As you all know, about a year ago I spent a three and half frenetic days recording XPNStock, WXPN's real-time broadcast of the entire 1969 Woodstock Festival in honour of its 50th anniversary. I'd missed out on the 38-CD box, and this was my one and only chance to grab its treasures—for free, no less. I then spent the better part of August and September painstakingly evaluating almost 36 hours of recorded audio: editing, trimming, patching and polishing it up until it positively sparkled. Problem was, by the time I was finished I was so burnt out that I couldn't bring myself to actually listen to it.
That's what 51st anniversaries are for. I'm a bit early, but I did all of Day 1 today: cranked up the old computer speakers and (finally) got to kick back and enjoy the music. I'm still amazed at how good it sounds, and so grateful to have procured the lot for nothing but dedication and diligence. Takeaways: Richie Havens' opening set was, well, groovy. Sweetwater featured a unique sound and some great jamming, but must work on the harmonies, kids. Bonus points for the flat-out weirdest song performed at the festival, "My Crystal Spider." Bert Sommer was a top-rank songwriter, and it's a shame his career never took off. His is the great "lost" performance of the festival. Tim Hardin's performance, though wildly uneven, really had its moments. Ravi Shankar? Less talk, more rock. I loved what was played but grew impatient with the musicology class he threatened to turn his set into. Melanie is not my cup of tea at all, but even she had a couple of gems amongst the caterwauling. Arlo Guthrie's performance was by turns ragged, hilarious and inspired, and Joan Baez capped off the day in fine form.
WXPN is reprising XPNStock, but they're playing the sets over a full week, in prime time, in what looks to be a bit of a random order. Had I missed anything last time I'd tune in, but I'm pretty sure I got all there was to get. Now it's time to enjoy. Day 2 coming up ...
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Just a quick update on how I'm coping with the current situation. Overall, I consider myself quite fortunate. As a card-carrying introvert, I'm well equipped to handle social isolation, physical distancing and so on. Like it or not, some version of this has been my reality for years anyway, so it's not been that dramatic an adjustment. I don't miss my full social calendar because I've never had one. I spent huge swaths of time alone before the pandemic, and very little has changed but for the fact that there are no social engagements to turn down.
As far as supporting myself goes, my freelance job, which I've not heretofore perceived as terribly stable, has been rock solid. I work in television broadcasting, and my industry has made the Ontario essential workplaces list, both the original and revised versions. Work has been steady and I've been able to transition quite well to working from home. I was concerned at the prospect of having to upgrade my home computer (i.e., buying a new one), but my only financial outlay was a mouse, full keyboard and wrist rest, which totalled under $40. Again, I'm grateful for my good fortune—which is blind luck, really, when I consider how many people with secure, full-time jobs are glumly sitting at home, hoping the CERB will cover their mortgage and car payments.
Of the adjustments I have had to make, some are rather humorous. I was overdue for a haircut and had booked an appointment just before the big shutdown in mid-March which, in a moment of prescience, my stylist cancelled. I'm not a fan of ponytails, and I abhor man buns. So, between repeated playings of CSNY's "Almost Cut My Hair," I've fashioned a homemade headband out of an old bed sheet. I'll look like a true Woodstock warrior until my next haircut, which will be who knows when. (Hey, Paul Kantner and Jack Casady wore headbands at Woodstock: good enough for me.)
On a more serious note, I had a cycling accident in mid-March. Bad timing. No car was involved; I rode headlong into a curb I did not see and went flying, landing on my face. For a day or two I looked like the Elephant Man, but the cuts on my face healed in short order. More worrisome is the ring finger on my left hand. Five weeks on, it's swollen and slightly bent, though not at all painful. After numerous failed attempts to receive medical attention, I finally got an x-ray this afternoon and am waiting to discuss next steps with my doctor.
Despite this I've managed to devote some time to my old standby, home recording. What better time to lay down some tracks in your home studio, right? Thing is, my finger has made playing any of my stringed instruments difficult. I've devised a couple of alternate-fingering workarounds, and compensated by recording my guitar and bass parts in even more pieces than usual. The finger has slowed me down, but I'm progressing with the cover tunes I set out to record in December. Anyway, I'm now on to mixing the latest, and this one has a lot going on so it'll take a good while. I'm hoping my finger will be back to full strength by the time I'm ready to record the next cover.
What else? Well, we've all had to learn how to video-conference in five minutes or less. My Zoom H1 (handy digital recorder) also works as a USB mic, and it's a significant upgrade over my laptop's built-in model, a pinprick in the front console. I also have a decent USB webcam that provides high-quality visuals. The experiment continues, I guess, as long as COVID-19 keeps spreading. Me, I'm happy to live in a country whose guiding principle is "peace, order and good government." In my estimation our leaders, even those whose political stripes don't jibe with mine, have acted prudently and responsibly. Contrast our prime minister, premiers and mayors with that very stable genius to the south who openly ponders the benefits of shooting Lysol at his press briefings.
Just a quick wrap-up (for now) on my Woodstock obsession. When we last rapped, man, our hero had compiled a nearly complete set of recordings from the Woodstock Festival, thanks to WPXN's radio broadcast over the 50th anniversary weekend, XPNstock.
As you'll recall, two songs were missing from the Jimi Hendrix set. They weren't broadcast by WXPN because they're not on the 38-CD box, and they're not on the box because the Hendrix Estate won't authorize their release. Enter the good folks at "non-label" (i.e., bootleggers) who've put out a double CD of Hendrix's entire Woodstock set. I took the plunge and now have the missing songs: "Mastermind" and "Gypsy Woman/Aware of Love," both sung by rhythm guitarist Larry Lee. Though the official release's booklet dismisses them as "slow, haggard filler" they sound fine to these ears, and it's a treat to hear Hendrix as an accompanist.
The bootleg brought another pleasant surprise: in addition to the Larry Lee songs, it contains 20 minutes of material absent from Live at Woodstock and the 38-CD box. Much of this consists of Lee solos that were inexplicably cut from the official version. Of course, it is a bootleg, so the sound is somewhat muddy and boxy. But if you tune your ears to it, so to speak, it's perfectly acceptable, and I'm grateful to now have every single note played by Hendrix and his band at Woodstock.
So, what am I still missing? What everyone else is, apparently: the one-and-a-half Sha Na Na songs that weren't recorded back in 1969. I wonder if audience tapes exist, or perhaps the fabled mono soundboard reel that was used as backup when things went awry. In any event, I'm sure that geeks greater than me are on the case, and if there's anything floating around out there it'll turn up someday. When it does, I'll be first in line.
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).