fix. No audio was missing, but occasional gaps of silence, lasting anywhere from a tenth of a second to three seconds, needed repair. I stitched these gaps together in Audacity, which took a lot of patience and diligent listening.
Being a good citizen—and wanting to maintain their licence—WXPN silenced any profanity found within the 37 discs. To create an accurate facsimile of the box set, I had to find ways of patching in the dirty words whenever possible. In two instances, this meant finding missing songs: both Country Joe McDonald (solo) and Country Joe & the Fish did the infamous "Fish Cheer," and neither was broadcast on WXPN. (For the uninitiated, the word they spell isn't "fish" but another four-letter word beginning with F.) In addition, I wanted to excise the many station IDs and promos from my recordings, some of which obliterated the first or final few notes of a song. Deleting the IDs/promos was easy, but again, I had to patch in the missing material from other sources. Finally, perhaps because it's such a ramshackle performance, WXPN didn't broadcast Tim Hardin's 16-minute "Snow White Lady." I patched that in from YouTube.
You'll recall that off the top, I said "nearly complete." So, what's missing from the 38-CD box and, by extension, XPNstock? Three and a half songs. Half of Sha Na Na's "Little Darlin'" and all of "Teenager in Love" were not recorded in 1969. Yep, after almost four sleepless days, Eddie Kramer and his onsite team finally screwed up and let the tape run out, and if there's any Woodstock act for which that's forgivable, Sha Na Na gets my vote.
The other two missing songs are from Jimi Hendrix's set. Sung by rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, the Hendrix estate refuses to sanction their release "for aesthetic reasons." Now, I'm not one to lead you into the dark underworld of unauthorized recordings, but if you google "larry lee gypsy woman soundcloud," you might stumble on the rarest Woodstock recording of all. And were you to figure out a way to record that audio, you too would be in possession of a song absent from the 38-CD box. (I'm still hunting for "Mastermind," the other Larry Lee song.)
Words cannot express how grateful I am to WXPN for taking three and a half days out of their regular schedule to give us the gift of XPNstock. Kudos are also, of course, due the box set's producers/engineers Andy Zax, Brian Kehew, Dave Schultz for their yeoman's restoration of the entire festival. The deep dives these boys took knew no bounds: for instance, they sifted through photographic evidence to ensure that their instrument placement in the stereo field was accurate. Much of the music performed at Woodstock was magnificent, and thanks to Messrs. Zax, Kehew and Schultz, it has never sounded better.
In interviews, Andy Zax revealed that some audio material was salvaged by technical marvels that have only recently come into existence. Ever heard of de-mixing? How about polyphonic tuning? Me neither, but the former was used to create a stereo mix of Ravi Shankar's performance from a gritty mono soundboard reel. The latter helped Zax and crew take Blood, Sweat & Tears' horns, which were out of tune in different directions, and "nudge the tonality of the horns to get them back into a sound range that the human ear would prefer to hear." In both cases, the results are miraculous. Or as Zax said, "To me, this is like magic science fiction stuff. It's like the Great Gazoo descended down, waved a magic wand, and suddenly here's this remarkable thing!"
Oh, and while he was at it, the Great Gazoo, or God if you prefer, gave us XPNstock, enabling me to construct a poor man's version of Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. I still wish I'd splurged for the box. But with copies now going for close to $3,500 US, that ship has sailed and in the end, I think I've ended up with something more worthwhile—tasty, cleaned-up recordings that I had a hand in creating. I like to think of my painstaking audio editing as a microcosm of the producers' stellar work.
Now that my work is done, I can sit back and enjoy Woodstock as a listening experience. I know I've babbled on a bit and not discussed the music much. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of these artists were at or near their peak in 1969, and most of this music is great. Some is truly staggering. I point to one stretch from late Saturday night into Sunday afternoon that's jaw-dropping when heard in sequence. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Joe Cocker not only wowed those lucky attendees in 1969, but gave us some of the most iconic moments in rock history. I heartily recommend you seek out their full sets; all but The Who have been officially released (beyond the now-unavailable 38-CD set).